For those fortunate enough to get hold of a PlayStation 5, there’s been a dearth of truly next-gen releases you can really sink your teeth into, so it’s no surprise that developers are giving the best of their back catalogue the remaster treatment to fill the gaps in 2021.
Following from 2017’s Nioh, a hardcore samurai-themed action game that’s one of the few worthy rivals to FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, this sequel (or prequel rather, since its story begins 50 years earlier) continues the formula of brutally punishing combat encounters as you tear through Japan’s war-torn Sengoku era fighting formidable soldiers as well as fearsome demons and yokai from Japanese mythology.
But where the original had you playing as an Englishman who became a samurai to the Shogunate, this time you get to create your very own character of whatever skin colour or gender you like. Strangely however you’re also technically a historical character, Toyotomi Hideyoshi – also known as ‘The Great Unifier Of Japan’ – who in this game is actually portrayed as two different people.
It doesn’t make a lick of sense. But in a world where warriors have guardian spirits who follow them around like those daemons in His Dark Materials and you’re fighting demonic ogres one moment before befriending a cute ball-shaped cat called a Scampus, you learn to roll with it.
Even if your mute protagonist is mostly wandering through a who’s who of Japanese history looking wide-eyed and oblivious, a robust character creator at least makes them look the part. Your handiwork is fortunately not gone to waste either since you can opt to hide any headgear getting in the way of their fancy hairstyles, while you’re also treated to plenty of close-ups during cutscenes that bookend each mission.
On PS5 and PC, you can enjoy this in dazzling 4K and up to 120fps ultra-smooth frame rate, though some enhancements will be dependent on having a compatible monitor. Yet, outside of some excellent character designs, Nioh 2 is hardly a visual tour-de-force, relying on lacklustre and samey environments that follow the routine of walking past an out-of-reach ladder or locked door that’s going to be a shortcut later – not quite the world-building heights of Dark Souls.
Its real strength is as a tough-as-nails action game where reflexes and precision matter, so if you’re playing with a mid-range PC, it’s highly recommended that you prioritise settings for a high and consistent frame rate. You’ll encounter a variety of enemies ranging from humans to yokai, and none of them mess about. Getting rinsed by a heavy-hitting boss with multiple attack phases is one thing, but it still stings that the sneaky Gollum-esque Gaki is just as capable of dealing you a world of hurt even towards the endgame.
Every enemy you come across, from the birdlike Tengu to the snakish Nure-Onna, feels like a mini-boss in their own right that requires careful studying before making your attack. You really do have to stay alert, but most importantly, carefully manage your Ki, the game’s equivalent of a stamina gauge, which depletes when you attack, block or run. What sets it apart from other Souls-like games is that by tapping the shoulder button to perform a Ki pulse (or also by timing dodge rolls and stance changes), it’s possible to regain Ki quickly to keep up the offensive.
Conversely, getting hit when you’re out of Ki will leave you winded and wide open for a potentially fatal blow. Left unprepared, this mechanic can feel terribly punishing, but it also works against your enemy’s Ki, leaving them vulnerable to a high-damage grapple attack. There’s still something wildly one-sided about this however, seeing how Ki management can sometimes feel like treading water whereas you’re constantly having to chip away at both a boss’ health and Ki.
You also occasionally find yourself in the monochrome Dark Realm. These are an extension of the dark Ki-sapping pools left by certain yokai, except these affect an entire area and can’t be dispelled by a Ki pulse. Having this activated during a boss fight often feels like an act of trolling – as if things weren’t already brutal to begin with.
On the other hand, you do at least have more tools at your disposal, chiefly thanks to your character being half-yokai. The best of these is having a guardian spirit that allows you to perform a burst counter used to cut through an enemy’s powerful unblockable red-hued attack and bring down their Ki by a significant chunk.
Other mechanics however just aren’t effective enough to be worthwhile, which is a shame since absorbing the power of vanquished yokai’s soul cores does give the proceedings a bit of a “gotta catch ’em all” vibe to it. This and the ability to transform into a yokai for a limited time are of course also governed by their own gauges and have extra inputs you need to memorise. In other words, if you find masocore action games inaccessible to begin with, it’s further compounded by an extra mess of systems.
Arguably, the more relaxed way to enjoy Nioh 2 is with a pal or two via its summoning system. You can even summon AI-controlled versions of other fallen players who can least offer some assistance, though they’re not nearly as helpful as the occasional story characters who buddy up with you during certain missions – the best part being that you can revive the latter should they fall.
Ultimately, players most up for a challenge with the patience to withstand many excruciating defeats will find plenty to enjoy here, especially as The Complete Edition includes all three expansions, which transports you further back into Japan’s history, such as the Heian period. Just be aware that these only unlock once the main campaign has been beaten, though given how high-level and tough they are, that should come as no surprise.
Coupled with the extra challenging Twilight missions that rotate on a regular basis or a New Game+ option, there’s plenty of Nioh 2 to keep playing, if you’ve got the stomach for it.
One of the few action games that can compare with Dark Souls, Nioh 2 is a punishing but rewarding adventure that iterates on its predecessor with more choices and systems. While it can occasionally get too overwhelming for its own good, those who relish the challenge of overcoming fearsome foes in Japan’s history and mythology will have plenty to get stuck into – and The Complete Edition is the best way to play it.
- Brutally challenging but rewarding action combat with plenty of terrific set piece boss fights inspired by Japanese history and mythology
- Ki gauge and burst counter mechanics set it apart from just another Souls-like
- Detailed character customisation that can still be appreciated in cutscenes
- A bit too many mechanics, some less effective, while others can feel unfair
- Environments and level design on the formulaic side