We've been following the ongoing development of Nioh 2 for nine months now, and although the original left some of us a bit burnt out by the end, we were actually looking forward to playing the finished article. In the run-up to release, we had the impression that many of the things we criticised in the first game had been fixed by the studio. And while much has been improved in this sequel, Team Ninja's samurai-Souls is also very much what we expected: a consistent experience that has little to add to the original.
Nioh 2 strives for a mystical retelling of the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the most important generals in Japanese history. Our silent, constantly grinning protagonist accompanies the young man on his rise through the middle of the 16th century as some sort of business partner - but of course, most of the work will be placed on our shoulders. The interpretation of these historical events is elaborately brought to life by Team Ninja, but there are other, more notable factors to this supernatural storytelling.
The loose historical framework is merely an opener to draw us into the dark realm of the Yokai, mythical creatures that are taken from Japanese folklore. At the heart of the conflict lies a crystalline material called 'amrita', which gives magical abilities but also corrupts. Ultimately, it's a tale about our obsession with power and how evil forces exploit human weakness. Of course, it's up to us to face down the impending calamity and save feudal Japan from a dangerous demonic plague.
The story is once again pushed forward via stunning cutscenes at the beginning and at the end of missions. That was already the case in the last game but Nioh 2 has added some charming and even funny notes to proceedings. Just as was the case in the previous iteration, we fight through several conflicts in central Japan and jump into different levels via the world map. Most of these locations have opened up a little so that there are sometimes two ways to get to a particular location, and once there we usually face a challenging fight.
With the increased playtime, Team Ninja has introduced swampy areas in which our mobility is limited, sections that reduce the regeneration of endurance, pitch-black areas with no point of orientation, classic gauntlet runs where we're under constant fire, and traps deadly enough to punish hasty or impatient players. Everything in Nioh 2 causes terrible damage, thus you always need to be on guard and be thinking ahead.
If you played the first game, this shouldn't be news to you, and that's really the main takeaway: Nioh 2 is a very faithful sequel, but it doesn't dare to offer much in the way of innovation. The most obvious change in gameplay can be found in the so-called anima bar - your mana supply, if you like. During the course of battle you accumulate anima, for example by causing damage, and this, in turn, is needed to unleash your devilish Yokai abilities. Enemies from the underworld sometimes leave items (called soul cores) behind when they die and with these, we can use our own special abilities (because our character is half-Yokai, if you were wondering).
These talents often change the flow of battle by giving us additional attacks. Like its predecessor, Nioh 2 works primarily by swapping combat stances in combination with endurance management. Each of your actions draws from your KI supply and you have to make sure that you have enough of it available, for example, in order to be able to avoid enemy attacks by using an evasive roll. However, even if you run out of movement options, you can still use the Yokai skills and hope that they will help you get out of trouble (which happens fairly often).
The combat definitely gains momentum thanks to the Yokai skills and there are many small little details you should pay attention to during your battles with these otherworldly creatures. For example, if you identify and destroy the physical manifestation of the enemy's amrita (a golden glowing weak spot that most demonic enemies have) they will suffer a devastating blow, often interrupting their actions and dealing high damage to their KI bar (and maybe even making them lose access to more advanced fighting techniques in the process). Knowing when and where to strike will make you an efficient samurai and it's the key to a swift victory.
We saw a lot of old acquaintances among the enemies we faced, which is why the first few hours will feel very familiar to returning players. In general, it took a while for Team Ninja to make with the fresh ideas, and some assets from the first game are used throughout. We often see that in sequels for obvious reasons, but after re-playing whole missions from the first game and noting only a few minor changes in Nioh 2, the "nostalgic" illusion somewhat collapses. That's because Team Ninja didn't really move on from its old ideas, rather the team tried to adapt and expand upon the first game's collection of mechanics. However, the developer didn't do a great job in this regard as the new ideas would often create unnecessary barriers for players to overcome.
One example of this in Nioh 2 is that we have nine different types of melee weapon available and we can switch between them at any time. The stats of our character primarily determine the damage caused (in contrast to the competition, certain stats are not required to skilfully handle a hard-to-control weapon). However, since each weapon branch is levelled independently, re-skilling (which only costs a few coins) puts us in the strange situation that we can no longer carry out certain attacks - charging your weapon, for example, must be learned through acquired weapon knowledge. This contrasts with the armour system, on the other hand, because to get the most out of, say, the helmet you're wearing, you need to have invested enough points in certain areas of your character's development. Team Ninja's attempts to make things more accessible don't always work as well as we'd have liked.
Thus, our fears have unfortunately come true to some extent. Instead of tightening up what had come before, the developer has stacked even more gameplay systems on top of an already sizeable mountain of dirty dishes and feature creep has become a concern. We think that a more focused adventure would have made for a stronger overall experience because it is still a lot of fun to battle with Yokai, to best a smart samurai in a duel, to admire the insane number of complex animations seen mid-battle, or to simply stand in awe of the sight of the shining Guardian Spirits. Many of the game's systems should, in theory, make for a fine samurai adventure, however, it's burdened by its own complexity, making it more difficult than ever to grasp and honour Nioh 2 for what it is.
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