Team Ninja's samurai Souls-like is sharper and more focused than ever.
Nioh 2 continues Team Ninja's work iterating upon the methodical Souls-style samurai-influenced combat of the original game. As a narrative prequel set several decades earlier in the Sengoku-era, before the arrival of the foreigner William, you play as a nameless Samurai who can defy death and unleash newfound abilities due to their latent demonic lineage. As a being of both the human and demon worlds, your character will rub shoulders with famous historical figures of the era as they take on daring missions that have them confront the dark forces running afoul in the land.
Over the last few months, Team Ninja has spent time refining the game with different open beta periods for players to jump into the action. Just before the game's final release on March 13, we got to spend one final time with the game, where we explored a castle overrun by demons and rogue ninja. From this near-final look at the game, it was clear that the high-stress gameplay from the first Nioh remains intact, which, of course, included all those sudden embarrassing deaths that are entirely your fault because you weren't paying attention to your surroundings. Anyone who's played a proper Souls-like knows how it is.
Just like the original, Nioh 2 is firmly rooted in the Souls-style dynamic of facing nerve-wracking challenges and overcoming powerful foes that can easily wipe the floor with you if you're not careful. However, the sequel lets you channel your dark side with the use of Yokai powers. In addition to using conventional weapons like katanas, spears, and the new transformable switch-glaive, you also have a suite of Yokai powers that let you turn the tables on once-challenging enemies.
After slaying powerful demons throughout the world, you'll be able to use their abilities in combat to exploit an opponent's weakness and open them up for several quick and powerful strikes. There's something uniquely satisfying about slaying a powerful demon and then claiming their soul for yourself. But when things get particularly hairy, you're also able to enter a full-on Yokai state, which significantly amplifies your strength and agility. One demon form you take on, who wields a set of daggers, grants you a useful dash move that can get you out of trouble in most fights.
While Nioh 2 leans even more into Team Ninja's action gameplay roots, placing greater emphasis on using the Yokai abilities to upend the flow of battle, the game is still Souls-like to its core. It's the type of experience that can be an acquired taste, leaving some put off with its stoic adherence to the mechanics at work. Still, Nioh 2 offsets this challenge with the wealth of options you have at your disposal. With the refined combat system, which utilized various stance shifts, evasive dodges, and a robust magic system, there are several different weapons and skills for you to lean into depending on your playstyle. Nioh 2's combat is a sophisticated combat system that feels unlike any other Souls-style game, which makes it all the more satisfying to master. During our hands-on, we spoke with Team Ninja producer Fumihiko Yasuda about the development of Nioh 2, and what they learned most following the success of the original game.
"When we worked on Nioh 1, we initially struggled with the concept and the world, but we ended up having a good foundation," said Yasuda. "So after it was finished, it was just a matter of evolving it to the next level. So with Nioh 2, we added more variety in the levels and the character's story; everything is expanded. Because it's an action game, it tends to be, especially in the first one, repetitive due to the lack of enemy variety as well. So based on the player feedback, we made sure to have more variety in enemies and interesting gameplay and story in the second one."
With this next game, a lot of attention has been given to refining the core combat, the online co-op gameplay, and how you develop and evolve your character as they explore Sengoku-era Japan. There are a lot more systems at work to ease the burden that many missions can thrust on you, such as the addition of AI-controlled summons known as Benevolent Spirits, an inverse on the returning Revenants that are the hostile ghosts of fallen players. The Benevolent characters can easily hold their own in a fight and are a great asset for those who want help fast or don't have access to online play.
With that said, Nioh 2 can still be an unforgiving game. If the many unexpected pitfalls don't get you, then you'll likely meet your end at the hands of your enemies. When you're not contending with the prequel's new Dark Realm mechanic, which are areas imbued with dark energy that amplifies the enemy strength, you'll also be on the lookout for hidden foes that attack when you least expect it. All this means you'll need to be attuned to the game's more advanced mechanics from the outset, such as the Ki-pulse, which restores stamina following attacks. That said, the section of Nioh 2 I played was fair in how it threw challenges your way due to the number of tools and skills you've got at your disposal. Yet it still left me on edge, hoping that I wouldn't fall prey to an attack from one of the castle's many demons.
Nioh 2 improves upon the original game's Diablo-style RPG loot system and character building set up, which now has an overhauled skill and abilities system to develop your hero in ways that best reflect your style. Want to stick with your learnings of proper Samurai patience and resolve? You can do that. Or perhaps you want to lean more into the teachings of the ninja and Onmyo, allowing you to buff your weapons with elemental damage. You can undoubtedly follow those paths as well, and based on my time with beta and this new press demo, the sequel seems to do a better job of conveying how your character evolves.
I can't deny that Nioh 2 feels a lot like the original. This isn't totally a bad thing, but it can somewhat dull the excitement and sense of anticipation when it relies on similar set-pieces of the first game. Still, I was impressed with how much Nioh 2 scratches my itch for a quick Souls-like experience to jump into, and offers something new in terms of character advancement and customization--especially the addition of the Yokai powers.
Following a round of alpha and beta tests, Team Ninja has refined the core gameplay even further. These changes include tweaking boss attacks and amplifying the effectiveness of weapons, which will hopefully make the final game a bit more balanced. While the developers listened to fan feedback regarding the game's difficulty, they still stuck to their principles with making the game that pushed its difficulty and the players. According to Yasuda, Nioh 2 maintains that focus on presenting a challenge, and the ensuing satisfaction that comes from overcoming it.
"For me, just as an example, it's easy to make spicy food, but it needs to be addictive to eat as well," he said. "So when making Nioh, it needs to be fair and responsive, which is one of the most important things that we look at when designing the game. It wasn't our biggest intention or priority to make a hard game, but it was about creating, providing a sense of achievement, and a sense of satisfaction that can come from finishing the game."
Nioh 2 has more of what fans of the original would want from the game, and it was interesting seeing just how much of a change Yokai abilities make to the flow of battle. There are far more options for you to take advantage of in the prequel, which helps make overcoming the many harrowing encounters ultimately feel more satisfying.