Nioh 2 is not to be trifled with. Building on the original's tough-as-nails reputation, Team Ninja's second samurai action-RPG brings back the original's penchant for punishing and highly nuanced combat. The sequel hones the original's distinctive take on the Souls-like without completely reinventing itself. The result is a long, tough slog that will push even the most challenge-hungry players to their breaking points as they fight for every inch of ground and become master samurai.
Despite the title, Nioh 2 is a prequel, revealing the secret history of a decades-long period of war in medieval Japan. As the silent, customizable hero Hide, you fight to uncover the secret nature of "spirit stones," which grant supernatural power, and defeat hordes of Yokai across the country. The plot, which you mostly hear through cutscenes and exposition between missions, has an interesting historical bent, but it is really just glue to hold the levels together. Historically relevant names like Nobunaga and Tokugawa play into the saga, but whatever flavor they add in the moment fades the second you take control and it's time to start killing demons.
But that's okay. Nioh 2's story gives just enough context for you to follow along and make you feel like you're making progress without getting in the way of the gameplay. Nioh 2's definitive feature is its challenge. With core mechanics refined from the bones of Dark Souls, Nioh 2 boils down to a series of battles and duels in all kinds of situations. These battles demand intense precision: Not only are your attacks and skills limited by a stamina meter--called Ki--but any extra attack or mistimed movement will leave you exposed, often to an attack that will cost you a substantial amount of health. Like other Souls-like games, there is a painful pleasure in mastering whatever opponents the game throws your way.
Nioh 2 builds on the wonderfully diverse range of options for developing a personal fighting style. The original systems return: Each of the nine weapon types offers a unique balance among speed, power, and range, which you can fine-tune on the fly by switching among three stances (low, mid, and high). Each weapon type has its own skill tree and progression, for which you earn points by using it. The core weapon combat remains largely unchanged from the original, beyond some new abilities and two new weapons types, the speedy two-handed Switchglaive and really speedy double-hatchets. That said, the combat is very precise. Nioh 2 demands that you have a profound understanding of all the attacks your weapon(s) can perform, but there's a wide range of attacks and they each put their own spin on how you fight.
There are also multiple general skill trees, plus character levels that increase your stats based on earning Amrita from killing enemies. Plus, Nioh 2 is a loot game, so you'll constantly be looking at new weapons with tradeoffs that tweak your stats. It's a lot to manage, but it becomes manageable as you find your specialty and focus on upgrading the skills you know you like using.
For Nioh vets, that's all old hat: Nioh 2's biggest additions revolve around the idea that Hide can channel Yokai spirits. The most important is a hard parry called the Burst Counter, which allows you to counter powerful enemy attacks. Every enemy has at least one attack that's vulnerable to the counter; they're often big, powerful moves that you'll be tempted to dodge. Fighting that urge and throwing yourself at your enemy to turn the tide of battle for a moment is crucial, which makes the combat feel more tactical and aggressive. In the moment when you spot an enemy prepping a burst attack, you feel successful, like you've gotten one over on your opponent, even for a second. Because the game is so difficult, these little victories help drive you forward.
You also learn Yokai abilities via equippable Soul Cores that allow you to momentarily transform into the enemies you've killed to use one of their attacks. More than Ninjutsu and magic, which return from the original, Soul Cores add a much wider range of contextually useful skills. For example, as the Monkey Yokai Enki, you jump into the air and throw a spear, which is quite novel as Nioh 2 doesn't have a jump button. When the Yokai get bigger--every boss gives you a Soul Core--sometimes a giant head or fist or foot magically appears to maim your enemies. They aren't so powerful that you can lean on them to win a fight, but these skills widely expand the range of things you can potentially do.
Last but not least, Nioh 2 adds a super-powerful "Yokai Shift" transformation, which temporarily makes you faster and stronger. Triggering the transformation does not obviate the need for tactics. Though you are invulnerable, both using attacks and taking damage reduce the amount of time you have in your stronger form. A failed assault in Yokai mode not only wastes a powerful, slowly charging asset, but may also leave you unexpectedly exposed if you revert to your old self because your opponent caught you off-guard. In true Nioh fashion, even your greatest strength can become a chance for your enemy to get the upper hand.
It's a lot to learn and, again, you need to get it down perfectly to overcome what Nioh 2 throws at you. You will likely make a lot of mistakes and die many, many times. Sometimes it'll feel like you've hit a brick wall and simply can't win. In those situations, you need to take a deep breath, figure out why you're failing, and adjust your strategy to match. Refusing to change weapons or take risks or otherwise be thoughtful about how you play will leave you frustrated. The more frustrated you get, the more likely you'll lose again.
Learning your own skillset is just part of the experience. To really excel, you also need to understand Nioh 2's wide world. There's an astounding amount of variety across an extremely long campaign. Its winding, multi-area missions span all kinds of environments, from burning castles and temples, to military camps, to forests and mountainsides. Many of them change radically as you explore them, giving you a great sense of "travel" and accomplishment for covering what feels like a long distance. One early level, for example, starts on a hillside outside a castle and ends in a massive underground cave. Even when the levels seem similar--you single-handedly siege four to five castles across 20 campaign missions--varied level design in both pathing and detail make each one feel distinct and worth conquering.
It helps that the maps are more than twisty, turny dungeon crawls. Most have at least one area with a unique trap or environmental conundrum. In one forest level, for instance, a giant owl Yokai patrols certain areas, alerting enemies if it sees you. During a castle siege, you have to dodge artillery fire as you duel enemy soldiers. Also, there are Dark Realm zones, black and white areas haunted by Yokai that provide an even greater challenge by slowing down your Ki regeneration, sprinkled throughout each level. It's only by defeating a specific enemy in a Dark Realm that it will dispel permanently, injecting more ways for you to make progress that doesn't reset when you use a shrine (or die).
Even for all its variety, Nioh 2 stretches all of its content as much as it can. For every mission in its core campaign, there are two to three side missions, many of which remix a portion of a story mission. On top of that, there are rotating Twilight Missions for high-level players. Plus, upon finishing the campaign, you'll get access to a difficulty level with higher-level enemies and gear. While it can be a little annoying in principle to play the same section of a level three to four times, each version finds little ways to change your path and present new challenges to keep things fresh. If you're interested in wringing absolutely everything out of Nioh 2--master every weapon, get the highest level loot--there are more than enough mission configurations to go through until you've had your fill.
Likewise, Nioh 2 never seems to run out of new enemies to throw at you. Almost every level has at least one new type of Yokai for you to study and struggle against. They run the gamut, from literal giant spiders to animalistic demon soldiers like the Enki, a giant monkey with a spear, and the harpy-like Ubume. Each enemy has its own range of abilities, and you need to learn everything about them in order to anticipate their attacks and get the upper hand. This process takes time--you won't get it on the first try, or even after the first victory. Every enemy, even the little Gaki demon, which looks like a balding, red-eyed child, can kill you if you aren't bringing your A-game. Dissecting enemy patterns and figuring out how to counter them is the sweetest pleasure Nioh 2 offers: That there are so many enemies with so many different attacks to navigate ensure that the game never loses its flavor.
Even when the levels seem similar--you single-handedly siege four to five castles across 20 campaign missions--varied level design in both pathing and detail make each one feel distinct and worth conquering.
You see this most clearly when you go up against each of the game's extraordinarily difficult boss encounters. Like the levels, the bosses vary widely and are all sights to behold. From a giant snake with mini-snake arms to a three-story spider with a bull's head, each flagship enemy design has a lot of character and is unlike anything you've seen in the game before. They all have one thing in common, though: They're extraordinarily difficult. Even more than standard battles, the bosses effectively demand perfect play for an extended period. You need to be able to recognize every move they make as they make it and know how to respond instantly. Very few took me less than a dozen tries, and many of them took me multiple hours.
At times, I wondered if maybe some of these bosses should be a little shorter, as there were many bosses where I felt I had mastered their patterns but couldn't finish because they landed a single one-hit-kill late in the fight. Ultimately, that excruciating difficulty and the feeling it evokes are baked into Nioh's DNA, though, and its boss fights remain compelling even as they vex and frustrate. Though it sometimes feels like a curse as you play, it is a testament that Nioh 2 successfully grabs and holds your complete attention so close for so long.