The original Nioh launched in 2017 during an interesting period for the “Soulsborne” genre in that there was very little competition outside of FromSoftware’s own titles. Despite constant comparisons to said titles, Nioh managed to differentiate itself with its technical, yet fast-paced, combat, fascinating Japanese samurai setting, and more straightforward narrative. Now Team Ninja plans to have another go with Nioh 2 and a PlayStation 4 closed alpha test just now wrapping up. So how well does this sequel stack up so far in a field of competitors far more diverse than before?
Note: Images in this article are not from the closed alpha.
Old Tools, New Tricks
Nioh 2’s alpha test consisted of three missions — two regular ones and an extra hard “twilight mission” — providing a solid five hours of gameplay. The first noticeable difference upon starting the game is the introduction of a character creator. However, we were limited to a handful of preset models for this alpha period so it’s still unclear just how in-depth this creator is nor how the lack of a named protagonist will have an effect on the game’s story, as there were no cut scenes.
Anyone who has played the original title will feel right at home with Nioh 2’s mission structure and combat as very little has changed. Light and heavy attacks can be used through three different stances: the agile but weak low stance, the all-rounder mid stance, and hard-hitting but slow high stance. Attacking uses up Ki, or stamina, and a well-timed button press at the end of a combo executes a Ki Burst, recovering a portion of the expended Ki to prevent yourself from running out and being left vulnerable. Adapting your stances on the fly and micromanaging your Ki usage remains one of the most satisfying aspects of the game.
Katanas, odachis, and spears were present in the alpha and functioned practically identically to the original game’s on a surface level. The one new weapon type available, the dual hatchets, could be most easily compared to the dual blades of the original game with their short reach and rapid attacks, although you can’t rush down enemies as easily with them. Instead, the hatchets could be thrown by holding the strong attack button, which was great for safely finishing off an enemy from afar or chipping off health as they approached you.
I ended up favoring the odachi and dual hatchets throughout the alpha partly for their playstyle but also because of another new mechanic — Yokai and Blessed weapons. Yokai weapons build up the Corruption status in enemies. Once afflicted with Corruption they take increased Ki and Yokai Force (more on this later) damage, part of which will be absorbed by the player. They also have a Sentience gauge that fills with attacks and “awakens” the weapon when full, increasing its attack power.
Blessed weapons, on the other hand, imbue the Purity effect on enemies which only increases Ki damage dealt. Additionally, however, Blessed weapons also allow you to recover Ki lost from blocking with a regular Ki Pulse as if attacking. This is important because blocking in the original Nioh was typically seen as worthless as it drained more Ki than it was worth rather than simply dodging out of the way. Blessed weapons make blocking far more viable.
Both the Yokai and Blessed weapons are extremely valuable and can be found in chests or as rare drops from enemies. I only ever found these variants for the odachi and hatchets, hence my favoritism toward them. I do worry that these variants may be too powerful, though, and could possibly completely invalidate regular weapons in the game and limit flexibility.
Unleashing The Power Within
Also new to Nioh 2 are your protagonist’s yokai powers: Yokai Skills and Yokai Shift. Yokai Skills are abilities obtained as drops from Yokai-type enemies — in the form of Yokai Cores — and allow you to use their abilities for yourself. For example, a single, powerful hammer strike of the Ippon-Datara or the flaming vortex of the Enenra boss, providing more options for tackling challenging situations.
You can have two Yokai Forces equipped at once and each one has an equipment cost, meaning you can’t stack two powerful ones at once as they were too expensive (at least in the alpha). Yokai Skills use a new resource called Yokai Force in battle and are recovered through normal attacks as well as the equivalent of a Ki pulse after using a skill. The rate at which Yokai Force replenishes strikes a fine balance that encourages frequent use of skills without allowing spamming of them.
Yokai Shift, meanwhile, is Nioh 2’s replacement to Living Weapon from the first game. After filling your spirit gauge your protagonist can tap into the Yokai blood running through them to temporarily transform into one. While this is certainly a spectacle, it is functionally identical to Living Weapon with a Yokai Shift bar replacing HP and the player reverting back to a human when it’s depleted.
Attacks in this state lack the ferocity and savagery that one would expect from its menacing form, which is a bit of a shame considering that was the main selling point of Nioh 2’s reveal at E3 last year. This is something that can potentially be improved with development, but as it stands the Yokai Shift feels like little more than a nice buff, rather than instilling a sense of genuine empowerment.
Demons of The Past
The Yokai Shift isn’t the only area that could use improvement, as Nioh 2, unfortunately, retains the major weak points of its predecessor. Inventory management is still a nightmare, as well as micromanaging your equipment with the rainfalls of it that enemies drop. Some may relish in the opportunity to constantly update your equipment in order to min-max, but the sheer volume the game throws at you makes the whole process more overwhelming than it needs to be.
Enemy variety is also still lacking, especially of the Yokai type. Yoki enemies, in particular, ran rampant in all three stages when they had already become stale from the first game. Meanwhile, the half snake, half women Nure-Onna of the second mission started off as a frightening new menace, but quickly became so prominent that they became an annoyance more than anything. For a game that prides itself on giving the player the ability to adapt to battle situations on the fly, it still doesn’t give much reason to do so when normal enemies so easily fall into an expected pattern.
That said, bosses still pose a significant threat with those of the second and third missions taking numerous attempts to take down. It’s just a shame you still have to break tempo to farm for health-restoring elixirs if you run out during your attempts, especially having come off of Sekiro’s refilling healing gourd.
The Nioh 2 alpha test showed that little has changed between iterations, for better and worse. Despite the additions of Yokai abilities, combat still feels pretty much the same, which is great considering how strong of a white-knuckle experience it was to start with. All the weaknesses of the previous game have also come along for the ride, though, with seemingly little to no effort put into improve them. As it stands, Nioh 2 seems like the safest possible iteration of the series, adding just barely enough to differentiate itself from the previous game but nothing that truly elevates it up. Whether this will be enough to set it apart in a genre that will have grown in size and variety since the original game’s release is difficult to tell.