How can a character so cool be treated so badly? What kind of cruel fate is this?
Nioh 2 has given maybe the most glowing first impression I’ve had of a game in recent memory, let alone a sequel. I always end up feeling hyperbolic when I’m describing the few hours I’ve been able to spend with the game’s recent closed alpha to my friends,, but it’s hard not to be. Nioh 2 takes every lesson learned from the game’s predecessor, expands upon them, and improves the overall experience without losing that core that was so damn good.
The original Nioh had a troubled development lasting almost 14 years, and over that time the game warped from a Ninja Gaiden style take on an Akira Kurosawa script, to a Dark Souls/Diablo hybrid. As it got closer and closer to release, Team Ninja did several alpha and beta tests that gradually shaped the full release, and continued to improve upon it with DLC that added better bosses and areas, alongside new weapon types and quality of life fixes. Nioh 2 really feels like all of those lessons have finally come together in a package that may just be able to stand on its own.
From the beginning of the Nioh 2 Alpha, you create your own character in lieu of playing as the gruff William players were (mostly) stuck in the shoes of in the last game. While Nioh did eventually let you use various bonus skins, being able to actually mold the character you play as always adds a level of ownership to the experience of any game. Plus, as a woman, it’s always nice to be able to play as a woman without having to go through some sort of absurd “bonus” unlock. While you can only choose from a few presets for now, you can definitely peek through the locked options and see that there’s the usual depth one might expect from a Dark Souls, and even more with implied “Yokai Form” customization.
After making your beautiful Oni lady or whatever else you’re into, there’s a short tutorial before you get plopped into what feels like a typical Nioh level. You will quickly find the game’s old bloodstain system, where players can fight AI ghosts left behind by players in hopes of winning a piece of their gear, but you’ll also find a couple of blue graves scattered around too. Alongside the old system, a new one similar to Dark Souls’ summon signs has been added, which lets you summon an AI version of a player who played through that area to help you fight through the level. While you can still do the classic matchmaking with real players, this new option lets players quickly (and in my case, less anxiously) get some help in a harder part of the game.
After beating the game’s first mini-boss, you’re quickly introduced to two of the game’s new systems. One of them is the cursed weapon subset, which is a type of weapon that gradually powers up the more you fight. When it finally gets powered up, it’ll start yelling about how it loves to kill people, glow purple, and buff pretty much everything you do. While I slightly worry about the disparity between using weapons like this as opposed to other weapon rarities, using them was a blast, and having those short windows of power open up new opportunities in the midst of an escalating scuffle can really help improve the experience.
The other new system involves learning and using a robust and expansive slew of “Yokai Skills.” Yokai Skills let you take a move from the arsenal of every single enemy you run across in the game, and use it pretty much whenever. When you kill an enemy, there’s a chance that they’ll drop a glowing Yokai Core. When you take these cores back to a save point, you can purify them and turn them into the Yokai Skills, which you then slot into your character for up to two actions at any time. These skills can range from slamming a big flaming hammer down to deal burning damage, to turning into a massive tornado for a few seconds and just flailing into everyone. These skills level up the more cores you get as well, so when you get your third “Skeleton Warrior” skill, you’re actually making it better and better.
These moves completely change the flow of Nioh’s combat for the better, without taking away what made it good in the first place. Where there were plenty of times where you had to disengage in the original Nioh when fighting a particular boss or horde of enemies, you’re now able to quickly turn the tides by pulling some outrageous bullshit. No longer is Nioh a game where the second guy shows up in the fight and all seems lost; it’s become a “I’m not stuck in here with you, you’re stuck in here with me” type deal, and god does it feel so good.
Yokai Skills aren’t the only part of your arsenal that’s going for that Yokai sensibility either. While the original game had a devil trigger-esque form change system with Living Weapons, Nioh 2 doubles down and transforms your character into various different types of yokai with incredibly different movesets and abilities. The three choices selectable in the demo include a classic bulky club Oni, a floating fox-masked mage with spectral blades, and a teleporting-dashing ninja who attacks with incredible speed. These feel so much better than the original game’s tendency to just differentiate with passive gimmicks, and turning into a big oni to wreak havoc gives the game a unique and distinctive vibe that the original Nioh didn’t quite pull together.
Even just tonally, that vibe of a Yokai-filled world is so much better expressed throughout the game’s world and characters. When you wander into an area with particularly hard Yokai to fight, it’s no longer just a patch of grey blocking your path, but complete zones warped with a monotone filter and spider lilies rampant. These zones feel oppressive and otherworldly, and the effect is amped up when you notice your character’s Oni horns are sticking out as you wander through them. The bleakness will dissipate once you’re able to defeat the mini-boss style Yokai of the area, making these experiences much more satisfying than the frustrating areas in Souls games that tended to be permanent annoyances that you needed to trudge back and forth through.
The bosses are much more expressive and supernatural feeling as well. Most of the boss fights in the original Nioh felt like they either had to be a one-on-one duel with a humanoid opponent, or a big large enemy who was clunky and slow. Both of the bosses that you can fight in this Alpha however, feel much more unique and dynamic. The first boss is a big tornado that surrounds itself with pottery shards to become a hulking big monster, but that doesn’t mean you fight him by dodging his hefty swings. Instead, they can dash around very quickly, and use quick and narrow attacks, all the while you’re contending with brutish swings. The other boss was a big snake with smaller snakes growing off it that sometimes fell off, while it slithered around the stage quickly and threateningly. Both of these bosses would have been functionally identical in Nioh, but here they’re able to break outside of those archetypal molds and become something really fun and unique.
You’ll even wander into some friendly Yokai along the way that always bring big bonuses. As you break boxes sometimes you’ll just find a little fat cat curled up in a ball- if you pet them, they’ll roll around with you for a little bit, buffing you in the process. While I totally enjoyed the whole buff thing, just the addition of a little baby cat orb rolling around on the ground with me while i beat up Yokai was extremely charming, especially once I got into a nasty tussle and my little furry friend grew spikes and tried to help me fight back harder. There are also little purple fellas with masks you can find walking around all over the place, and if you drop a weapon near them, they’ll pick it up and trade you for some random loot they’re carrying. These buddies are particularly helpful if you really don’t like a specific type of weapon, since they tend to trade you back an item of similar rarity or power.
When you add all these elements together, you get a much more cohesive and engaging package than what the original Nioh had to offer. Underneath all this it’s very much the same game, but tuned up and given a fresh coat of paint. Combat in Nioh 2 still feels intense and enemies aren’t exactly easy fodder most of the time, but all of these systems help make them puzzles to solve instead of walls to overcome. It’s much more satisfying to swap out and look through all the different combos my twin hatchets have in the process of beating a boss than just doing the same two attacks over and over again until I memorized everything they did. Everything feels so much more rewarding, and fun, which has been refreshing in the face of recent games like Sekiro that tend to promote frustration and simplicity.
I enjoyed pretty much every second I played of the Nioh 2 Alpha, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the full game whenever it launches later this year. Everything about the experience feels like the developers really understood what made their game good, and what could make their game better, which is so rarely seen in any medium. Most sequels tend to either play it safe or go wildly different, and while Nioh 2 is definitely pretty wild, the ways it stays true and improves upon its core are incredibly welcome.