The first thing you need to do when you fire up Team Ninja’s action-RPG Nioh 2 is to disabuse yourself of the notion that anything is going to come quickly, or easily. Going back to 2004’s rebooted Ninja Gaiden games in the Xbox and PlayStation 2 eras, and even a shockingly good entry on the Nintendo DS, Team Ninja has been punishing players for nearly 20 years. Both the original Nioh and this sequel take the difficulty to a new level (so to speak), and this complexity extends to every aspect of the game. From the controls to the strategy to the upgrade system, there’s a challenge at every single part of Nioh 2, if you’re up for it.
Nioh 2 is a prequel to 2017’s Nioh and reimagines Japan’s Sengoku period, spanning from 1555 to nearly 1600, as one filled with supernatural entities called yokai. You’ll play as the stoic Hide, a player-created character who’s half yokai and half-human, allowing you to switch between worlds. For such a potentially rich period of history, Nioh’s story feels little more than a means to get from one battle to the next, but that’s not the worst thing in the world when the combat is so complex and customizable.
The battle system, which rewards careful and strategic use of its arcane controls and punishes button-mashing, takes a lot of time to get used to. You’re limited by ki, which is a kind of stamina and is drawn down with each strike and each dodge (this why button-mashing is a no-no in Nioh 2). There’s the Ki Pulse, which quickly replenishes your ki between moves, but this is just one more thing to keep an eye on when you have to pay attention to so many things at once.
The biggest addition to the original Nioh system is the use of the yokai realm. Along with pretty standard magic attacks, you’ll also be able to use the attacks from defeated enemies, like in Mega Man or Pokemon, as a special ability. The attacks aren’t so overpowered that they can single-handedly turn the tide of a fight but they usually pack a punch and more importantly, they look incredibly cool.
You’ll need to remember that every enemy, big or (relatively) small, has the ability to take you down if you underestimate them. You may be used to other games that have a bunch of mostly-disposable minions that can be killed with a hit or two, giving you the opportunity to learn the controls and the various nuances of your weapons. But, like Demon’s Souls or Bloodborne, Nioh isn’t really about that. Nothing comes easy, and every encounter is a struggle.
The boss fights against huge yokai, like everything else, are insanely difficult but the scenes are so cinematic and beautiful that you’ll get drawn in. No matter how frustrated I got with some of these epic battles, I can’t get too mad at a game that throws a skyscraper-sized spider with a bull’s head at me, or a snake whose arms are made of smaller snakes. Boss fights are daunting experiences, though, and you won’t get to admire the scenery. The unique frustration of working for upwards of thirty minutes, slowly sussing out a yokai’s weak points and whittling them down, only to be felled by a single life-draining hit, starts to feel less unique after the first few times. It’s a serious grind.
Nioh 2 gives you an incredible amount of freedom to craft your character and their abilities in any way you want. Starting with a solid character creation segment which allows you to make an almost endless amount of aesthetic tweaks (with the help of my daughter, I made a kind of twisted version of Elsa from Frozen), you’ll be given access to multiple weapons, magic abilities, and upgrade trees. You can specialize in any of the weapon styles of the original Nioh plus two new ones – the switchglaive and a pair of hand-axes. Every style plays and feels different, and I found I had to mess around with a few before landing on the rhythm that worked best for me. Even then, you’re not locked into using any one weapon and really, you should get good with as many as possible since you’ll encounter all of them in the field.
Nioh 2 is the kind of brutally hard experience, like a first-year Calculus course that’s purpose-built for weeding students out of their program, that, if you can tough it out, will inevitably make you better. A better problem-solver, a more reactive combatant. A better player, and probably most valuable of all, each time you achieve some small thing towards those goals in Nioh 2, it feels earned. I think you have to be in a really specific mood for Nioh, but if you are, it provides a rewarding experience. Even if it never comes easy.