*This beta took place in early November but because of my crowded publishing schedule I wasn’t able to get this review up until now. The game doesn’t release until March 2020 so it’s not too late for this review to help you make an informed buying decision about the game.
I’ve been a Nioh fan since the alpha for the first game released. I’ve featured the alpha, the beta, the final pre-release demo, the full game, and most recently the beta for the sequel on my YouTube channel. To say I like the franchise would be an understatement. I’ve been chomping at the bit to play Nioh 2 since it was first announced like two years ago. To finally get to play a beta for it was a much needed experience.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Nioh is essentially Koei Tecmo’s take on the Soulsborne genre. In simplest terms, it’s a samurai themed Dark Souls clone. I believe that the first game’s success is the reason Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was made. FromSoftware didn’t like the idea of another studio, especially one as large and successful as Koei Tecmo, taking their formula and, for all intents and purposes, improving it. But in my opinion that is exactly what has happened. I haven’t played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice yet, but it’s on my list. I have played Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I & II, and Bloodborne. I have to say that Nioh is my favorite game in this genre. And it’s not just because I prefer the samurai theme. There are specific quality of life differences that make the game more enjoyable for me. I’m not going to get into that here, but if you want to read a comparison of the two franchises you can find the one I wrote last year here.
I spent about 20 hours in the beta and I was very impressed. There are a lot of new ideas here that I could spend a lot of time talking about. But what I’m actually happier about are the improvements to the original game. Visually, it’s a great game just like the first one was. The beauty of the Japanese settings coupled with the demon infested, war-torn character of the franchise once again delivers something eerily beautiful and daunting at the same time. The game uses landscapes to intimidate you before the action even starts. The high level of detail to create an authentic looking feudal Japan is awe-inspiring. The temples, castles, and even gear make you feel like you’re really visiting feudal Japan. Meanwhile the dark hues, black demonic auras, and mountains of corpses transport you into a nightmare that your only hope to survive is by fighting your way through. And remember, you will die. The subtle but effective use of sound helps support this atmosphere as well. There’s actually not a lot of noticeable music in the beta, but the effects are quite good and informative, just like in the first game. Using your ears can be just as important as using your eyes. Sound can notify you when you’ve been spotted, what kind of enemy has you in their sights, and much more.
Enemy design is one of the most impressive things about the franchise as a whole. The level of detail put into creating monsters that intimidate the player long before actually fighting and dying against them is one of the things that makes Nioh a superior game. The sequel has not only lived up to the enemy design of the first game, but surpassed it. One of the things I was really happy to see was that for the most part enemies were not reused. At least not in the beta. Between the two stages I played in the beta, there were only four or five enemies I remember fighting in the first game and some of them were altered in some way.
The new enemies are somehow even weirder and creepier than the ones from the first game. Some examples include an amalgamation of corpses walking around like a spider with eight different human heads and a one legged boar demon with flowing anime style hair and a giant hammer that hops around like a frog. I was also really happy to see more female enemies in the beta. Not counting bosses and DLC, the first game had only one clearly female enemy in the entire game. The Nioh 2 beta featured two over the course of just two stages. I really like this because the addition of gender allows the monster designs a new level of creativity and variation. The new snake yokai works so well both visually and in terms of behavior because it’s female in form. As a male, it would be much less effective as far as presentation and believability.
The level design impressed me a lot in the first stage of the beta. In reality, it’s not that big of a map. But the way it has been weaved together with crisscrossing paths, locked shortcuts, and multiple floors makes it seem way bigger than it actually is. It’s very similar to Bloodborne in that regard, where the world is not open but it feels like it is. The first stage has only three shrines (the Nioh equivalent of bonfires), but the level plays like it has at least seven or eight different sections. Koei Tecmo’s level design shows that it’s not the size of the map but how you use the space that matters. They do so much with only a little total area and it makes for an action packed experienced that doesn’t offer too much down time between fights unless you want there to be.
I am rarely a fan of character creation in story based games, and make no mistake, this is a story based game/franchise. That’s one of the main reasons I prefer it to Dark Souls. This isn’t a game that just throws lore at you and expects you to fill in the narrative on your own. There is an actual plot to the game that you’re a part of. Not much was shown in the beta, but the trend from the first game of interspersing cutscenes sparingly around the start of levels and to introduce boss fights continues into this sequel. The difference is, and I hope this is just because the beta wasn’t showing much, that the story seems less character driven. While I thought the concept of making a samurai themed game set in feudal Japan starring a white guy from Great Britain was odd, I actually liked William. I liked following his story and seeing him interact with people from Japan. I liked that a couple levels went back to the UK and had you fight other Brits. Story was an integral part of the game, as was dialog between your character, William, and NPCs. Parts of that seem to be weakened in place of character creation in Nioh 2.
There is still a story, but your place in it appeared less pronounced in this beta. That being said, the character creator is great. You can choose your gender and manipulate their appearance in a great many ways. But the process is also fairly smooth and doesn’t take long. I grew quite attached to the female character I created over the course of the beta and may very well recreate her in the final game. Or I can just use the character import feature, which is really convenient. You can create characters and then upload them for other players to download with a character creation share code. This means when you see a cool looking character online you can copy them directly rather than trying to rebuild them yourself from scratch.
The foundational gameplay is the same. If you played the first one then you will have little trouble walking on to Nioh 2. I did all the tutorial missions as a refresher and was back in fighting shape fairly quickly. There are some new features that you will need to learn if you want to master this game though. The gameplay was already great, but it’s the little tweaks that make this a sequel worth talking about in a sea of rehashed ideas, constant remakes, and lazy annual releases. So many things have been added or changed to make the gameplay, both in combat and in menus, better. For starters, there are now six controller layouts to choose from. I would still prefer fully customizable button maps, but six layouts is a solid number of options. There are various quality of life settings you can choose from in the menus, which can be accessed at any time during gameplay, remembering that like in Dark Souls you can’t actually pause enemies unless you’re at a shrine. You can choose how many item shortcuts you have ranging from four to sixteen. You can choose the color order/scheme to show item drop rarity. You can choose which notifications appear on screen during play, how big they are, and for how long they stay on screen. You can choose if/how the game notifies you in menus about new developments and acquisitions. This game really goes out of its way to make sure you’re happy with the gameplay experience on both a macro and micro level. They even added a small vendor to shrines that will sell you a limited amount of additional ammo and useful consumable items.
One of the best improvements is the new skill development system. Rather than the old layout with scrolls connecting in a mostly linear path, you now have more customization options with a Final Fantasy style sphere grid. This makes it easier to see what you’re building towards when unlocking skills and buffs. It’s also visually easier to understand and see how much progress you’ve made in each development category. In the same mode of thinking, there is now a lot more information shown in the status menu with detailed stats showing things like weapon proficiency by type. The one thing I didn’t really like about the new skill development system is that nodes require all connected nodes to be unlocked before you can unlock them. This was irritating because it meant if I wanted something with two connected nodes unlocked that I had to unlock two other nodes. Often one of the nodes would be something I didn’t care to waste skill points on.
Combat has been improved as well at the micro level. One of my biggest issues with the first game was ki pulses. If you press a button, that isn’t actually part of combat, at the right time you get a key pulse which helps regenerate your ki (stamina) faster. I was terrible at doing these in the first game. Because it’s not at all intuitive. You had to actively choose to press a button that wasn’t going to actually be part of the combat in the middle of combat to get a ki pulse. In Nioh 2 you can unlock a skill that lets you ki pulse by dodging. This makes the game so much better for me because I actually do dodge all the time during combat. These sorts of tweaks and changes are what make this game a superior sequel.
Nioh 2 also adds two new weapons to the already large arsenal from the first game, delivering a total of nine physical weapons types and three projectile weapons types. The two newest weapons are the switchglaive and dual hatchets. The switchglaive is a great weapon. It’s arguably too OP. It can be a spear that feels like a quick axe in mid stance, a scythe that feels like a hammer in high stance, and a single hand blade that feels like a tonfa in low stance. More impressive is that you can unlock skills that allow you to quickly change between forms. It’s like carrying three completely different weapons in one. One of the best things about the switchglaive is that its power is tied to magic. That means that every time you power up the weapon you are also powering up your magic and increasing its capacity. This alone is a good enough reason to main the switchglaive because developing it is killing two birds with one stone. The dual hatchets are two short axes. They feel like the dual swords with slightly less range but more speed like the tonfas. I really like both new weapons and decided to main them for the duration of the beta and possibly the full game as well.
One of my biggest complaints about Nioh was the summoning system. Summoning other players was bothersome and being summoned by other players was bothersome. It’s probably why I played the whole game solo and only let other people summon me a handful of times. They fixed this problem by negating the need to actually summon real other players live. The first game had revenants. These are the fallen corpses of other players that you can summon and fight in hopes of obtaining pieces of their gear. This was a great mechanic that I’m glad was preserved in the sequel. But what they’ve done now is add a summoning component to this concept. Players can now drop a ceremonial grave wherever they like to be summoned for help by other players. But it’s not the player being summoned actually playing. It’s an NPC based on the build used when the false grave was dropped. Summoning these is so much more convenient than summoning real players. It’s instant for starters. It’s also much easier to control because you can summon anyone regardless of their stats and know exactly who is going to assist you. These summons cost ochoko cups which are easy to come by.
The other great aspect of the new summoning system is the rewards you get for letting people summon you. You need a special consumable item to drop a summon sign but once you have it’s permanent until you drop another one within the same mission. A seemingly unlimited number of players can use it and you get rewards when your NPC is summoned and helps people. The first time I checked, I had already been summoned by 20 people. My one complaint about the system is that the rewards are trash. I didn’t even get 20 rewards even though it said I had helped 20 people. And you don’t get any amrita (the Nioh equivalent of souls) for being summoned in this way. The game should award you at least some amrita based on the amount that the user who summoned you earned while you were assisting them.
Though it’s not a requirement for me, many people would say a sequel needs to do more than just rehash the previous game with better graphics and cleaner gameplay. There needs to be some new mechanic or idea that revolutionizes the way the game works. In the case of Nioh 2, this new mechanic is yokai forms. In the first game you had guardian spirits. These were creatures that enhanced your combat by granting you special buffs and could be used for a god mode sequence that temporarily made you stronger and impervious to damage. It was a good system that worked well and made sense. But it wasn’t epic. Yokai are what make these games interesting. There are countless human enemies in Nioh and no one cares about them. It’s facing and defeating the yokai that matters. But you never felt at their level. Even when defeating them, you still felt like a human in a world of monsters. Now you get to be the monsters.
You still have guardian spirits, but rather than just amp up your normal character with fancy lights like in the first game, you now transform into a yokai when you use your god mode. There are three yokai forms, each with a different combat style. Different guardian spirits are tied to each of the three forms. This means you now have to think about how you want to play the game and choose your guardian spirits accordingly rather than just picking the coolest looking one and forgoing some minor stat boosts or special bonuses. What might even be cooler than your god mode yokai forms are soul core transformations.
Every yokai has a soul and sometimes when you kill them these drop as collectable items, called soul cores. Soul cores allow you to transform into a yokai and unleash a powerful attack that’s signature to that specific yokai. It’s a one off attack that depletes sections of your anima bar based on the cost of the attack. These cores are developed just like gear. You can fuse them with other soul cores to improve them and set up to two at a time for each guardian spirit. Each soul core has its own individual power level and additional buffs. Like with justsu, you have a soul core capacity limit. Each core has a specific cost. You can only equip two that combined don’t go over your cost limit. But that limit is increased as you develop your yokai level. My one complaint is that souls cores seem to have a development cap but it’s not clear when you reach it. You can keep fusing cores to a higher level core even when you stop making progress. Or at least it appears to work that way. There needs to be a clear cap that notifies you when fusing additional cores would be a waste.
Yokai forms also have their own skill grid and are developed just like weapons skills, magic, ninjutsu, and general samurai skills. This new system revolutionizes the gameplay in ways that I’ve only begun to explore in the beta. The god mode now has way more applications outside of boss fights and the individual yokai attacks via soul cores can fundamentally alter your combat style, if you want it to. And maybe most importantly is there is now a reason and reward to fighting the same enemies over and over. Soul cores, like gear, fuse best with souls cores of the same type, which means you have to kill the same yokai to get more of them.
The game’s structure is the same as the first one. Individual stages that are accessed from a world map. There are still twilight mode levels that have you play the same level again with harder enemies and better rewards. And there are still specialty missions such as duels with prestigious warriors. The game is stacked with replay value between the twilight mode, additional character development features, and a plethora of weapons to master. Even without the DLC you’re looking at 50 hours minimum if you don’t cut corners. I’ll also say that at this point the game, or at least the boss fights, seem quite a bit tougher than in the first game. But I’m also willing to admit that there’s a lot of nuance to using yokai forms and attacks that I haven’t figured out yet.
What I wanted from a Nioh sequel is easy to define, but hard to identify. Or at least it was until I tried the Nioh 2 open beta. I wanted the same foundation with a number of slight adjustments, more/another story, and new monsters and stages. That’s all I wanted but Koei Tecmo delivered much more than that. This beta was excellent. I was only going to do the first stage to get the DLC reward and then stop but once I was in I was hooked and ended up doing the second stage as well. Now I have a Soulsborne itch and have to wait till March 2020 to scratch it. Might finally play Dark Souls III in the meantime if I can’t wait that long.