I am begging Team Ninja to make a game that has less content and replayability and I'm
not joking. There's a certain thrill to seeing a decently-budgeted game so unabashedly janky and
giving so few fucks about a coherent narrative in 2021, even after the Souls series that serve as
half of its mutant parentage delivered that same rush a decade prior. I really am going to try my
best to avoid comparison to Souls as much as I can for this, especially unfavorable comparison,
because ultimately Nioh 2 is going for something markedly different despite surface-level
Despite this disclaimer, I can’t escape comparing the two on a focus and aesthetic level
with full knowledge that this isn’t up to FROM’s level. Fromsoft willingly sacrificed a lot of game
design best practices in favor of further establishing its world, and it paid off in spades - the
Souls games are carried much harder by their atmosphere than their mechanical fundamentals,
and the puzzle-box joy of pushing through the labyrinthine, shortcut-studded maps is rewarded
as much with the prospect of finding a new discovery around the corner as much as it is the
feeling of having made progress through a video game level.
There’s a palpable sense of oddness in Souls that’s equivalents feel abstracted in Nioh 2,
every interaction given a discrete and mechanical reward: the lore in the side of a level is
delivered in voiceover while you’re showered in loot, the strange critters in the corners give you
more healing and other buffs instead of wriggling and dying when you poke them, and the
inscrutable leveling system is balanced by a perk-based progression system that, while
overwhelming in scope, offers clear options at any given level with goals to work towards. These
are Objectively Good Game Design Changes, giving a mechanical incentive to fight, level, and
explore in a way that ties things back into the core loop of fight-equip-grow-fight.
However, this mechanics-forward focus also belies its comparative dearth of
atmosphere; I fully cop to missing out on a lot of what’s happening due to living in a
non-Japanese milieu, the narrative especially assuming *much* more familiarity with its
participants than the average braindead burger-chowing motherfucker like me can claim. Maybe
with a better understanding of the era and its players I’d appreciate the repetitious aesthetics of
abandoned village/shrine/castle, the plot that has timeskips where nothing much actually
happens, the characters and cutscenes rendered so impressively lifelessly that I absorb more
information from the recaps in your hut than I do the actual events I witnessed...
But this is a digression from the meat of the game. What it cares about is squarely its
combat mechanics and all the things that affect them, and on this front it’s incredible. Fights in
this game shine, giving a satisfyingly high-APM fusion of Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls that
somehow works effortlessly despite the opposing styles. The weapon variety is incredible before
you consider the way that stances further affect playstyle and encounters, and there’s this sense
of flow when you manage it all that hits better than any drug on the market.
Many people better at video games than I are probably better at describing why this game
works as well as it does - and to be honest, despite the moments described above, I really chafe
because the game does its damndest to inhibit you from reaching that flow. Nioh 2 doesn’t care
about its plot as much as it makes you think it does, but Nioh 2 also doesn’t care about its loot as
much as it makes you think it does, and it doesn’t care about the stats on your guardian spirit as
much as it makes you think it does, and it doesn’t care about the stat ups upon getting new titles
as much as it makes you think it does, and it doesn’t care about crafting and upgrading your
items as much as it makes you think it does.
There’s a lot that Nioh 2 screams and shouts about, plastering your screen in arrows,
numbers, menus and sub-menus, managing items and materials and statistics, and *none of
that shit matters at all.* There’s a good ten to fifteen percent of any given level where you’re just
managing *shit that doesn’t matter.* Between levels you’re treated to cutscenes that *don’t
matter.* Then you go to sell loot that *doesn’t matter* to get money that *doesn’t matter.* Then
you level up and put points in stats that *barely* matter. Then, you finally pick a level, scroll
through a description that *doesn’t matter,* glance to check the reward that *barely matters* (at
least 80% of the time), and then get plopped into a new level where you begin the actual game
that is fun to play.
At least, it’s fun for a good while. Nioh 2 is so terrified to give any impression that it’s
anything less than a behemoth. There’s a good twenty main missions in the game, an ungodly
number of side missions and side bosses, and probably an infinitude of stuff I will never know, all
spread between seven regions on the world map. Each map takes a decent while to clear, and
most estimations peg the game’s total length as roughly comparable to watching the first five
seasons of Columbo twice over.
To its credit, the game’s levels are generally pretty fucking good! Except for the incredibly
annoying knowledge traps and enemy placements, instantly killing you with poorly-telegraphed
boulders and spikes, enemies dropping from above with a three-frame grab that does 80% of
your health in one blow, and a nagging sense of smugness from the level designer. There’s no
real line between fun dickery in a level and annoying dickery in a level other than the player’s own
feelings, but Nioh 2 felt consistently on the “shambler on the side of the bridge you came from”
side of the Romero Fuckery scale instead of the Doom 1 Episode 1 side, if that comparison
makes any sense at all.
Bosses generally fare better, from what I’ve seen - there was an obvious stinker with the
grab-spamming snake whose arms sometimes decide to do an unblockable attack that brings
you close to them, and then it sometimes decides to do a borderline-undodgeable (unless you
do something incredibly unintuitive) grab attack immediately afterwards, but *in general* the
bosses are an absolute highlight of the game. Good presentation, a great sense of desperation
and back-and-forth as you shift between human and yokai realms, it’s all really great stuff.
I just wish I could say that it never got old.