February 29th, 2020 — Washington state health officials made the first announcement of a death from COVID-19 in the United States. I tend to keep up with global news for the sake of avoiding the skew of insulated propaganda as best I can so, I guess I’d figured a lockdown was coming due to the situation arisen in Italy and other countries. At this point my significant other and I realized we were privileged enough to stay (and work from) home for nearly three full months beyond a few basic trips for necessities. My first thought was admittedly callous and rotten in retrospect: “No problem, I’ll have plenty of time to play my pre-order of Nioh 2“. I honestly didn’t think about family, societal implications, worry about money, or employment but instead mentally made sure I’d have enough entertainment during this “stay at home” order. This could be the sort of thought my lazy, sleep-deprived mind could’ve ignored but from my point of view it suggested a pretty raw symptom of ailing empathy, dry cynicism, and the approach of earnest nihilism in view of enforced isolation. Beyond the realization that I am probably more antisocial than is necessary at my age what troubled me even more, down to the very core of my being, was that… Well, Nioh 2 wasn’t even good.
Sure, when you think you’re in for an ~80-120 hour third person action RPG game from a newer series that initially featured satisfying customization options and high-stakes gameplay with incredible co-op fun to be had… the thought that there is no way “more of the same” could possibly go wrong is entirely natural — I knew what to expect, I planned on putting serious time into the game, and ultimately it was an irreparably mediocre, soulless and tedious as all Hell video game experience. Sure, I bought the special edition with all of the DLC ensuring that I could play all three expansions and eventually reach that 120 hour in-game mark but, the sequel to my Game of the Year in 2017 is nonetheless a fuckin’ flop that I cannot muster any serious fealty for despite spending nearly 90 hours with its main storyline. Am I just being stuck up? Was it the wrong game at the wrong time? Is it a matter of expectations versus reality? No. Yes. Probably. Even if all of those things were true I have never sat with a game for so long and still not been even slightly won over by its charm, gameplay, or some intrinsically valuable quality. So, this time around I am going to be as brief as I can (hah!) without belaboring the point: Nioh 2 is a mediocre, tedious, and ugly video game with all the charm of wet underwear on an overcast day.
Remember when Tecmo Koei gave developer Spark Unlimited and the now seemingly cursed Keiji Inafune the keys to the ailing Ninja Gaiden reboot era and they came up with the atrocious cel-shaded monstrosity of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z? It was a cheapening estrangement for the series that is widely considered one of the worst games of all time; It dampened the possibility of further titles and… Well, I’d like to suggest that this game is nearly as ugly and poorly designed from an aesthetic standpoint as that game was, but it isn’t a complete failure. Brutally dark (as in, lighting) for at least eighty percent (at least ~30-40 hours regardless of completionist tendency) of the experience and lit by fucking ever-glowing orange, yellow and purple neon fucking coloration alongside a “period” anime art style that builds upon the wackiness of the first game, Nioh 2 is grotesquely tacky as a visual experience. Think of the switch from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 where the user inferface/HUD reached Playstation 2-game sized anime cheese and the graphical style went so off the rails anime with screen covering mega-combo indicators and flaming special attack bars that it became the antithesis of the simple high-fantasy austerity of its predecessor. This is the core sickness that ruins Nioh 2‘s first impression beyond the Character Customization screen, since you are a silent and ineffectual protagonist: Rolling cat balls, goofy big-head Yokai, the overall aesthetic wants desperately to be considered more than a Souls-like, in fact it seems as if the designers would like a Monster Hunter-esque product that they can iterate upon cheaply and quickly in the coming years.
Believe it or not I followed along with every aspect of the original Nioh‘s storyline, I played through the game twice along with all of the DLC and it remains one of my favorite games in recent years for its elaborate gear and weapon options, customizable movesets, deep upgrade system, and myriad combat options which allow for multiple specialties and many ‘last gasp’, skin-of-my-teeth moments. Nioh 2 seems intent on subverting every aspect of that original game for the sake of creating a ‘lowest common denominator’-fed user-friendly experience that cannot be easily cheesed with a quick YouTube tutorial on ‘broken’ builds. The first mistake they’ve made is multiplying the customization factor by three and then discouraging experimentation through grind-heavy resource needs. You’ll pick one of three demon types (the “Revenant System”) which have alignment with certain types of Yokai Soul Cores (hearts enemies drop) which you can equip onto your Guardian Spirits to buff them with stats and effects which… buff you with stats and effects as you level them up with duplicate cores that drop at higher levels. So, the only way this system can work is if you get level 15 cores from one enemy type and continue to get those same cores up to level 150+. What does that indicate immediately? Either they’re going to reuse enemy types for the entire game or you are going to have to grind them when/if they show up. Keeping the details brief: Every aspect of improvement, be it gear or weapons or stats, requires several layers of endlessly repetitive action to achieve. In this sequel they’ve simply multiplied the randomization of drops and the number of specific options needed, creating maddening tedium and lower gains overall.
Loot. I know, I love the loot loop of series like Diablo for the simple satisfaction of nabbing gear off a thousand corpses and buying whatever I wanted with the spoils. Nioh 2 allows you to carry up to 500 items at once and the average level might provide 250-300 items since the stages are quite big and range from 30 minute hikes to two hour experiences; This largely depends on how big you are on getting collectibles (Kodama, primarily). What is the best use of all of this loot? Debatable! You can grind out a particular set of gear for the bonuses that full sets offer, you can upgrade with it as currency or “item stat matching” at the forge, you can boil it down to currency (raw materials, money, amrita), or you can use it as tribute to Kodama which will net you a surplus of amrita and important usable healing items and ammunition. Since you’ll be hitting up the Hidden Tea House with plenty of Honor points (currency for beating AI controlled player grave sites, or for helping other players) and you can basically randomly generate high rarity items the loot that you pick up is essentially useless early on unless you are farming a boss encounter for a specific set. All of this loot dissolution into several major funnel points becomes a constant and repetitive task once you’ve built up a decent set at a decent level, I ended up donating it all to the Kodama so that I could always auto-regenerate my healing items and ammunition when visiting save shrines. The automatic nature of this replenishment at the “Kodama store” was a recent update and you originally had to buy each item one by one. Tedious stuff if you needed Ochoko Cups to use multiplayer modes. Major point made: Every aspect of Nioh 2 relies on several layers of currency and grinding for character progress, there are few avenues to ‘gaming’ the system and you’ll have to brute force your way through specialty via grinding. The only way to make this fun to use the multiplayer modes and features extensively.
The gameplay itself is entirely unchanged from Nioh beyond a new counter system (parrying is unchanged, still tied to move-sets) where the timing involved is tied to your choice of one of three Revenant types (Yokai forms) at the start of the game. Brute (“Warrior”) – a mid-to-fast backhand parry, slow but strength-heavy attacks. Feral (“Rogue”) – a floaty but fast counter strike, combo heavy attacks. Phantom (“Mage/Ranged”) – projectile based burst attacks, the more difficult choice due to lack of counter ease and low damage for mobs. Each type has their own realm shifting ability where you cross to the Yokai realm, turn into your Revenant form and attack the enemy with enhanced (upgradeable) effects for an incredibly brief period of time that is generally under-powered. This is your bout of invincibility in boss fights and encounters in addition to the “get out of jail free card” of activating your Guardian Spirit and getting a bunch of invincibility frames as the animation plays. Yes, as you can imagine the game becomes incredibly easy with these options until the bosses life bars become sizable in response to your progress. The Yokai Shift is oddly weakened within Yokai Realm infested areas of the game which are presented in black-and-grey tones, you must purify these by defeating all of the enemies in that designated area without dying or saving at a shrine. In the Yokai realm your Ki (endurance) regains at half speed and it is generally the most challenging aspect of the game. Most bosses have their own Yokai shift mechanic where they will grow stronger, faster, or gain new moves including loudly telegraphed Demon Burst attacks which you can counter with devastating results using a Revenant specific parry/counter, a demon burst of your own. So, you’ll be looking for bright red flashes at enemies cores and making sure you can time your counter attack well enough or, you’ll die. You’ll still do weapon-based Ki pulses to clear pools of corruption and stun enemies but the game designers have left this mechanic from Nioh behind for the most part. The most important takeaway here is: Nioh‘s sequel is no longer a game of dodging, movement, and spacing for weapon types. All of it now boils down to waiting for counter opportunities and building up your gauges for special attacks. No amount of Ki stat boosting will allow you to dodge and roll your way through the game, so I chose a Brute revenant form because it was the fastest and easiest to time Demon Burst counter.
Maybe you’ll have the sense to try all the weapons and switch gears? I mean you’re given a number of choices to start when selecting two primary weapons from each type introduced over on the first game (including the DLC stuff: Odachi, kusarigama, switchglaive etc.) so I’d chosen the spear + katana combo thinking I could eventually switch it up a la Nioh. This turned out to be a big mistake because it meant my playthrough amounted to 80+ more hours of the same weapons — I only used my main weapon (Spear) as there is no advantage to pouring resources into two. Weapons and skills gain upgrade points based off of specific use so, intrepid players will level up until they can two-shot enemies in a larger level then replay that level about 15-20 times using the same type of techniques over and over. Why? Because difficulty isn’t accounted for in skill point accumulation and leveling, only number of actions. Remember jumping through the entirety of Oblivion? You should do that here with your counter and main weapon, hit every enemy with everything, spend all of your ammo and fire off every skill. Transform constantly, don’t conserve anything because you’ll be under-leveled in some aspects by the end. You will hit a wall for weapon-specific skill points after level 30 where you’ll have filled out roughly half of your primary weapon type specific skill tree; These are unfortunately gated by useless choices (throwaway selections that are forced) as if it were Path of Exile without the myriad content and constant leveling to back the system up. You get the point: Every aspect of Nioh 2 is gated by some manner of grind and the rewards begin to slow if you’ve made any cursory decisions with your build. You can reset your choices with items which are made readily available this time around rather than being gated by huge monetary purchases but… you want to buy a lot because it upgrades your shop/blacksmith abilities when you spend money. Anyhow, use everything and go ham constantly. There is no reward for conservatism in Nioh 2.
Customizing your move-set is initially confusing due to combat options becoming more complex this time around. There is no default or “auto-assign” option so you’ll have to purchase the right moves from the skill tree then exit that screen to the action customization area to hopefully remember the move you selected and place it under the right stance. Switching stances is even more key this time around due to enemies generally being larger with their weak points being almost uniformly their head or back so, slower high-stance attacks (in my case, with the Spear) become the most efficient but risky way to take out larger enemies. If you are like me and just want to play the whole game in mid-stance the developers have more or less made it mandatory that you’ll switch it up as you can’t get anywhere on the skill tree if you don’t break from mid-stance: Too many things are gated if you specialize. The horrendous reality of slogging through Nioh 2 reveals itself — You are forced to do ‘a bit of everything’ in a game with too much of everything and without the resources available to do -half- of it. It is a grind, and the mental rewards for 2-3 hour gameplay sessions amounted to maybe a new weapon or a minor stat increase which came with the feeling of treading water for the sake of an asinine story and an ugly game. Why grind when I could just press on through the story and probably just cheese it by inviting better players in to win for me? As I spent more time with the game the choice became more binary for me, and since the godawful prequel storyline is so limited in personality and scope due to your character being unvoiced there was little to care about beyond powering up to beat bosses quickly and get it over with. This amounted to doing side quests to boost the minutiae of currency types and combat options, adding different useless Guardian Spirits, and gaining unique armor/weapon sets as well as the ability to craft their archetypes from a random generator. Nioh 2 is too big to curate around a narrative and just when the story begins to hit an interesting note (the reveal of the final hidden ‘castle’ area) it all feels like far too little, too late. Dark, ugly, convoluted, a poor storyteller, unrewarding, and spread across 82 missions, 63 boss fights, and nearly 90 hours of gameplay I finally had to admit defeat by the hands of Nioh 2. When the final cut-scenes played, I skipped them out of apathy.
Yes, I played it ALL and saw it ALL through to the end simply for the sake of beating an invisible enemy — I did so to feel a sense of triumph during a very real time of personal defeat and nah, it wasn’t therapeutic in the slightest. Escapism through a video game during an intense period of human suffering is not mental health nor is it reasonable self-preservation for any sensible adult. The main reason I took nearly five months to beat this game was frankly because video games stopped mattering to me during that period. Nioh 2 has the unfortunate fate of showing up in my life at the exact wrong time and committing the sin of being fucking average as hell when it did. It is a bloated, cheap sequel which everyone’d seen coming and buying into it meant I’d spend months with a task to complete that I’d not had the spirit or the drive to take seriously. It made for an endless corridor of banal suffering without any true “art” to its torturous ways. The bright side? Well, you’ll get at least 60-80 hours out of the game. If filling a void in your life with replay value is important to you, this is an alright way to do it. I might sound sour as fuck but it was “alright“, man. The first Nioh game is certainly better by my own standard and games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and The Surge 2 probably offer a more reasonable gameplay loop, be it exploration + reward or customization grinding with sensible limits but Nioh 2 is just slightly more… new and uh, anime? By all means, there are certainly worse ways to kill time.
|GENRE(S):||Third-Person Action RPG|
|RELEASE DATE:||March 13th, 2020|
|PUBLISHER:||Sony Interactive Entertainment|
|PLATFORM REVIEWED:||Playstation 4 Pro|
|“Banal, soul-less iteration.“||Average recommendation.|
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