It is pretty hard for a direct sequel to outshine its predecessor. There have been several instances of this with films (of course, subject to opinion). Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Godfather Part 2, The Dark Knight, and others all found ways to build on the lore of the original and simultaneously improve various aspects in filmmaking. In video games, it’s more of a rarity, but still occurs. Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2-4, and Portal 2 are some notable examples. Nioh 2 doesn’t quite fall into this same category, as it takes place before the events of the first game. Regardless, it’s still a sequel in a general sense. It expands on the backstory of the in-game universe, showcases improved graphics, and adds new mechanics and abilities.
The opening cinematic portrays a time in ancient Japan where humans and yokai (spiritual beings, typically demons) coexist, but only for a brief amount of time. The humans denounce the yokai, leading to death and destruction. Wanting to bring an end to this reoccurring nightmare, one of the villagers forges a blade comprising of magical stones, able to cut the demon down. Without spoiling anything, the player’s journey begins after seeing these events transpire. Throughout the game, beautiful cinematics like the formerly mentioned one provide backstory and character development. The facial animations are astounding, and the landscape isn’t far behind. However, the story isn’t very engrossing, so it’s easy to admire the beauty and not really pay attention to every word of the plot.
Gameplay is extremely similar to Nioh. Seemingly, Japanese developer Team Ninja went with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to their sequel, but did add some new features. The most obvious one is the new “burst counter” mechanic. This forces you to properly time a counter attack to stun-lock an opponent. If mistimed or not performed at all, you’ll receive massive damage, or even death. Fortunately, a very strong visual aid (literally a big glowing red animation) lets you know what’s coming.
There’s also more variety in the new yokai shift mechanic. Nioh 2 allows players to choose a Brute, Feral, or Phantom type, which vary greatly from each other in combat and appearance. Want to be a bruiser? Go Brute. Want to unleash a rapid flurry of attacks that will leave the enemy’s head spinning? Go Feral. Want to space yourself from the enemy and unleash a ton of projectile damage? Go Phantom. Combine that with the soul core mechanic, which allows you to trigger fallen enemy’s attacks, and there’s a ton of flexibility. About a third of the way through the game, you’re allowed to equip two Guardian Spirits at the same time, allowing for even more flexibility.
Another standout is the new character creation. The only character choice at the beginning of the first Nioh is William Adams, a blonde sailor from England. Nioh 2 allows full customization right off the bat, but also allows players with save data from Nioh to transform to William if they desire. The sequel also adds several new weapons, providing more variety to playstyles and preferences. The switchglaive and hatchets are brand new additions, whereas the odachi and tonfa appeared as DLC options in the first Nioh, but were not in the base game. New enemies, bigger levels, and an expansion on the Guardian Spirit mechanic round out what’s new here. But do these additions do enough to make Nioh 2 stand out?
In short, no. The first hour or so felt so similar to Nioh (aside from the cinematics), it was hard to tell the difference. Even well into the game, it didn’t really feel like Nioh 2, but more like Nioh DLC or Nioh 1.5. This is partly because of familiar, albeit larger, playable levels. The level design feels so similar to the original game combined with areas being recycled for slightly different missions, also like the original game, that deja vu occurred constantly. Combined with repetitive enemies, the feeling was intensified.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The game is truly beautiful to look at. The character design, landscapes, and animations bounce between gorgeous and spectacular. The various unique bosses also showcase great designs. And there is nothing like the feeling of beating an extremely challenging, but not cheap or unfair, boss. The subsequent feeling of accomplishment is rarely matched from other genres. And even if you do falter to an enemy or boss, the extremely quick load times are a welcomed treat. On a PS4 Pro, it literally only takes a couple of seconds to get back into the action, which frankly is incredible.
Maybe the genre is starting to decline, or maybe Nioh 2 just doesn’t do quite enough to stand out from its predecessor. The end result is a game that feels too familiar all the way through with fleeting moments of originality. That being said, it is still worth it for diehard Soulsborne fans and/or lovers of the original Nioh. But newcomers would be better off starting with Bloodborne, Nioh, or the original Dark Souls.