Don’t imitate me

it’s as boring

as the two halves of a melon.

To the Haiku poet Matsu Basho, symmetry was deeply uninspiring. Why limit yourself to forms of expression already dreamed up by another? When Nioh — which draws from the same well of Zen imagery as many of Basho’s poems — released in 2017, it featured an undeniable symmetry with the design trends popularized by the first two Dark Souls games. Stamina-based combat. Relentless, deadly foes. Unforgiving environments.

But to call it a reflection of Dark Souls wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Inspired by Ninja Gaiden and Onimusha, Nioh’s combat was far more expansive, with a higher skill-ceiling but much more flexibility. This depth is even more pronounced in the sequel, and as result, Nioh 2 is a hard sell to anyone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to dedicate themselves. Its unforgiving combat, byzantine equipment system, and systems-heavy character customization are both its greatest assets and the biggest barriers to entry for anyone who just wants to hit a monkey demon with a sword for an hour or so. Which is, I think, most of us.

There’s plenty on the other side of that barrier for which it’s worth crossing. In many cases, Nioh 2’s foes need to be as smart and relentless as they are simply to give the player a reason to utilize all their options. Each of Nioh 2’s nine weapons has three stances — fighting styles you can switch between — each with their own pace, strengths, weaknesses and combos. Each of these three stances has options to flow into the other, offering yet more approaches. The thrill of outsmarting, outmaneuvering and ultimately eviscerating worthy and dangerous foes, looking good while doing it, is one of the game’s big triumphs.

The sequel’s newest addition to the tense, parry-and-counter, stamina-based combat is the option to collect the souls of slain Yokai, supernatural folkloric beings, and use their abilities to turn the tide of battle. You can briefly transform into a giant gorilla, somersault into the air to avoid an incoming attack, and follow up with a throwing spear. Or, close the distance by metamorphosing into a spectral ogre and pummeling your opponent with your gigantic fists. These abilities add variety and visual flair to fights. They also rely on a limited resource and can leave you vulnerable if used at the wrong moment, preventing them from feeling overpowered.

The sequel’s storytelling is far more engaging than the first. Nioh 2 cleverly fictionalizes historical events as though recorded history was filled with mistranslation, amalgamating myth and legend. Your customized demon hunter takes part in key historical events, slaying swaths of demons with famous warlord Oda Nobunaga across an epic campaign. It’s dramatic, silly, and excellent fun, and filled with neat historical touches, like letting you paint your custom character’s teeth black like a Sengoku-era court noble.

Between the ghostly voices whispering of war crimes passed, the bloodied and tortured bodies slumped against smoldering dwellings, and the mythological body horror designs of your Yokai foes, environments can feel oppressively bleak sometimes. To balance this, Nioh 2 introduces a touch of Ghibli-esque whimsy. Adorable Kodama spirits are hidden around each level as collectibles, inviting you to seek them out for helpful bonuses like increased health pickups. Follow the sound of mewing, and you might find a saucer-eyed, chubby cat called a Scampuss, who’ll follow you around and help in combat. These touches, along with a more hopeful tone in many of the story cutscenes, are a welcome reprieve from the darkness while you steel yourself to plunge back in katana-first.

A perhaps less welcome reprieve is the amount of time you’ll spend going through menus. Over the course of a level, you Hoover up tiered equipment like in an MMORPG — a lot of it identical to weaponry and armor you already own, albeit with slight stat tweaks. Most of this will end up being donated at shrines for a resource you can spend on healing items and ammunition, or used at a blacksmith you can access between missions. Along with experience points, and separate skill trees for Ninjitsu abilities like throwing stars and elemental weapon buffs, the options for optimization can become overwhelming. The complexity is compelling, but it can also feel bloated.

Fighting is still what you’ll spend most of your time doing, though. When things go well, combat feels incredibly weighty, responsive and fluid, discouraging button-mashing in favor of a measured approach that still manages to evoke a martial arts movie power fantasy. And an intuitive three-player co-op option transforms Nioh 2 from a cautious, deliberate gauntlet into a riotous — if visually cacophonous — hack n’ slash.

As a devotee of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro, though, I wonder if Nioh 2 has learned some of the wrong lessons from FromSoft’s oeuvre. Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki is always eager to move away from discussions of his work’s infamous difficulty in interviews. Nioh 2’s producer, Fumihiko Yasuda, has unabashedly referred to Nioh 2 as a “Masocore” game, and the game’s often gleefully punishing design supports this. Enemies that appear from nowhere, attacking immediately, can often feel sadistic for sadism’s sake — something the Souls games rarely lean into. It’s never enough to completely sour how enjoyable combat is, but it does often feel like an overzealous, rather than thoughtful, application of difficulty.

Despite this, Nioh 2 is still one of the most accomplished and polished “Soulslikes” to be a bit like Dark Souls since everything became a bit like Dark Souls. Players wanting more from Sekiro’s streamlining, fans of Platinum’s character action games looking for a challenge, and those interested in Japanese history and mythology (who can pull together a couple of friends to push through the tougher parts) should all find something to love here.

Where you stand on difficulty as a design philosophy is going to decide whether the game ends up feeling generous and complex, or like consulting spreadsheets to more effectively learn how to repeatedly head butt the same brick wall for hours. Or, you know, a melon.

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