The measure of Soulslike is not the would possibly of its (Nameless) kings, however the deviousness of its pawns. Marquee adversaries like Ornstein and Smough would possibly command the lion’s share of Youtube uploads, however they don’t seem to be, or should not be, the belongings you actually dread. Nioh 2 gives loads of bosses, most plucked from the grottier tracts of Japanese folklore and all endowed with the power to shift the proceedings into the “yokai” or spirit realm, the place their assaults are extra ferocious – a nifty variation on the thought of boss phases. My standouts embrace an enormous owl demon who periodically turns off the lights, forcing you to trace the creature by its obtrusive pink eyes. But this terrific, if conservative and overloaded follow-up to 2017’s mix of Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls is not actually concerning the giants. It’s concerning the soiled little bastards within the undergrowth, the rank-and-file grunts with tips up their sleeves.

For occasion: you will meet a demon hag whose talents embrace a form of arthritic spin assault, cackling and flailing round as if attempting to free herself from a web. It’s simply evaded and reasonably foolish, extra senior second than particular transfer. Often, it ends with the hag tumbling over in a heap. But typically, it ends along with her bowling a knife at your head. Elsewhere you will encounter bandits who’re simple prey until they’re about to die, whereupon they’re going to Hulk out and wrestle you to the ground, and deceptively polished samurai who’re host to demons that spit hearth and poison.

Worst of all, although, are the pot-bellied Gollum equivalents who infest the sport’s Sengoku Japan setting, a world of cherry-blossom villages, spoiling castles and torchlit carrion fields. It’s not simply that they are keen on taking part in useless close to treasure. It’s not simply that they spew paralysing fluid if you punch them too laborious, or that they generally accompany bigger threats – bouncing stones off your cranium like unruly youngsters as you duck beneath blows that may kill you immediately. It’s that if you knock one flat, one other could pounce on and devour it, tripling in measurement. You skitter out of attain, and whoops, it seems a kind of hags was lurking in a closet behind you. These are the reversals that actually set Soulslikes aside, the moments when no quantity of levelling, gear bonuses, abject pleading or apoplectic rage can cease you dying by the hands of the very first enemy kind you killed, 40 hours earlier than.

If Nioh 2 is filled with such surprises, it isn’t a shocking sequel. Branding it Nioh 1.5 is an excessive amount of, however that is positively a case of ornamenting the grip reasonably than altering the blade (forgery nerds, be happy to chime in right here with a extra apposite comparability). Set earlier than the primary sport’s occasions, it casts you as Hide, a custom-created adventurer with yokai blood – a trait that permits you to wield the talents of slain demons and briefly assume yokai type your self. Early on you fall in with a wandering ragamuffin, Tokichiro, who embroils you in a quest for fame and fortune.

The gimmick is that you simply’re enacting the key historical past of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the real-life daimyo credited with unifying a wartorn Japan, who on this retelling was really two folks. The actual Hideyoshi’s feats embrace confiscating swords from throughout Japan and melting them down right into a statue of the Buddha – a supply of some irony right here, given that you’re going to spend a lot of Nioh 2 questioning easy methods to eliminate all of the worn-out gear filling your stock. The first sport was hardly feted for its storytelling and the second gives a lot the identical, lavish however scatter-brained mixture of interval celebrities, eccentrics and pantomime manipulators. The dialogue and performing are sparky, however there’s little narrative spine. Ultimately, it is only a bunch of interludes stuffed right into a marketing campaign the place you choose most important and facet missions from a Total War-style overworld view.

Returning gamers will discover Nioh 2 seems to be and handles principally as was, give or take some extra lifelike animations and a richer color palette. From Souls, Nioh derives the thought of dropping your collected XP on the level of demise, granting you a single alternative to recuperate it, along with moody, winding ranges pegged collectively by shrines filled with pleasant sprites who restore you whereas additionally resurrecting non-boss enemies. Unlike in Souls, these are individually loaded areas, however they’re ruled by an identical emphasis on unlockable shortcuts. Most include three or 4 shrines positioned close to doorways that have to be opened from the opposite facet, as soon as you’ve got fought your method spherical to it. The main geographical change-ups over Nioh are darkish zones the place the border between mortal and yokai realm has collapsed. Shrines and treasure chests are off limits, right here, until you’ve got purged the midboss liable for the psychic overspill.

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To Ninja Gaiden, in the meantime, the sport owes its elaborate melee fight system, with dozens upon dozens of weapon-specific combos backed up by ninja instruments equivalent to poisoned shuriken, Onmyo spells equivalent to fireballs or lifesteal, and the nuclear choices conferred by your character’s Guardian Spirit. Of the weapon varieties – axe, katana, twin blades, switchglaive, spear, odachi, tonfas, kusarigama, hatchets, switchglaive – solely the final two are new, and the rest recycle most of their combos, parries and specials from the primary sport. Each weapon will be wielded in three stances with diverging movesets: excessive stance trades velocity for energy, low stance energy for velocity, and center is… within the center.

The supporting role-playing methods are primarily as earlier than however with much more meat on them. Besides spending “amrita” or XP to degree up stats that correspond to weapon varieties, and allocating factors to every weapon class’s sprawling unlock tree, you construct Familiarity with particular person weapons that allows you to deal extra injury with them. This encourages you to grasp each, reasonably than casting it apart the second you discover a rarer specimen with greater base capabilities – which in my expertise, occurs roughly each couple of minutes. To all that, add armour results like well being regen if you imbue your assaults with the water aspect, along with the bonuses afforded by your alternative of Guardian spirit. It’s rather a lot to swallow, and that is earlier than you begin combining and forging your individual tools between missions, transferring bonuses to higher-level blades or dismantling them for components.

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A task-player this top-heavy wants one thing to catalyse the feelings within the second. That factor is as soon as once more Nioh’s intelligent redefinition of stamina as “ki”, the all-pervading important vitality from Japanese martial arts. Swing a weapon and you may scatter ki into the air, like sparks from a torch. Exhaust the bar and you will be unable to carry out any motion in any respect, not even the sagging blows that end result if you empty the tank within the Souls video games. Take successful on this state and you will be surprised for couple of seconds, alternative sufficient for just about any opponent to complete you off. So you do your greatest to maintain the bar full – not simply retreating and dropping your guard to regain poise, however tapping R1 as ki leaves your physique to suck it again in.

Doing this additionally dispels puddles of ki-sapping static conjured by demons – bosses, particularly, slop this vampiric substance throughout, forcing you to nail these pulses or persist with uncontaminated areas. Ki restoration is not as all-important as it might sound, or as difficult to drag off – should you’re struggling to stir it into your combos, there are unlocks that set off ki pulses if you dodge or carry out different routine actions. But the system offers your presence on this world a sure poetic cost. It’s not nearly catching your breath to be able to clobber anyone along with your axe, however aligning interior and outer equilibriums, changing into one along with your setting – and clobbering anyone along with your axe whilst you’re at it.

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The weapons themselves are a pleasure to wield, whether or not you are crushing enemies into the ground with the odachi’s 12-foot blade or wrapping them within the kusarigama’s chain. The new toys aren’t transformative however have their share of deadly quirks: the hatchets will be thrown, returning to your palms by magic, whereas the switchglaive (a nod to Bloodborne) unfolds from a rapid-slicing razor right into a sweeping polearm and a scythe for messy finishers. I’m much less satisfied by the brand new yokai talents, that are outfitted by plugging cores dropped by demons into your Guardian spirit. The potentialities vary from yanking an infinite flaming hammer out of your backpocket, to bursting by means of the bottom as a legless ogre.

They’re good enjoyable visually, however some are far more helpful than others, and their tactical functions are blunt – both dealing a ton of harm directly or attempting to stagger a foe (or each). Demon cores additionally add to the stress in your stock, which regularly noticed me dumping helmets and cuirasses by the roadside (a much less wasteful method of shedding weight is to commerce weapons for forex at shrines). I even have combined emotions concerning the new yokai transformations, which exchange Nioh’s Living Weapons. Each of the three yokai kinds has its personal weapons, moveset and a “Burst” counter to be used towards extra devastating assaults which might be pre-empted by a boiling pink glow. There’s one other layer of talent right here, however I principally used transformations to spam my method out of corners or end bosses I could not be bothered to homicide scientifically.

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In basic I really feel like Nioh 2 is reasonably bloated, a sense that intensifies over the course of the sport as you spend much less time clashing with monsters and extra time taming the hydra-headed spreadsheet equation that’s character customisation. I used to be dismayed to search out, 30 hours in, that I’d unlocked one more layer – a kind of summary “clan battle” modes the place you be a part of and donate gadgets to a faction in return for passive bonuses. A person could tire of passive bonuses, even when he isn’t on deadline. More controversially, this function appears to have taken the place of normal PvP, although that is made up for by the expanded co-op choices. (Update: as a reader factors out, the clan battle mechanic was within the unique sport too, with PvP coming later through DLC.) You can now summon the AI-controlled shades of different gamers as each opponents and allies – useful certainly when there’s no one on-line that can assist you by means of a bossfight, although the AI is simply too inept to function greater than a distraction.

The extra you play, too, the extra you discover the challenge administration that constructions the degrees. Each has its guiding conceit, equivalent to a central elevator or a community of dams that expose patches of loot-rich riverbed when lowered. But the cadence of shrines and shortcuts, non-obligatory areas and boss chambers is identical all through, which slowly erodes the curiosity generated by the sport’s in any other case absorbing structure. In Dark Souls, the world is an interlocking, eldritch conundrum. In Nioh 2, it is a sequence of fiendish puzzle packing containers. Engrossing and oppressive, for certain, however not that startling or intriguing.

Hence, maybe, my delight when some grubby spearman in home-made armour catches me off guard. It’s the dose of adrenaline an oversaturated sport wants, like discovering a razor blade inside your seventh slice of wedding ceremony cake. Nioh 2 is a piece of immense talent and scale, however Team Ninja’s subsequent challenge must be extra about altering issues than including them. After all, no quantity of apparatus buffs can shield you towards the aspect of shock.