The best feeling in the world is to try something you weren't initially interested in and end up enjoying it. That's been my story with Nioh 2: I had some friends playing it who seemed to be enjoying it, but I was also trying to pull myself away from difficult games that required a major time sink. In this time of social distancing and staying the fuck home, the last thing I wanted to be was stressed out and also stuck at home. But because I've always been easily persuaded, I gave in and was ready to spend an hour or two on it before moving back to something I could finish quickly. That was, thankfully, not the case.
Nioh 2's character creator, thankfully, is one of the best I've seen, right up there with Code Vein and Black Desert Online. I spent an hour- an entire hour- playing with sliders and features and then saving that character and doing it again. By the end of it, I was more than satisfied with my character, even if my final result was just a few specific tweaks that made her feel more like my own, and it made me so much more invested in the story before it even began. On top of that, at any point, you can return to your hut and change your appearance again, so you aren't locked into it when you realize your ears are a little too big. This should be the standard for all games.
Having skipped over the original Nioh, I was a little worried I would miss out on events from the first game, but actually, Nioh 2 is a prequel. Set during the Sengoku era, you play as Hideyoshi(It should be noted they have the same family name as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the most important figures from this era), a hunter of Yokai, or demons, despite being half Yokai themselves. Early on, there is no grand narrative. You and your merchant partner travel the countryside, hunting Yokai and searching for Spirit Stones. I actually welcomed this small change before it gets into the Sengoku storyline; Once the plot began in earnest in the second chapter, my Hideyoshi had come into their own, and the combat truly began to click. It also helped the game immensely that it wasn't afraid to laugh a little to ease the tension, unlike other games of the same genre.
At this point in my life, I've played every Souls game with mixed degrees of enjoyment. I've played some Souls-esque games on the side, and I'm missing one trophy before getting my platinum trophy in Bloodborne. Throughout every action game, Souls-esque or otherwise, none of them hold a candle to Nioh 2. It's flashy and weighty, deep but at an angle, where the steps you take leads you further and further down becoming your own Yokai slayer. Every attack flows beautifully into another, like a winding river. To put it simply, I've never had so much fun with a game's combat.
There are some beats you've seen before; there is a light and heavy attack, and you can both block and dodge. But those beats are remixed into something different, smooth as jazz but also loud as rock music. Varying those light and heavy attacks is the ability to attack from a high, mid, or low stance, and each of them have their own properties: High stance hits hard, but leave a wide opening if you miss or find yourself without energy; Low stance hits faster and uses less energy, but is much weaker; and Mid stance is safest, but doesn't have the mobility of Low or the damage of High. Each of these stances has their own skill tree with their own special attacks- In Low stance, if I press Triangle at the end of a combo with my dual swords, I will leap over the enemy and slash them from behind, but if I push up and X with my katana, I will use the enemy as a step stool to jump and slash at them.
When it finally clicks, when you begin to understand the nuances behind each swing of your weapon, the game becomes a Samurai film, where you and your blade are the main characters.
You get the skill points needed to learn these new attacks by using your weapons; the more you use them, the more the game rewards you with better ways to use them. There are skill trees for each individual weapon type, plus extra skill trees for magic, ninjitsu, samurai, and yokai abilities. It's a little overwhelming at first, especially when you open it for the first time and see so many skill trees, but once you choose your preferred weapon styles, those are the ones you'll end up focusing on.
Speaking of weapons, there are some action RPG staples- swords, two swords, big swords- and also some unique standouts, like the Kusarigama and the monstrous looking switchglaive. I took the regular sword and dual swords because, well, I've never been a complicated girl. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find out there are also special versions of each weapons: Blessed weapons, which deal purity damage, and my personal favorite, Yokai weapons. Not only do these weapons corrupt enemies, increasing damage to their stamina, but they gain sentience the more you use them, and actually speak to you with repeated use.
I grew fairly attached to my weapons, and the game rewards you for playing favorites; if you continue to use a weapon, they gain familiarity, which increases their stats. I found my first Yokai weapon after beating a boss, and I loved the visual effects it had when I drew it from its sheath. I won't lie, I did feel like a bit of an anime character with my glowing sword, growing in strength with me as we slew more and more Yokai. It sounds silly, but it made me feel good, to have that extra sense of identity with my character. And that connection it gave me kept me playing even when it was pushing me to my limit.
So we're absolutely clear, Nioh 2 is one of those games where most attacks are capable of sending you to the afterlife without a second thought. Everything will happily kill you in a couple swings if you aren't careful. I spent the first hour of this game being rather grumpy about how often things were going wrong. At first glance, it is another Souls-esque game intended to crush your spirit time and time again.
Nioh 2 is different, though. Nioh 2 wants you to succeed.
The tutorials explain all of the mechanics fairly well. There are practice dojos that teach you about the advanced techniques like magic and ninjutsu. Rather than throw you into the deepest part of the ocean and hope for the best, it gives you a playground of tools to practice as you see fit. It does not make the adventure easy on you, but it also does not want to give up.
I think that is why Nioh 2 succeeds on a level beyond similar games. Playing other Souls games feels like bashing your head on a brick wall, where you do it over and over again until the wall falls. Nioh 2 is difficult, but it's also fair. There are no doors that lead to nowhere or monuments to the number of deaths received, but you will need to push yourself more than other games of the same ilk. This is one of the few games where I'm fine with that, because this game wants to see me win so much more than it wants to see me fail.
When not, well, not doing anything because she can't go outside right now, Natalie 'Lyneriaa' Raine can be found still not doing anything on twitter @Lyneriaa.