All About That Switchglaive
The further we get from 2011’s Dark Souls, the more egregious it gets to call anything that roughly fits into that mould a “Soulslike”. Sure, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s seminal Action RPG broke the mould as to what players could expect from the genre, with its twisting architecture, steep difficulty curve, reliance on respawn points rather than autosaving and deep but esoteric lore, but there’s been so many different takes on the style since that the subgenre has taken on it’s own life. Last year we saw two vastly different titles released in The Surge 2 and Code Vein that both did their own thing in their own way. Indie games such as Absolver and Ashen are also getting in on the fun, while sidescrollers Blasphemous and Salt & Sanctuary are bringing the mechanics to a very different setting. Back in 2017 we took a look at Nioh, then a PS4 exclusive (it’s since come to PC) from Team Ninja which took things further, breaking the game down into more discreet missions, adding in some mad weapons, magic, ninjitsu and an interesting stamina recovery system, and setting the whole thing in feudal Japan. Well, Team Ninja are back with Nioh 2- how does this prequel to the 9/10 rated original shake things up?
The short answer is “a bit”, but it’s more complicated than that. The original Nioh was arguably the first really successful attempt to ape FromSoftware’s Souls formula, coming a couple of years after Deck 13’s much maligned Lords of the Fallen and a couple of months before their much better received The Surge. Its additions to the genre gave it an energy that surpassed even the more aggressive gameplay of Bloodborne, injecting an almost Monster Hunter esque combo system into its crazy array of giant samurai and ninja weapons. On top of that, the concept of loot was reimagined with a more Diablo like twist, turning all enemies into loot pinatas, ready to be broke open to spill their tasty shinies for the player to snaffle up. This meant that you’d see a lot of similar drops but that each one would come with an attached rareness which offered it unique abilities – this katana may be a bit stronger, but THIS one has lifesteal capabilities – while this randomness maybe irked some players who were more used to other games more rigid item placement for planning builds, it meant that players were constantly able to redefine their strategy, and that it was easier to buy your way out of a rut by simply farming gear to sell for XP.
Nioh 2 takes these changes and expands on them rather than completely reinventing them (looking at you, Dark Souls 2). In addition to the returning weapon types, for example, players can now expect to find the new additions of the dual hatchets and switchglaive in their weapon drops. Now, I’m going to take a moment to stop here. Sure, Nioh 2 has a great array of weapons to choose from for the discerning player, from twin wield blades or tonfa, to “sword on a pole” odachi, but why would you consider any of those when this is a game where the switchglaive exists. Let me explain how the switchglaive works. It’s basically a weapon with three modes that correspond to the three different combat stances. Nioh allows you to take high, mid or low stances, each with differing combo’s, speed and damage outputs and, for the switchglaive, these modes are each drastically different. Low mode sees the blade pulled back to form a short slashing weapon; mid extends the thing into a spear with some beefy combo capabilities and great range, while high… oh boy, high. The blade opens up fully into a huge scythe – with the right combo’s in place this form can deal some serious damage to not only enemies health but also their Ki – the stamina gauge which, once depleted, allow you to get in a critical hit. This balance of health and ki damage feels lifted from last years Sekiro and plays into a lot of the combat, which we’ll come back to later. Basically, what I’m saying is that the switchglaive is badass and Team Ninja would have been better just excising all other weapons from this game and calling it Nioh: Badass Transforming Scythe Edition.
One thing you’ll notice is that I’ve been referring to “the character” a lot. That’s because, unlike the first Nioh with it’s grim faced “British lad in Japan” protagonist, William, players now have full control over their character with a fully fleshed out creation tool. Now you can choose your nationality, gender, build and all the usual things you’d expect from this kind of game; want to make a buff, handsome ninja to tear into your foes? You do that! Want to craft your characters face into some kind of hideous monstrosity that even a mother would have a hard time loving? Go right ahead. The protagonist is called Hide and, in a twist literally revealed in the tutorial mission, is half Yokai – half demon. In a cool move, you can completely customise their alternative Yokai form in the character creator meaning that anyone who likes the fashion game that often goes hand in hand with this genre is in for a treat. In addition, the “spirit weapon” mechanic of the first game has also had a major shakeup.
Once again you are accompanied by a spirit animal companion, but this now has a far more different effect on your character build. One new ability is to be able to take on a Yokai form once a meter has built up to deal big amounts of damage – while in this form you can use your spirit animal to deal a special attack which varies depending on its type. Also new is the Burst Counter, a well timed press of R2 and Circle that can counter certain enemy attacks. This feels very much like the Mikiri counter from Sekiro but this time how the counter works is again tied into the type of Spirit Animal you have accompanying you – some animal’s give you a counter window when the enemy attack winds up, while some require the attack to nearly hit you – how you want this to work is entirely up to the player and gives a lot of customizability potential rather than forcing players to parry in specific ways. The final addition to the Spirit Animal mechanic is the ability to harvest souls of fallen Yokai oponents. These souls or “orbs” can be assigned to one of two ability slots on your spirit animal – in addition to attack and defensive buffs, they also open up special attacks which utilise the Yokai’s abilities. These attacks can be used to reduce the maximum Ki of your opponent, meaning that they become easier to stagger for a critical hit, and are essential for some of the tougher boss fights in the game.
On top of all of this, the skills tree is now far more accessible, with abilities and combos becoming unlockable for specific weapon types as you progress, special ninja and magic abilities available to turn the tide and new passive abilities that you can attach to certain moves to imbue them with elemental damage or give a bonus to XP generation. This leads to a rich character customisation system which turns the game into a hugely compelling experience, especially when the player is rewarded with upgrade points for simply using the abilities at their disposal – turning your character into a badass warrior feels like less of a grind and more of a reward.
Story wise, things are more stripped back in Nioh 2. Your mysterious character has a secret past that’s hinted at from the word go but you’re mostly taking part in a story that unfolds around you. The opening stage is also a huge improvement over the firsts dreary Tower of London escape, a well structured area that teaches you all the basics while not feeling like a tutorial. The game is so well designed that this teaching continues well into the later levels, with enemy encounters giving you a heads up on what to expect from future bosses and gradually getting you into new rhythms and teaching you new attack tells. These kind of games have a reputation for difficulty, but Nioh 2 feels just as accessible as its predecessor.
Of course it’s not just solo play that attracts people to these kind of games – what of jolly cooperation? Well, Nioh 2 has that in spades and it is, once again, a more streamlined experience. While playing you’ll gain Ochoko cup items that allow you to put out a call at any of the shrines in the level you’re currently playing for up to two players to accompany you in your mission. Meanwhile, in the hub world, you can search for players requesting coop and join in their game with the ultimate goal of helping them take down the area’s boss. For struggling players this can be a fantastic boon and it’s always great fun to help others out ganking enemies. On top of that, players will find blue graves dotted around the levels – these are generated by other players who want to leave their “revenant” to help others, and you can spend Ochoko cups and use them to summon in an AI controlled version of that player (or an AI character if you’re playing offline). I found this to be quite hit and miss during my play through – the AI isn’t always great and several times I found it agroing the wrong enemy or standing around while I got pummelled, but for providing a distraction in boss fights they can work well in a pinch. While Nioh 2 doesn’t have PvP per say, you can summon red revenant’s from other players grave’s to battle – defeat them and you can get rare gear, XP and more Ochoko cups. Getting into a habit of summoning red phantoms is great for keeping cups stocked up for future multiplayer needs.
As with the original, Nioh 2 is once again quite the looker. Full of bright colours and characters, it’s areas pop and are fun to explore, adding in new environmental dangers like the “Yokai realm”, areas that have been corrupted by demons and affect your ki regeneration until you take out the offending Yokai. As with the first game you’ve got a couple of modes that either offer a fully 60fps experience with cut down resolution and graphical effects, or a locked 30fps with shinier visuals – personally I found the former to be perfectly servicable and a fantastically zippy way to play what is a brilliant game.