Games can be intimidating, thinking about them can be exhausting and daring to commit to a printed opinion about a work as dense as Nioh 2 feels akin to offering a reach around to a cliff edge. This may be an intellectually worthless position to hold, but I can’t shake my anxiety of feeling ill-equipped to comment on the game as a holistic experience enough to discard said position. After all, Nioh 2 is a gigantic, crunchy systems-heavy behemoth of a game that boasts a precision-focused yet creativity inspiring stance switching combat system that through masterful use of the game’s unique stamina system can scratch a longstanding Dark Souls itch of embracing the improvisational aggression of a character action game.
Except that last sentence is a bunch of clown honking sense if you, like me, decide to play a significant portion of the game stuck in the beefy damage high attack stance tossing axes at ghouls from a distance, then run away giggling to yourself repeating the process until they’re softened up enough for a couple of easy low risk slashes.
Since it’s impossible to make a snide observation like that on the internet about an action game without someone sliding into the comments to inform you that “you’re playing it wrong”; here is my admission that I am indeed playing the game wrong. “Soulslikes”, for lack of an acceptable term, are ideal podcast games for me due to their focus on exploration, repetition, patterns with a lack of vital audio and narrative. Therefore I’m prone to play them slow and steady in the most relaxing form possible with decade old episodes of the Bryan and Vinny Show on in the background. I have beaten Dark Souls 2 and Dark Souls 3 without ever equipping a shield, I have beaten BloodBorne twice and have never done a successful parry in my life, and you can bet if any of these games had a stat for “Cowardice” then I would be backstabbing and resetting the closest enemy to the checkpoint for hours until that puppy was maxed out.
None of this is designed to be a weird flex about outsmarting the intended design, nor is it a rebellious push back against obnoxious “get gud” culture, these playing habits of mine make the part of my brain that once prided itself on large scale holistic breakdowns of games want to cry. It doesn’t matter whether my method of play is “wrong”, but I can’t shake the idea that I’m doing a game and somehow myself a disservice by not engaging with it properly. In this era of online discourse hell where folks will bicker about what entries in a genre or which games released in an arbitrary 12 month period are the “best ones” it’s easy to develop an unhealthy fear that pumping dozens of hours into a videogame and not having a coherent take ready by the end of that is a waste of time.
Still, there’s always a way to spin your personal experience to make it interesting. I could sing the praises of Nioh 2 for meticulously crafting a deep combat engine that is still flexible enough for players to form their own personal style of cheesy play. Cheese is a wonderful element to churn into the equation of these games, sure you might feel like a jerk when you go for the easy big damage of the plunging attack on a giant cyclops then run away to do it again once his position resets, but having the option to play like this is an important part of player expression that stops these games from devolving into cold, mechanical styles of repetition and perfection. The game is opening up a dialogue with you through its systems and challenges with your own personal shenanigans and the built-in assist systems acting as your response. Doing the work is satisfying, but the option to cheese brings fresh consequences of its own when deeper into the game that giant yokai you’re plunging into might juke to the left as you triumphantly bury your axe four inches into the dirt. Either way you and the game have grown, and now you’re having a whole new conversation.
If you are looking to cheese a game that has role playing elements as part of its core design one aspect you can’t ignore is the items and equipment that build up your stats and playstyle, and in this regard Nioh 2 is a labyrinthe nightmare to navigate. You can carry 500 weapons and items of armour at once, this may seem like an inconsequential limit at first but you bounce your head off it constantly due to the prolific presences of item drops and chests. Everything in Nioh 2 turns out to be simpler than it appears, but the menus, inventory and skill trees are such an onslaught of numbers, effects and stats that an official strategy guide for this game would have to be phonebook sized.
The stats and skill trees can be explained by the game’s admirable desire to accommodate as many playstyles as possible, but I’m worried that if I express my instinct from years of musing on action and progression design that the obscene amount of equipment drops as a clumsy attempt to build up the avatar strength of all playstyles at once I’m going to end up comment sniped for not understanding the point of having twelve of the same low level axe with slight differences in numbers and effects. Yet I’m inclined to not trust my instincts on this one since Nioh 2 feels so big, thought out and confident that my drowning in its busy equipment management feels like a personal failure.
My last piece on this Medium page was posted on February 21st, 2019, that’s over a year ago. I’ve never promised to be a regular blogger or creator but I still find that disheartening when writing used to be something I did for fun. It’s ludicrous to suggest that nothing in that 14 month period was worth talking about, I’ve simply not had the motivation and whenever concepts have popped into my head the stress and burnout of the real world beats my drive and confidence to do it out of me. If you haven’t read Heather Alexandra’s review of Death Stranding for Kotaku I suggest you do that to experience an outstanding and complete form of criticism that I dream of being able to replicate. Heather expresses her personal thoughts and feelings of Death Stranding in a piece that explores the game as an entry into Kojima’s body of work, the characters, production, themes, mechanics all in a contemporary matter that contextualises the importance of that game’s release in the modern zeitgeist. Historians and commentators of the future will still be referencing and quoting her piece when discussing the game for years to come. Whereas over a thousand words into my piece I still haven’t got over the irrational anxiety over the idea that someone will dig this piece up and laugh at the 2020s caveman rube who didn’t understand what his 37th pair of identical trousers was for.
I’m about halfway through Nioh 2 still unwilling to develop a strong opinion on whether the action in this game stands above its fellow brethren, or whether the fact the level design is a toyless paddling pool compared to From Software’s coral reef and poison-ladled oceans matters at all for the core appeal, or if the fact I have no idea what’s going on in the story is the game’s fault of mine for not knowing nothing about no Nobunaga. I have no comprehensive take on Nioh 2; I have played it for dozens of hours and will likely continue to play it excessively for the next few weeks and I have no idea whether this a massive sign of respect or the same part of my brain that played Bloons Tower Defense 6 for about 80 hours over the holiday season acting up again.
What I do know is; by pushing myself to write this dribble I was able to express a handful of isolated thoughts and half-criticisms with the illusion of structure in a way that might get some of the doubt monkeys off my back. The only question left that I care about right now is whether hitting publish on this post will help me get some proper sleep tonight.
Medium’s emails are too annoying to be left on so I’m unlikely to see any comments for months if not years, guess you’ll just have to follow me on Twitter instead.