With Elden Ring finally on the horizon, how does Nioh 2’s loot-stuffed toy box compare to FromSoft’s titles?
I recently dived into Nioh 2 and I can’t stop thinking about how the series compares to Dark Souls and FromSoft’s other titles. It’s not just Dark Souls plus loot, it’s Dark Souls with all the fat kept on. It’s a toy box with all the excess, with little effort made to slice it down to a more satisfying core experience.
All that fun, unhealthy stuff that most games try to shave off? Nioh not only keeps it all, it wholly embraces it — for better or worse.
In both Nioh games, all this “fat” is built around the series’ phenomenal gameplay as a foundation.
Third-person hack-and-slash gameplay, similar to FromSoft titles, but expanded into a series of distinct movesets across 11 weapons (as of Nioh 2), each working as its own pseudo-class — a little like Monster Hunter, but more. Three active stances – Low, Mid and High — give each weapon three unique movesets to juggle between, with their own pros and cons depending on the weapon. Each weapon has a big skill tree to gradually fill in, adding extra moves to one or all stances, as well as extra modifiers to attach to individual moves. It’s already intimidating and I’m barely scratching the surface.
Similar to how magic spells work in the Dark Souls series, there are also two magic-type schools that add extra items, spells and buffs to your loadout: Ninjitsu, which is mostly throwables and poisons; and Onmyo Magic, a bunch of spells to cast on enemies or yourself. These are immediately accessible, too. Where FromSoft games tend to keep these systems at arm’s length (probably to keep the average player from stumbling off the critical path on their first playthrough), they’re just another readily available part of your toolkit in Nioh.
On top of this massive baseline variety of customisable movesets, there are a handful of extra supernatural yokai moves, too (note: a “yokai” is basically a spirit or demon, and most of the enemies you face are yokai, and also the player character is half-yokai or something; it’s a whole thing). “Yokai Shift” is a full-on power-up mode that transforms you into one of three (customisable) yokai, even with its own skill tree and moveset. “Burst Counter” lets you block certain types of attacks, and they differ depending on which of the three yokai you’re using. Lastly, there are extra “yokai skills” you can find and equip, two at a time — basically enemy summons that can randomly drop from defeated enemies, similar to Familiars in certain Castlevania games or Conjure Shards in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
In other words, Nioh is the sandbox version of a FromSoft game. All these things form a unique web of systems and rhythmic flow that takes time to learn and use intuitively. Naturally reaching this point at your own pace and in your own way — which weapon you focus on, which guardian spirit and yokai skills you equip, which Ninjutsu and Onmyo Magic you use (if any) — is really rewarding.
Then there’s the extra fat, and there’s so much of it.
By “fat”, I mean the tasty stuff that you want but know is unhealthy and you don’t need. Extraneous junk. In this case, I mean time-consuming, unnecessary stuff that does little-to-nothing to augment Nioh’s true strengths. All games have it to some degree, usually to give you some target in the distance to aim for, but Nioh takes it to another level.
Loot is the biggest source of fat in Nioh, and by a huge margin, too. Playing any amount of Nioh is like traipsing through a landfill, filling your pockets with junk and even more junk until you eventually have to sit down and sift through it all for anything potentially useful.
“Sift” is the best word for it, too. There is so much fucking loot to sort through, over and over again. While it’s easy enough to throw a lot of it at once into a grinder, it’s mind-numbing all the same. It doesn’t help that every item is a template instead of being truly random, a specific item recipe with a handful of minute variables and stats that are only exciting in very minor ways. It appeals to the number-cruncher in all of us and no one else.
Nioh starts as a climb, where difficulty meets that simple excitement for higher numbers, that rewarding feeling of simultaneously earning and lucking your way forwards. It doesn’t take long, though, for this climb to flatten and for all these numbers to lose their luster. Soon enough, it’s become a tedious trek on the way to bigger numbers, single digits at a time.
Finding a new purple-rarity sword with marginally better stats than your last one, a better hat, a better Soul Core — it’s all the same thing, combing through their words and numbers for slight improvements. Eventually, it’s like tinnitus: an endless overbearing ringing that never seems to stop, always slightly in the way of what you’re really playing for.
The missions themselves are similar, these drowsy combinations of level geography, encounter design and enemies.
These individual parts aren’t bad by themselves. Visually and geographically, levels can often be striking and memorable (if rarely stunning). Encounter design is decent enough, funneling players through samey enemy layouts with the occasional trap or ambush. Enemies are well-designed and fun to master with each encounter — they even grow more dangerous in a wonderfully underhanded way, where they’ll suddenly gain a new move that purposely undermines the knowledge and intuition you’ve built up over hours of playtime.
The sad part is that both Nioh games are extremely repetitive. They stretch out this content until it’s wafer-thin, using and reusing every part — level geometry, encounter design, enemies — to create a long list of main missions and side missions that remix the same content over and over again.
It’s still fun to play, though, in its own way — which is where the “fat” comes in.
If Dark Souls and its ilk are styled more like survival-horror, trying to keep players on their toes, keep tension high, while pushing them to make best use of the tools they have to progress further, Nioh is all about gradually overturning that tension and fear. It’s about becoming increasingly powerful and fearless with little pushback, both literally — better gear, higher stats, more moves — and intuitively as you inevitably master every enemy in the game (because you fight them over and over and over again). This extends to the levels, too: there are only so many ways to trap or catch the player by surprise using the same “ingredients” before they start predicting them.
It’s a clever, manipulative subversion of what FromSoft has so expertly executed throughout its titles. Nioh purposely dials up the typical video game “fun factor” of Souls games with Diablo loot and a more transparently laid-out sandbox of action mechanics and build material, crafting a new take on the formula that emphasises enjoyable combat and easy dopamine hits.
Nioh is a deep-fried Mars bar. It has all those “fatty” game mechanics you could want and defines itself by them. It’s a case of addition by addition to the point of straight-up excess.
Where most developers strive to keep their titles lean and preserve their intended experience (at least on a first playthrough), Nioh is a loaded, salt-heavy pile of the same thing. So many gameplay options, so many levels and not so many enemies — Nioh is designed to give you what Dark Souls so expertly keeps out of reach.
On one hand, I love the contrast. FromSoft keeps you feeling squishy and on edge as long as it can, while in Nioh, you really feel that exponential growth in power and confidence as you overwhelm enemies that were previously so tough. It’s almost like you’re taking back control of that initial fear to the point that you reverse it the entire other direction. Fear becomes fearlessness.
Nioh is also incredibly shallow, and it doesn’t have to be. You find yourself doing the exact same thing every mission, finding the same loot, fighting the same enemies, traversing the same levels, with very small changes over time. It grows into the perfect podcast game as you turn off the diodes of your brain one by one, requiring less effort and concentration with every victory.
Nioh and its sequel aren’t just “fatty” games. They’re games that are defined by their fat, these hollow calories tacked onto the quality of their fantastic hack-and-slash gameplay. I won’t knock their quality, since they’re both well-made and immensely playable, but there’s something truly incredible buried underneath all that empty nothing that I’d like to play instead.