The most memorable enemy I’ve encountered in a video game this year isn’t the rot valkyrie Malenia from Elden Ring, nor any other fearsome denizen of the Lands Between. Nor is it any of the bats, zombies, and ghastly ghouls that assault you after a few minutes of the bullet hell lunchbreak game Vampire Survivors. No, the enemy that most sticks in my mind is a humble foe from the first 30 minutes of Team Ninja’s 2020 samurai Soulslike Nioh 2–a foe that you will kill many hundreds of times throughout any playthrough of the game, but remains vitally important just the same.
Nioh 2’s first level makes a definite statement in every way imaginable. This is not a game that delicately eases you into its core loop past the tutorial. The Enki that you fight in the game’s first “Dark Realm” is a major challenge–and he’s merely the first enemy you can’t button-mash to death.
I was somewhat embarrassed when I died to this spear-wielding yokai for the first time–after all, as a person who beat Nioh 1, I thought I would be well-prepared for at least the first few hours of the sequel. The subsequent 20 deaths at his hand dulled this impression, however. You see, this first Enki is Nioh 2 in a nutshell. If you can beat him, you can conquer the rest of the game, but it’s not going to be easy for you either way.
The Nioh series is often described as Team Ninja’s take on a Soulslike, and that comparison is well-founded–at least to a certain extent. It has many of the signature elements of From Software’s games: winding levels with gradual checkpoints, enemies that respawn at every ‘bonfire,’ and extremely difficult bosses. However, once you get past this shallow layer, you’ll find that Nioh is more comparable to a character-action game like Devil May Cry than the likes of Elden Ring.
The first lesson that the Enki teaches you is a fundamental one: enemies hit really hard in Nioh 2. Two chained blows from any foe is almost always enough to put you down for the count, and even weak enemies have four- or five-hit combos to rattle you with. The second lesson you’re likely to learn–especially if you’re coming from a Souls game–is that dodging through attacks rhythm-game style isn’t the way to go in Nioh, unless you really know what you’re doing. Instead, it’s best to use your block to bat away oncoming blows, using your dodge to get out of the path of big wind-up attacks.
The most important technique in Nioh 2 is the “ki pulse,” which is essentially a repurposed version of Gears of War’s active reload. Tapping the right shoulder button at the end of a combo gives you back a large portion of your stamina (called “ki”). If you perfectly time the pulse, it also dispels pockets of “dark realm” around you, which slow your ki regeneration speed and generally make yokai more difficult to deal with. Since blocking consumes ki, and nearly every action requires it, it’s fair to say that ki equals life in Nioh–if you run out of it, all you can do is stand there and try to block the inevitable killing blow from your opponent.
If that’s not enough to deal with, each weapon also has three different stances, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and moveset. Low stance is fast and slippery, mid stance excels at blocking and steady combos, and high stance is slow and hits like a truck. Switching between stances during a pulse gives you slightly more ki back, which strongly incentivizes you to learn their ins-and-outs to properly punish your enemies.
One of the big reasons this particular Enki is such a roadblock for many players is that it’s the first fight takes place in a “dark realm” area. Unlike the pockets I mentioned earlier, you can’t do anything about these washed-out monochrome sections, and they decrease your ki regeneration speed significantly. However, there are also some benefits: You can unleash your special yokai attacks far more frequently than normal, which can help you buy time for your meters to recharge.
Defeating an enemy in Nioh isn’t just about draining their HP to zero–every foe has their own visible ki bar, which you can drain through an onslaught of attacks. Once it hits zero, you can “grapple” your opponent for big damage, or knock them to the ground for a devastating plunge attack. Yokai-type enemies (as opposed to human-type) become susceptible to stun-locking once they’re out of ki, and you can deplete the outline of the ki bar entirely for massive damage if you manage to keep the attack up.
I know this sounds complicated to those who haven’t played the game–and it is, especially compared to the old roll-and-R1 of the core Souls games. But once you get the hang of it, Nioh 2 almost feels like a game that’s just as much about solitaire-ing your own meters and combos well as it is learning your opponent’s moveset. Its combination of complex systems and Souls-style mechanics are like nothing else that I’ve found, and I’ve played a lot of the more popular Soulsy games over the years.
That’s not to say that either Nioh game is a flawless masterpiece, of course. Their level design is often uninspired and redundant, and they lack the fascinating, intricate lore that elevates the Souls series beyond its own imperfections. Those who have an existing interest in the Sengoku period may find its endless cast of squawking characters more appealing than I do–mostly I struggle to remember which badass swordsman is which.
There are no doubt hundreds of people out there who picked up Nioh 2 on sale, only to give up after this Enki impales them a dozen times. But while some might castigate the game for this harsh treatment, I think it’s an understandable move. Nioh 2 will not appeal to everyone–it is an unapologetic “masocore” experience aimed at players who learned the hard lessons of Dark Souls and are willing to cast them aside in favor of a new discipline.
I would argue that playing other Souls games actually makes you worse at Nioh 2 for the first few hours, because the game punishes many of the habits that From Soft rewards, particularly panic-rolling and Estus-chugging. In a market where so many Soulslike games simply take the existing lore and mechanics of these games and switch around the proper nouns, Nioh isn’t afraid to stand alone with its own individual paradigm. And that’s why both of the games–especially Nioh 2–are worth playing. If you’re up to the challenge, of course.
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