As far as sequels go, Nioh 2 isn't the most revolutionary. Developer Team Ninja has built and iterated upon the strong foundations laid by a predecessor widely considered to be one of the best Dark Souls titles not made by From Software, but is that enough in today's world? The follow-up does introduce new mechanics, weapons, locations, and an impressive amount of enemy variety, however, it never quite manages to shake that feeling of being more of the same. To be fair, that familiar loop is excellent at its core, although it's not going to convert any doubters into believers. Nioh 2 is a superb PlayStation 4 exclusive that revels in being a solid but safe sequel.

Indeed, the vast majority of the features, structure, and mechanics which made Nioh tick have been lifted wholesale to form the basis of the second entry three years later. That's no bad thing, however, as it gives what was an extraordinary combat system one more chance to shine. The trappings which make it a Souls-like return alongside loot reminiscent of Diablo to form an experience which continues to entertain a unique position in-between the two franchises.

It's the combat that creates a bond between them. Stances of high, medium, and low make their comeback to serve up various methods of engagement -- giving you the chance to customise the way Yokai demons of old and new are tackled. Governed by a stamina bar, you'll need to strategically pick and choose your battles to ensure you come out victorious. Rewards are split between Amrita (Nioh's version of souls) and new equipment to improve the player-created character.

What we're trying to say is that it cannot be overstated how this is so much more Nioh in every sense. The HUD is virtually identical, combat plays out the same way for the most part. The Shrine interaction screen features a duplicate set of options, and the same seven weapon types return alongside two new ones. We came around on that fact the more our playthrough progressed, but it's completely understandable if you were hoping Nioh 2 would be the title to push the genre in a new direction all over again. The game most definitely does not do that, opting instead to fine-tune and improve what it already has.

The sequel does have a couple of tricks up its sleeve, with the all-new Yokai skills being the biggest showstopper. You now possess the ability to turn into one of the demonic beasts hunting you down for a select number of seconds to deal devastating damage, with two different talents on hand at any one time. They can turn the tide of battle upon use, fundamentally changing the way you approach combat.

Should you reach the end of a combo with a supernatural adversary still stood in your way, a Yokai skill could be the difference between their death and one last hurrah which sees you on the end of defeat. The mechanic helps to expand the combat system by giving you much more to think about than just the weapon in your hands. A meter controls when the skills can and can’t be used, meaning you'll have to be strategical about their use, but even they matter little when enough juice is built up to transform into the ultimate Yokai form. Rendered invincible for a short period of time, you're able to go to town on a boss with slick moves and powerful attacks to whittle down even the greatest of health bars. It makes for some incredibly cool moments, which in combination with the usual Yokai abilities in the build-up, is enough to provide returning players with more depth than ever to explore and master.

It goes even further though. One more combat mechanic you’ll need to think about is the Burst Counter, which takes a page out of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice's book. Telegraphed by a red aura surrounding an enemy, certain attacks can be parried to such a degree that the instigator suffers enough damage to kill them. They need to be timed well, but Burst Counters give you the chance to turn what should be defence into a quick-fire assault that is infinitely satisfying to pull off. Team Ninja has truly reached new heights -- putting together a combat system that plays and feels better than ever.

Better yet, many more enemies will have the chance to join you in battle. One of the biggest problems the original game faced was the lack of enemy variety, and it's something the studio has clearly taken to heart. A multitude of Yokai types will ambush you along the path to victory, some paying homage to classic, fictional beasts while others very much live up to their otherworldly origins. There's even a welcome amount of variety to be found in those who could still consider themselves human as weapon types differ and their approaches to engagements are worlds apart.

And you simply cannot talk about a video game such as this without mentioning the boss fights. With each grandiose opponent packing their own set of mechanics, the finale of every main mission is certainly a spectacle. You'll have to quickly get to grips with what is being asked of you before basking in the taste of victory. They're certainly tough, with the setback of defeat being a very regular occurrence, but then that's the exact reason these sorts of games have such a dedicated following.

That doesn't mean the levels leading up to those remarkable clashes have been left by the wayside. While their structure mimics the original game, shortcuts feel a lot more elaborate and an increase in optional pathways allows you to get about the mission the way you want.

However, Nioh 2 doesn't always feel like it has been balanced properly. The all-new Dark Realm, which limits your stamina recharge rate, is fair enough but things get just a little bit ridiculous when you start to fear standard Yokai enemies more than actual boss fights. Seriously, we've been having nightmares over two certain enemy types you encounter on an all too regular basis. With questionable hitboxes and frustrating attack patterns, they gave us so much more trouble than roughly half of the title's actual boss battles. We understand that balancing the difficulty of a title such as this is probably incredibly tough, but it's impossible to ignore how baffling it is to scrape your way through a host of resilient demons only to one-shot the boss they've been protecting.

It's not like the skill trees will lend a helping hand either -- far and away the game's weakest aspect. There is nothing even remotely exciting about them. Uninteresting upgrades make up the vast majority of the whopping 13 separate paths, many of which are incredibly situational or feature such tiny percentage boosts that you won't notice their benefits whatsoever. A handful of enhancements might be worth your time, but then you'd have to complete a specific set of missions to even unlock the ability to purchase them in the first place. Upgrades are bought simply for the sake of it, making for one of the most unfulfilling set of skill trees we've come across in quite some time.

Thankfully, the narrative fares a little bit better, although it serves as little more than a conveyer belt to transport you from mission to mission. Spread across various Japanese regions in the 1500s, sidekick Tokichiro joins the custom protagonist in a fight versus evil. You'll encounter some likeable characters along the way, but it's hardly the sort of plot you'll remember much of a few months down the line.

At least the entire experience runs smooth as silk. A welcome set of options on PS4 Pro allows you to either stick to a rock-solid 60 frames per second or prioritise visuals for a more cinematic take on things. No matter which mode you opt for, bugs and glitches are a complete nonentity. Its design and graphics might not be pushing the PS4 to its limit like other games this late in the generation are, but Nioh 2 more than justifies that by outright refusing to drop a frame.

Conclusion

While it may be incredibly similar to what came before it, Nioh 2 smartly adds yet more depth and mechanics to its engagements to make for one of the best combat systems around. Notwithstanding its poor skill trees, forgettable narrative, and minor balance issues, Team Ninja has put together gameplay excellence. An essential playthrough for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the original or From Software's output.