One way of optimistically approaching the current COVID-19 crisis is to use it as an opportunity to brush up on one's skills as a gamer. In that respect, Nioh 2 feels timely: like its 2017 predecessor, it's an action-RPG which adheres to the blueprint set by the Dark Souls games and, like them, it is pretty challenging to play.
However, the amount of satisfaction it offers is nicely in proportion to its difficulty level. While you will die - a lot - when playing it, working out how to dispatch one of its numerous, fearsome bosses, or even opening up a shortcut that lets you cut straight to one of its more epic encounters, could end up constituting the highlight of any otherwise tedious day in self-isolation.
Run and Hide
Like the Dark Souls games, Nioh 2 is pretty dark and gothic, although its impressive visual style is less murky, offering various nods to traditional Japanese artforms. A gorgeous-looking intro introduces its protagonist, Hide, who is half-human and half-Yokai - the latter being demonic beasts who have infested the 16th-century Japan, in which Nioh 2 takes place.
A brief but crucial tutorial introduces you to Hide's ability to transform temporarily into a powerful beast able to launch a flurry of attacks on other Yokai that crucially weakens them for when he reverts to his human form. It's also vital to master the intricacies of the general fighting system from the start.
The latter will be pretty familiar to anyone who played the original Nioh, and centres on an attribute called Ki, which is essentially Hide's stamina. When his Ki depletes, Hide is rendered more or less stationary, unable to attack, block or evade. But if you correctly time right-bumper stabs during an attack combo, you can generate Ki Blasts, which generate enough stamina to enable finishing moves or evasion, and have the added benefit of clearing the general miasma that demonic enemies generate.
Feel like a hero
As you progress through Nioh 2, a skill tree lets you acquire a range of new moves, along with an arsenal of ranged attacks (nailing headshots with your bow is satisfyingly devastating, but arrows remain in short supply throughout the game).
Sure, it's a complicated system, and if you get your timing wrong, you can suddenly find yourself in a spiral that leaves you at the mercy of even minor enemies. But when you get things right, it really makes you feel like a hero. You quickly learn to make the most of a flurry of attacks before retreating, maybe adopting a more defensive stance, to recharge your Ki, then moving in again when you sense the right timing for an opening.
Story-wise, Nioh 2 is much deeper and richer than the Dark Souls games: Hide hooks up with various other characters during the course of the game, and a system dubbed Benevolent Graves lets you enlist the help of AI-controlled versions of real players - actual human players can also be summoned - to help you take on mini-bosses (you often encounter paths that are blocked by Yokai) or bosses.
Nioh 2 forces you to develop intimate knowledge of its levels, which are studded with hidden paths, shortcuts and locked doors that you can only open when you've killed every enemy along the tortuous paths that allow you to approach them from behind.
Preparing for encounters with bosses is a major part of the game: Hide's Yokai meter fills at a glacial pace, so you will find yourself employing techniques like visiting a shrine to respawn all the enemies in a particular sequence, before committing widespread carnage in order to put yourself in the best position to deal with bosses.
Nioh 2 even displays outbreaks of classic Japanese kawai-style cuteness: finding tiny green Kodama and directing them to shrines grants you perks like extra elixirs and arrows when you respawn, and trading with them lets you summon assistants when the going gets tough. Occasionally, you can acquire additional company in the form of spherical cat-like creatures. As a result, its general vibe is markedly less bleak than that of Dark Souls, and the ability to summon acolytes makes it a modicum more forgiving, too.
Right now, we're all looking for deep, immersive escapism, and Nioh 2 delivers that in absolute spades. It will, at times, leave you tearing your hair out with frustration, and it does demand plenty of concentration.
However, it is also blessed with a fabulously deep and tactical fighting system (which drills down into just about every ninja skill ever documented), along with a glorious, Dark Souls-like sense of intimacy which will draw you obsessively to every nook and cranny of its immaculately designed game-world.
You could argue that it's derivative, but then it's derivative of one of the best-loved games franchises ever, and its particular take on the Dark Souls format is much less forbidding than the original. It's also very meaty - sufficiently so to take you through a considerable chunk of even the most rigorous period of self-isolation.
A classy and timely release for PlayStation 4 owners; its nature as a console-exclusive renders it a rare beast in the modern games world, too.