You have to hand it to Koei Tecmo—when they finally released the Dark Souls-Diablo-Dynasty Warriors salad that you and I call Nioh, they decided to really go for it. Lots of weapons, lots of missions, lots of ways to get sat on by a cyclops.
But it was never enough. As if to point its index finger at you with one hand and present its middle to you with the other (cackling, naturally), the game and its developers have used the time since its winter release to bask in the warm sun of sleeper success and give us mountains of free post-release content. (Though, maybe at the cost of chunks of your withered soul with their catapulted difficulty.) Worthwhile or superfluous, depending on your willingness to put time into Nioh, you can’t fault a game to giveth while it also taketh away.
When the laughing ceases, and Nioh–the punk rock crowned prince of Japanese game development punishment that it has somehow become in the wake of Dark Souls’ end—sees that you’ve overcome its many instances of outright bullying. Nioh silently looked over both shoulders and looked you straight in the eye: "You want to really get hardcore?" it said. And before you even thought of an answer, Nioh had DLC. The first of which was, understandably, no joke. However with Defiant Honor, the newly-released second of three, cranks it up by orders of magnitude. It takes what you found challenging about the base game and keeps pushing. Then it throws ninja dogs at you. It’s hardcore that really, honestly, goes for it.
That isn’t to say that it’s kitchen-sink game design. On the contrary, the main missions are sparse in the brand new challenges that they present. In a lot of ways, they’re actually pretty bland to look at, too. But the new areas are perhaps the most Dark Souls that Nioh has ever been, using cleverly structured stages and the occasional set piece to guide the action. Most of the really nasty bits are when your Anglo-Samurai hero is guided gently into terrifying situations. Sometimes it’s a tête-à-tête with a powerful one-time foe. Other times, it’s a pit fight with a bunch of wizards. Defiant Honor really feels as though Koei Tecmo figured out that they don’t need to make you afraid of the rats. Instead, you should be more concerned about the rat trap.
The first story mission takes place during a snowy siege on Osaka castle using screen-filling environmental hazards; something that the base game thought best to leave alone. Quickly into the area, you’ll find that you need to move through cover to avoid a hail of flaming arrows and cannon fire that might kill an underpowered player in one volley. Moving forward, battlements that you might be using to plan your next move can be destroyed, which ratchets up the anxiety to keep moving and find better, more stable cover.
As enemies can be baited into a constant barrage of attacks, it was rewarding to take my time and make calculated movements early on, but the extra tension of the latter half adds a fun wrinkle to it. Rarely was I forced to fight an enemy blocking the path from one section or the next, so it was tempting to simply make a break for it to find more cover. A smart player that thinks on their feet can make sense of the chaos, though a slow, methodical route can be just as good as making a run for it. Since there’s a side objective to blast open fortifications to stop the attacks, the game rewards both approaches.
The second story mission is perhaps the most complex designed stage in the game thus far. Ostensibly a straight line starting from inside a cave and then out into the Osaka castle grounds, it becomes a Byzantine labyrinth of caves and rooftops that fold in on themselves several times over. In the labyrinthine area, there are shortcuts that lead back to every rest area. It's to the point where finding those found deeper into the level will never become the best option, depending on which phase of it you find yourself fighting through.
Doors on catwalks and suspended ladders can be unlocked to make return trips and retries (of which, there will be many) more straightforward, but the addition of a small crowd of super-powered enemies (think the named hunters in Bloodborne) are carefully spaced out within the area to break the player’s pace. On their own, these are intense duals when taken straight up, but I found that if I was crafty and careful about killing snipers and using the space around me to my advantage, they turned into pushovers. You would think I'd feel snippy about cheesing them, but having figured out the most efficient way of killing them and the self-satisfied grin that just crept across my face while recalling all of this, you are wrong.
The last area of substance is a larger side mission on a mountaintop temple that quickly narrows the action into tight corridors with one-way doors. It's something that, while not completely inventive, shows that the developers were thinking a little left of center for level design in an environment that, when taken alongside the rest of the game, looks redundant.
If only the boss fights were as inspired. Story missions end in expansive arenas with human opponents to conquer, nothing entirely out of the ordinary for the game. To be sure, they’re nasty fights, making heavy axe builds like mine force you to go over a constant string of defeats in your mind to re-evaluate tactics. But all of them boil down to know what to dodge, what to block, and when to start swinging. In action game terms, this is fine, if a little staid. In scope of Nioh and the games it takes inspiration from though, it’s a continuous letdown born of the base game, and worse after experiencing the castle grounds level by itself. I get that Koei Tecmo is trying to give us a fractured history lesson, but I’m starting to wish it was with another giant dragon in tow.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am not very good at this game. Of the three main levels and the toes dipped into boss rush side missions (again, honestly, not all of them completed), I spent roughly 7 hours of what felt like experiencing repeated anvils dropped on my head from great heights. But I loved those 7 hours about as much as I now love mumbling the words "what the shit?" in disgust when ninja dogs come at me out of nowhere. We’re only talking a handful of total missions along with a new weapon type –tonfas: something offense-minded players will love, especially in PvP—but they’re impressively-built missions, even if their final encounters don’t quite measure up.
Nioh, simply, is a game that throws more at you than you really need, something I’ve said before. It’s nice then that Defiant Honor feels as though it was made to be something smarter, not necessarily bigger. It really takes a certain mentality to bend Nioh to your will, and a special devotion to dig through all of the available options that it presents to ready yourself for DLC like this. If you’re not that person, then this second expansion isn’t an essential experience, but still one worth looking into one day. If you want to get really hardcore though, you’re in the right place.