Pokemon Sword & Shield Review

pokemon sword and shield

With each new Pokemon game comes a new set of Pokemon, mechanics, and a region to discover, and Sword and Shield are no exception. The vibrant Galar region is a consistent delight to explore, incentivizing and rewarding collecting and battling in equal measure, and grandiose battles add an exciting dimension to the familiar Gym formula to deliver an engaging adventure beginning to end. But most notably, Sword and Shield cut down on the tedious and protracted elements from previous games in favor of amplifying what makes Pokemon great in the first place. This is the most balanced a Pokemon game has felt in a long time, and with that, Sword and Shield mark the best new generation of Pokemon games in years.

The games waste no time in getting you a starter Pokemon and off on your way to becoming the Champion. You can even skip some of the hand-holding you’d get in previous games, including the “how to catch Pokemon” tutorial, which hasn’t been done since 2001’s Pokemon Crystal; if you simply catch some Pokemon right away, the character who would have taught you acknowledges that you’re already good to go instead. You can reach the new Wild Area, an open-world expanse filled with all kinds of Pokemon of all levels, within an hour or so of starting your adventure.

And the Wild Area is the show-stopping feature of this generation. Pokemon roam the fields and lakes, changing with the day’s weather. They pop up as you walk by, and you can even identify Pokemon out of your direct line of vision by their cries. It’s all too easy to set out for one destination only to be distracted by a Pokemon you haven’t caught yet, an item glittering on the ground in the distance, or even an evolved form of a Pokemon that you didn’t realize you could catch in the wild. There’s constantly something new to do or discover, and it’s there to engage you right out of the gate.

Both in the Wild Area and outside of it, the Galar region is stunning. Locales from industrial city centers to rolling hills in shades of green and gold are vivid and beautiful, and small details, like Wooloo playing in a field, add a lot of charm. The United Kingdom-inspired motif includes both crumbling medieval castles and booming football-inspired stadiums, punk musicians and posh snobs–though Galar is still surprising to explore, not adhering so close to theme as to be totally predictable. I even found myself pushing ahead to the next town hoping to find a boutique with new clothes and accessories, on top of everything else waiting to be discovered in each locale, because the UK-inspired plaids and streetwear looks are cute.

pokemon sword and shield

You’re given much more freedom to explore than in previous generations. Sword and Shield go even further than Sun and Moon did in banishing HMs for good; you can fast travel to locations you’ve visited before from anywhere outside starting quite early in the game, and you have a bike that can later convert to a water vehicle to replace Surf. All other roadblocks, like trees in your path you need to Cut or large stones you need to move with Strength, are relics of the past. There are still hooligans that will artificially block your path at certain points in the story, but the actual hurdles to movement are completely gone.

Random encounters are also gone, and instead, you see Pokemon roaming all of Galar–even in the traditional routes and caves–which helps distinguish one area from the next. There are some Pokemon that remain hidden in the tall grass, denoted by an exclamation point, but you have to run toward the rustling grass to actually initiate the fight, so you’re never caught totally by surprise. Some Pokemon can only be found this way; this further encourages you to explore each locale thoroughly while making return trips painless, free of constant interruptions by wild Pokemon or stopping to use Repels to keep them away.

pokemon sword and shield

For wild Pokemon, battles are true to the established formula, but for big battles, Sword and Shield strip out Mega Evolution and Z-moves in favor of a new battle mechanic, Dynamaxing, which is sort of a combination of the two and can only be activated in certain locations. A Dynamaxed Pokemon grows to a massive size and is stronger overall, and its moves convert to superpowered ones based on type. It’s much more bombastic than Mega Evolution or even Z-moves, but functionally, it’s simpler–and that’s refreshing. After years of using both Mega Evolution and Z-moves in high-level battles, Dynamaxing is a welcome reset that also feels like a natural evolution of the increasingly high-octane battle mechanics of recent games. Any Pokemon can Dynamax, too; you’re just limited by location rather than an item, so it’s a more flexible way to battle that works for relaxed and competitive battles alike.

Dynamaxing is a fixture of the new Max Raids, in which you and three other people or NPCs take on a giant Pokemon at certain locations in the Wild Area. Raid Pokemon can vary from run-of-the-mill, easy-to-catch Pokemon to ones that are incredibly hard to find in the wild, but regardless, the rewards are fantastic; completing a raid, even if the Pokemon escapes and you fail to catch it, nets you tons of rare and important items. Plus, the Pokemon you get from raids are guaranteed to have some perfect stats, so even duplicate Pokemon are worth catching again.

pokemon sword and shield

At the lower levels, the raids are pretty easy, and you’ll likely have no trouble taking them on with only NPCs in tow. But the four- and five-star raids are challenging to the point where I couldn’t even complete some of them without the help of other human players. This is a welcome level of difficulty in the post-game, and communicating locally to get a raid group together is seamless–all you have to do is put out a call for raid partners (or people to trade or battle with in general), and nearby players will get a notification and have the option to join you from the social menu. It’s a great alternative to traditional competitive play after you’ve beaten the game, and while it does feed into competitive battling in both the item rewards and the caliber of Pokemon you’re catching, it’s satisfying just to overcome the challenge with friends.

The new Pokemon themselves are fantastic as a set. Quite a few of them seem geared for competitive play, with abilities and moves that inspire interesting strategies. Galarian Weezing, for example, has an ability that neutralizes opponents’ abilities; because many battle strategies involve use of abilities like Intimidate or Sand Stream to set up the battlefield to your advantage, Weezing could be a serious threat. There are also the aesthetically-inclined Pokemon, like the incredibly goth Corviknight or the adorable electric corgi Yamper, to inspire collectors. Throughout my journey, I was consistently delighted to discover each new Gen 8 Pokemon and the Galarian forms of older ones.

pokemon sword and shield

The starters, sadly, are among the worst of the new Pokemon; while they’re cute at first, their final evolutions are all not great. Each fits the British theme in a clever way and has a unique move to go with it, but on a purely visual level, all three are awkward with no clear winner among them. I still feel guilty confining my starter to the Pokemon Box, but it at least freed up a spot in my party to try out the new Pokemon I do like.

The Pokedex features a healthy mix of old Pokemon from each previous generation as well. There are certainly surprising omissions, but like with the new Pokemon, the list includes both fun Pokemon and competitive ones, plus an even spread of types. Sword and Shield might not have every Pokemon in existence, but what’s here is balanced exquisitely for battle, cuteness factor, and type. And because there are items that give Pokemon experience points now–and because you can access your Pokemon boxes almost anywhere–you can easily change up your team on the fly without having to stop and grind just to get a new Pokemon caught up in level. I experimented with different Pokemon more during Shield’s main story than I ever did in a previous Pokemon game, and it made me appreciate the Gen 8 Pokemon even more.

pokemon sword and shield

It also makes for a more digestible experience. The Wild Area is expansive, and because the available Pokemon change with the weather, it can look very different from one day to the next. There are enough Pokemon to keep things dynamic and surprising as you explore each day, but with some consistency across each biome so you know at least what kinds of Pokemon to expect. Even after 55 hours, there are still Pokemon I have no idea how to find, and uncovering the Wild Area’s secrets bit by bit has been a treat.

If anything, the constant draw of the Wild Area made the pacing of the story a bit choppy. I wandered and explored for five hours before challenging my first Gym, then defeated the next two in quick succession before breaking again to revisit the Wild Area. That said, I also was never too over- or underpowered for each Gym, and I was eager to explore in between them regardless. You can also do more in the Wild Area than just battle and catch Pokemon–you can camp out and make curry with your Pokemon, and that ended up being a lovely distraction. Making curry and playing with my Pokemon was a great way to break up longer excursions, plus a convenient way to heal everybody at once, and it’s really just an adorable way to spend a few minutes.

pokemon sword and shield

The Gyms themselves are a refinement on the longstanding formula in which you would have to go through a maze or solve a little puzzle to reach the Gym Leader. Similarly, each has a Gym Challenge, but they vary from herding Wooloo to competing with NPC trainers to catch a Pokemon, and this keeps things from getting stale. Dynamaxing combines with anime-style drama to make the Gym battles themselves appropriately exciting, too, as your opponents tend to put on quite the show when they enter the stadium. While the Gym and other story battles are largely pretty simple, some of the later ones do take more thought (and a few revives, in my case).

For competitive battles, small but significant quality-of-life tweaks greatly reduce the remaining barriers to entry. There are now items that allow you to change a Pokemon’s nature, which was the main missing piece in getting Pokemon battle-ready without hours and hours of tedious breeding and soft-resetting. You can also leave two Pokemon of the same species in the Daycare together, and one can pass Egg Moves to the other, meaning you don’t have to re-breed a Pokemon just because you forgot to put one Egg Move on it or changed your strategy a bit. The post-game Battle Tower also includes rental teams right off the bat to introduce you to some basic strategies, which also means you can start climbing the ranks without scrambling to prepare a slipshod team of your own first. All of this gets you battling at a competitive level much more quickly than was possible before, which is the whole point.

pokemon sword and shield

In collecting, battling, and exploring, Sword and Shield cut out the bloat and focus on what makes these pillars of the Pokemon games so captivating in the first place. You’re not held back by overly complicated back-end systems or hoops to jump through; from the outset, you can start wandering the Galar region, seeing its new Pokemon, and trying out its new battle strategies with very little in your way. This leaves you free to enjoy what Pokemon is all about, and that makes for an incredibly strong showing for the series’ proper debut on Switch.





  • Great atmosphere and scares
  • Interesting, varied locations
  • More enemies and action


  • Easy to get caught out in tight spaces
  • Nemesis is a bit disappointing
  • Shallower than Resi 2

When everything hits its mark, Resident Evil 3 is almost every bit as good as last year’s Resident Evil 2 Remake. A tense, jumpy retelling of the PS1 classic in a modern gaming language, it tries a few new ideas but works best when it sticks closely to the previous game’s template of undead crowd control and criss-crossing hub areas to unravel. Like the original game it’s a slightly more gun heavy take on the series’ zombie surviving, and one that rewards aggression more than caution to create a faster, more trigger happy adventure that’s still Resident Evil at heart. It lacks some of the depth and variety of last year’s Resident Evil 2 Remake, with less puzzles and more action, but it’s still a rewarding slice of horror. 


Release date: April 3, 2020
Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom

Curiously, the Nemesis – the cover star and arguably the point of the whole thing – is far less of a pursuing menace than Mr X this time. I mention it now because if you were expecting the original’s set up – where he repeatedly appears to hound you – you’re going to be dissapointed. Aside from the opening city section, where he chases you for a small segment, he’s largely relegated to more set piece orientated moments and tightly defined boss fight encounters.  

Street life

But the opening city streets, where Nemesis first menaces you are an exciting start with a different feel after Resident Evil 2’s more subdued corridor based apocalypse. Wandering around outside during a zombie apocalypse in progress is a far more interesting location to digest as you scan the burning skyline or wonder what happened to leave all the piled up roadblocks and trashed cars. It’s also the best mix of the old and new ideas here – mainly the new dodge move and the increase in enemies. The more open areas really capitalise on the main character Jill’s ability to sidestep zombies to manage threats. In later, more corridor-y, areas dodging can be a bit hit and miss with less space to move in. 


This city street section is the only place where the Nemesis really appears as you might expect – a constant, lumbering, trench coated danger. Once he arrives you are constantly on the run, or at least trying to be as he leaps in front of you or lashes out with long range tentacles. When I played the game at preview stage I wasn’t entirely sold on the mechanics because having an unkillable enemy that’s always in your face can only hold your interest for so long.  But as it turns out there’s far less to worry about in the full game. Partly because when you first encounter the creature there are plenty of grenades and explosive barrels to knock him down for the minute or two’s respite you need to tick off your apocalypse to-do list. However, what is surprising is that after this opening encounter, the Nemesis never really appears in this way again and, instead, the focus shifts to more compartmentalised, structured encounters. 

Combat ready

Having plenty of weapons and ammo to deal with the Nemesis’ initial (and, really, only) face to face encounter is part of getting your head around the fact that this is a much more shooter-focused Resident Evil experience, keeping with the more action focused shift in the original game. There’s plenty of ammo this time but it might take a while to realise that you can pretty much go weapons free on any threat you find. Old habits meant I initially played with the old Resident Evil 2 mindset of making every shot count and avoiding rather than fighting enemies for a while, but that actually makes things more tricky. There are generally more zombies in any given area so it’s best to blast everything that moves to avoid getting overwhelmed. 

When it works it’s a satisfying role reversal that feels like you’re taking control of the zombie apocalypse rather than surviving it. That said it mainly clicks in the larger areas where you have more room to aim, reposition and manage threat spacing. With less space you can easily end up firing wildly from a corner or wall you’ve inadvertently backed yourself into. The second playable character, Carlos, also swaps the dodge for a shoulder barge that takes you towards enemies and can sometimes make things worse.


Tighter spaces can also expose frustrations with the Hunter enemies who use insta-kill attacks suddenly and without warning. These are true insta-kills too that can spell death even if you’re at full health. The blind frog-like Hunter Gammas can swallow you whole, while the Hunter Beta can tear your throat out with zero warning. On the one hand it makes them a genuinely terrifying encounter in a game with some already strong jump scares, but it can be irritating to die instantly. Usually in tighter spaces where you don’t always have the room to keep the distance you need to survive too. 

In fact, despite extra enemies, more ammo and a few new ideas (most of which I’m either not allowed to talk about or don’t want to spoil) Resident Evil 3 works best when it sticks to what made Resident Evil 2 so good – settling into a hub-like area to unravel it; tracking from one objective to the next to progress further is just as good here as in the last game. The mid-point hospital level is an extremely enjoyable high for the game and on par with Resident Evil 2’s RCPD building as a chunky location you spend considerable time in, slowly peeling back its layers. 

Character building

Character wise however this actually edges out Resident Evil 2 a touch. I liked both Jill and Carlos a lot more than Leon and Claire, while the villain Nikolai is a gloriously sneery heel. Overall the writing more lovingly embraces a cheesy action movie feel that works beautifully against the zombie monster setting. At one point a character calls someone a “ballsy montherfucker” in a moment that’s 100% 80s Arnie camp machismo and I am totally here for it.


Leaving the story briefly, there’s also a multiplayer option this time. Resident Evil Resistance is obviously a new angle and it’s a perfectly functional experience that’s pretty good fun. I say that having played in lobbies with people I actually know. Its escape room premise – four players battle zombies to locate keys and survive while a fifth bad guy player summons monsters and traps – works well with communication. I’ve yet to spend much time with online randoms, but as talking and working together is so key to winning as a team that it all depends on who you’re with. 

The single player however is decent enough that the multiplayer is just a bonus. That said the main campaign does feel brief and light – I clocked a 9 hour completion time that included plenty of backtracking to find the few upgrades and extras scattered around. As I mentioned, there’s fewer puzzles, or multistage lock systems to unreveal, favoring instead a more direct progression of door opening. It lacks the breadth of the last remake in that sense but with the focus more on action it suits a faster pace and the balance still creates satisfying, albeit lighter, reimagining for the series. 


Overcooked 2

In many ways, playing Overcooked 2 is like returning to a favourite restaurant after a long absence and ordering what you always used to have. The comfort of familiar, nourishing food is hugely enjoyable, of course, but it’s the sense of coming back to something that’s truly special. When playing Overcooked 2 there’s a lot more shouting and swearing, but the principle is the same – this sequel is strikingly similar to the first game, but a few well-chosen additions and refinements breathe new life into one of the best couch co-op experiences going.

For its part, Overcooked 2 assumes its players are already familiar with the first game and isn’t shy about ramping up the difficulty early on. This means a steeper learning curve for anybody new to the series, but on the whole it’s a good thing – before you’ve so much as finished the first game world, you’re already tackling more intricate recipes and employing far more advanced strategies than the equivalent stages in the first Overcooked.

New recipes include sushi, pasta and steamed dumplings, while returning favourites such as burgers and pizza feature additional ingredients to make things a little more fiddly. Right from the get-go, then, Overcooked 2 demands more from its players. Add some truly ambitious level layouts to the mix and it comes as no surprise that the ‘food burning/fire imminent’ alarm is one you’ll be hearing a lot more in Overcooked 2. Moving parts and sudden divides are nothing new to seasoned players, of course, but these obstacles are now more numerous – and nefarious – than ever.

One, for instance, has you making fried chicken and chips while the team is split in two and housed on a pair of rafts floating down a river (or later, a swamp). With ingredients kept separate from cooking stations, it’s a frenzy of ferrying things back and forth in order to fulfil the most basic of orders. I went back to the first Overcooked to refresh my memory before writing this, finding some levels I used to think were pretty challenging now seem simplistic by comparison.

Overcooked 2 is definitely a more challenging game, but happily its chefs are also better prepared. New to the sequel is the ability to toss raw ingredients to one another / around the kitchen willy-nilly. Where before ingredients had to be walked all the way to their destination, throwing gives a huge boost to players’ manoeuvrability and versatility. That chicken and chips on a raft level I mentioned earlier? You can speed things up by bunging ingredients at one another and – if you’re really good – you can even chuck things straight into the fryer. Lobbing things around is also a tremendous way to wind up your opponents in versus mode, which I’ll return to shortly.

I have only one gripe with Overcooked 2, and that is with the speed the plates come back. I realise that sounds extraordinarily petty, but stick with me on this one. The joy in Overcooked 2 is that it’s a game of simple systems that have to be manipulated in tandem. When this works well it’s great, and when they break down it’s also great – in fact, that’s where the most memorable bits of Overcooked come from.

Those failures, however, have to come from the player – the moment the game itself causes a hitch or delay in the flow of these systems, it effectively shoves another chef into the kitchen: an extra person who isn’t pulling their weight, only it’s not someone you do anything about. In Overcooked 2, it’s the plate return speed that’s at fault. At several points while playing with friends we found ourselves ready to serve dishes, only to find there weren’t any plates left – not even dirty ones. Occasionally, it felt like we were working in a restaurant that only had two plates to go around and it really slowed us down. It’s a relatively minor problem – it never stopped us passing a level, for instance – but it can feel frustrating.

As well as the ability to throw tomatoes at your colleagues while waiting for plates, Overcooked 2 also introduces online play. This ran swiftly and smoothly when I tested it out, swiftly matching me and Eurogamer editor Oli with two opponents for a kitchen showdown. We quickly learned Overcooked is a very different beast when played over the internet rather than in the same room – mainly because it’s far easier to shout at someone when you’re sitting next to them. To make up for a lack of voice communication, Overcooked 2 allows you to emote – saying things like preparing, cooking or serving. After spending so many hours jabbering non-stop, it’s bizarre to be navigating a kitchen in total silence, but it’s also surprisingly effective. With emoting taking up precious time and shouting not an option, it forces you to pay attention to what the other chef is up to – responding to their needs and going where they aren’t, while they try to do the same. It’s a breath of fresh air in a game in which players often seek to delegate – yelling ‘we need lettuce’ without checking to see whether anyone has actually gone to chop some now one chef has loudly absolved themselves of any responsibility (Gretchen, if you’re reading this, I forgive you).

On the flip side of the burger, playing online made me realise the limitations of the in-game emotes. While useful, they only really allow players to narrate what it is they are doing – which, to be frank, should already be obvious. While delegating is a pain in Overcooked (seriously Gretchen it’s fine, let’s just forget about it), occasionally people do need to be prompted – if they’re the only one with access to a particular ingredient, say – and not having a clear way of doing that is a bit of a frustration.

But then Overcooked 2 over the internet was never going to match the fun of playing it in a room with some friends and it’s there that this excels all over again. Overcooked 2 may be more of an improved recipe than a completely new menu, but it remains an excellent sequel and a delightful co-op experience.


Nioh 2

Nioh 2

Nioh 2 is even tougher than the original, and you’ll get on its level or happily die trying.

Nioh 2 is not to be trifled with. Building on the original’s tough-as-nails reputation, Team Ninja’s second samurai action-RPG brings back the original’s penchant for punishing and highly nuanced combat. The sequel hones the original’s distinctive take on the Souls-like without completely reinventing itself. The result is a long, tough slog that will push even the most challenge-hungry players to their breaking points as they fight for every inch of ground and become master samurai.

Despite the title, Nioh 2 is a prequel, revealing the secret history of a decades-long period of war in medieval Japan. As the silent, customizable hero Hide, you fight to uncover the secret nature of “spirit stones,” which grant supernatural power, and defeat hordes of Yokai across the country. The plot, which you mostly hear through cutscenes and exposition between missions, has an interesting historical bent, but it is really just glue to hold the levels together. Historically relevant names like Nobunaga and Tokugawa play into the saga, but whatever flavor they add in the moment fades the second you take control and it’s time to start killing demons.

But that’s okay. Nioh 2’s story gives just enough context for you to follow along and make you feel like you’re making progress without getting in the way of the gameplay. Nioh 2’s definitive feature is its challenge. With core mechanics refined from the bones of Dark Souls, Nioh 2 boils down to a series of battles and duels in all kinds of situations. These battles demand intense precision: Not only are your attacks and skills limited by a stamina meter–called Ki–but any extra attack or mistimed movement will leave you exposed, often to an attack that will cost you a substantial amount of health. Like other Souls-like games, there is a painful pleasure in mastering whatever opponents the game throws your way.

nioh 2

Nioh 2 builds on the wonderfully diverse range of options for developing a personal fighting style. The original systems return: Each of the nine weapon types offers a unique balance among speed, power, and range, which you can fine-tune on the fly by switching among three stances (low, mid, and high). Each weapon type has its own skill tree and progression, for which you earn points by using it. The core weapon combat remains largely unchanged from the original, beyond some new abilities and two new weapons types, the speedy two-handed Switchglaive and really speedy double-hatchets. That said, the combat is very precise. Nioh 2 demands that you have a profound understanding of all the attacks your weapon(s) can perform, but there’s a wide range of attacks and they each put their own spin on how you fight.

There are also multiple general skill trees, plus character levels that increase your stats based on earning Amrita from killing enemies. Plus, Nioh 2 is a loot game, so you’ll constantly be looking at new weapons with tradeoffs that tweak your stats. It’s a lot to manage, but it becomes manageable as you find your specialty and focus on upgrading the skills you know you like using.

For Nioh vets, that’s all old hat: Nioh 2’s biggest additions revolve around the idea that Hide can channel Yokai spirits. The most important is a hard parry called the Burst Counter, which allows you to counter powerful enemy attacks. Every enemy has at least one attack that’s vulnerable to the counter; they’re often big, powerful moves that you’ll be tempted to dodge. Fighting that urge and throwing yourself at your enemy to turn the tide of battle for a moment is crucial, which makes the combat feel more tactical and aggressive. In the moment when you spot an enemy prepping a burst attack, you feel successful, like you’ve gotten one over on your opponent, even for a second. Because the game is so difficult, these little victories help drive you forward.

You also learn Yokai abilities via equippable Soul Cores that allow you to momentarily transform into the enemies you’ve killed to use one of their attacks. More than Ninjutsu and magic, which return from the original, Soul Cores add a much wider range of contextually useful skills. For example, as the Monkey Yokai Enki, you jump into the air and throw a spear, which is quite novel as Nioh 2 doesn’t have a jump button. When the Yokai get bigger–every boss gives you a Soul Core–sometimes a giant head or fist or foot magically appears to maim your enemies. They aren’t so powerful that you can lean on them to win a fight, but these skills widely expand the range of things you can potentially do.

Last but not least, Nioh 2 adds a super-powerful “Yokai Shift” transformation, which temporarily makes you faster and stronger. Triggering the transformation does not obviate the need for tactics. Though you are invulnerable, both using attacks and taking damage reduce the amount of time you have in your stronger form. A failed assault in Yokai mode not only wastes a powerful, slowly charging asset, but may also leave you unexpectedly exposed if you revert to your old self because your opponent caught you off-guard. In true Nioh fashion, even your greatest strength can become a chance for your enemy to get the upper hand.

nioh 2

It’s a lot to learn and, again, you need to get it down perfectly to overcome what Nioh 2 throws at you. You will likely make a lot of mistakes and die many, many times. Sometimes it’ll feel like you’ve hit a brick wall and simply can’t win. In those situations, you need to take a deep breath, figure out why you’re failing, and adjust your strategy to match. Refusing to change weapons or take risks or otherwise be thoughtful about how you play will leave you frustrated. The more frustrated you get, the more likely you’ll lose again.

Learning your own skillset is just part of the experience. To really excel, you also need to understand Nioh 2’s wide world. There’s an astounding amount of variety across an extremely long campaign. Its winding, multi-area missions span all kinds of environments, from burning castles and temples, to military camps, to forests and mountainsides. Many of them change radically as you explore them, giving you a great sense of “travel” and accomplishment for covering what feels like a long distance. One early level, for example, starts on a hillside outside a castle and ends in a massive underground cave. Even when the levels seem similar–you single-handedly siege four to five castles across 20 campaign missions–varied level design in both pathing and detail make each one feel distinct and worth conquering.

It helps that the maps are more than twisty, turny dungeon crawls. Most have at least one area with a unique trap or environmental conundrum. In one forest level, for instance, a giant owl Yokai patrols certain areas, alerting enemies if it sees you. During a castle siege, you have to dodge artillery fire as you duel enemy soldiers. Also, there are Dark Realm zones, black and white areas haunted by Yokai that provide an even greater challenge by slowing down your Ki regeneration, sprinkled throughout each level. It’s only by defeating a specific enemy in a Dark Realm that it will dispel permanently, injecting more ways for you to make progress that doesn’t reset when you use a shrine (or die).

Even for all its variety, Nioh 2 stretches all of its content as much as it can. For every mission in its core campaign, there are two to three side missions, many of which remix a portion of a story mission. On top of that, there are rotating Twilight Missions for high-level players. Plus, upon finishing the campaign, you’ll get access to a difficulty level with higher-level enemies and gear. While it can be a little annoying in principle to play the same section of a level three to four times, each version finds little ways to change your path and present new challenges to keep things fresh. If you’re interested in wringing absolutely everything out of Nioh 2–master every weapon, get the highest level loot–there are more than enough mission configurations to go through until you’ve had your fill.

Likewise, Nioh 2 never seems to run out of new enemies to throw at you. Almost every level has at least one new type of Yokai for you to study and struggle against. They run the gamut, from literal giant spiders to animalistic demon soldiers like the Enki, a giant monkey with a spear, and the harpy-like Ubume. Each enemy has its own range of abilities, and you need to learn everything about them in order to anticipate their attacks and get the upper hand. This process takes time–you won’t get it on the first try, or even after the first victory. Every enemy, even the little Gaki demon, which looks like a balding, red-eyed child, can kill you if you aren’t bringing your A-game. Dissecting enemy patterns and figuring out how to counter them is the sweetest pleasure Nioh 2 offers: That there are so many enemies with so many different attacks to navigate ensure that the game never loses its flavor.

Even when the levels seem similar–you single-handedly siege four to five castles across 20 campaign missions–varied level design in both pathing and detail make each one feel distinct and worth conquering.

You see this most clearly when you go up against each of the game’s extraordinarily difficult boss encounters. Like the levels, the bosses vary widely and are all sights to behold. From a giant snake with mini-snake arms to a three-story spider with a bull’s head, each flagship enemy design has a lot of character and is unlike anything you’ve seen in the game before. They all have one thing in common, though: They’re extraordinarily difficult. Even more than standard battles, the bosses effectively demand perfect play for an extended period. You need to be able to recognize every move they make as they make it and know how to respond instantly. Very few took me less than a dozen tries, and many of them took me multiple hours.

At times, I wondered if maybe some of these bosses should be a little shorter, as there were many bosses where I felt I had mastered their patterns but couldn’t finish because they landed a single one-hit-kill late in the fight. Ultimately, that excruciating difficulty and the feeling it evokes are baked into Nioh’s DNA, though, and its boss fights remain compelling even as they vex and frustrate. Though it sometimes feels like a curse as you play, it is a testament that Nioh 2 successfully grabs and holds your complete attention so close for so long.