I want a Nioh and I want one now!
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Sony, Tecmo Koei
Released: February 7, 2017
Copy provided by publisher
Nioh is more than just another Dark Souls follower.
The comparisons are easy to make. Structurally, Team Ninja uses a lot of the groundwork put down by From Software. Alongside some challenging foes that require more thought than the average action game, Nioh‘s intricate map design, resource maintenance, and consequences for player death are liberally taken from the Souls series with no bones made.
However, while Dark Souls is a methodical action-RPG that expects players to take it slow, Nioh is a faster and more aggressive experience, rewarding those who press the attack and pull back only at the last possible moment. While it would be tempting to liken Team Ninja’s work more closely to Bloodborne, even that comparison seems insufficient given Nioh‘s sometimes vicious encounters.
It may house the skeleton of a Souls game, but unlike Lords of the Fallen and a myriad other wannabes, Nioh succeeds in being its own distinct entity, and one that amounts to hours upon hours of remarkable adventuring.
As Irish sailor William Adams, players travel to Japan and face off against demonic Yokai that plague the wartorn battlefields of the late Sengoku period. As the Tokugawa and Ishida clans struggle for dominance, a sinister occultist by the name of Edward Kelley pulls his nefarious strings and manipulates the tumult to his advantage.
Nioh draws heavily from both Japanese and European history, basing many of its characters on real-life figures in a manner similar to fellow Tecmo Koei stablemate Samurai Warriors. William himself was an actual person, though he probably didn’t fight skeletons and hang out with bright pink ghost dogs.
Slickly presented and making great use of both English and Japanese voice actors to provide an authentic cultural dynamic, Nioh‘s narrative is full of engaging characters and dramatic sequences, though it very much takes a backseat to the game’s many barely-related missions and battles, most of which sidestep the plot to focus solely on life-or-death clashes.
From a central world map, players can select missions across various locations. These environments aren’t expansive but they’re intricately designed and make judicious use of shortcuts and secrets to reward exploration. Team Ninja uses its spaces wisely, meaning one can spend a long time in a relatively small arena and feel engrossed throughout.
Missions start out – generally – from a protective shrine. Similar to Dark Souls‘ bonfires, shrines are safe areas where players can spend Amrita – the currency earned from defeating foes – to level up, receive various blessings that grant passive abilities, summon cooperative help from online players, and stare lovingly at the adorable Kodama who dance and caper around this little haven.
Large numbers of Kodama – hat-wearing green people who I love – are hidden around mission maps, waiting to be discovered and given directions to the shrine. The more Kodama of a given type discovered, the more effective their respective blessings. Healer Kodama, for example, can improve the rate at which enemies drop Elixirs, which is a huge help whenever supplies run low.
Combat is, of course, the most important aspect even if I want to talk about Kodama all day. In my humble opinion, this is where Team Ninja has outdone itself and made the best game of its existence.
At first glance, one could be forgiven for assuming Nioh is a hack n’ slash affair. Attacks involve a lot of hammering on the light and strong attack buttons to deal significant damage, but you can’t just roll up to any fool and start swinging like a butcher on bath salts. This is still a game about exercising caution and managing one’s capabilities. Headstrong players can find themselves in situations where they’re simply too overwhelmed to survive.
Both blocking and dodging are crucial aspects of success, with most enemies doing a good job of telegraphing their attacks just enough for keen-eyed players to spot. However, sustained assaults are possible and beneficial if the opportunities to create them are taken.
By pressing a button at just the right moment following an attack, players can initiate a Ki Pulse to recover a significant portion of Ki spent in combat – think of Ki as your basic stamina quota – and continue to attack without growing weary. Learning when to do this, as well as when to duck around the opponent, block a shot, or step back and bait out an opening, are all part of the process, with Ki Pulses proving a dominant aspect of any fight.
Ki management is even more important than looking after stamina in similar games. Should William fully deplete his reserves, the next attack he sustains can stun him and leave him vulnerable to a vicious grapple attack. It’s never good to waste Ki and stay in the fight, but there’s an upside – enemies are bound by the same rules, and players can even uncover skills that target Ki more specifically, putting the monsters in just as fragile a position.
Variety is part of what makes Nioh such a fascinating endeavor. Multiple weapon types are on offer, from traditional swords to the more exotic kusarigama (my personal favorite). There are five basic melee weapon types and three ranged types, with William able to equip two of each at any given time. They behave differently, with their own benefits and drawbacks, and while there are some weapons I don’t care for, all of them provide their own rich fighting styles and feel deadly to wield.
Ranged weapons are easily to switch to and can be useful for counter-sniping any foes, but ammunition often walks a line between plentiful and ludicrously scarce. Being subject to the whims of randomization, some vital tools run the risk of becoming exasperatingly hard to find when they’re needed most, which can become a minor recurring annoyance.
As well as weapon types, William utilizes three battle stances for a number of situations. Mid-stance is a basic balanced form suited for defending and attacking in equal measure, while low and high stances are the extreme ends of either situation. You’ll want to go high if you feel you can sacrifice speed and defense for raw damage, or switch to low for quicker but weaker maneuvers. Stances can be changed on the fly, and enemies are more than happy to alter their own attack patterns too.
By finding one’s preferred weapon and learning the best uses for each stance, players will find themselves adequately prepped for the challenges ahead, and there will be challenges. Death comes frequently, handled similarly to Dark Souls (I know I keep bringing it up), with players leaving behind a grave site and getting a single chance to recover their lost Amrita – should they die again before accessing their grave, everything left there will be lost forever.
As an added twist, William gets to equip a single Guardian Spirit that confers several passive stat bonuses that can be expanded by leveling the Spirit state via Amrita. As well as providing useful buffs, these Spirits might be invoked temporarily as Living Weapons. After a gauge is filled, William’s allowed to trigger the weapon, negating all damage and providing some serious elemental harm based on the equipped Spirit.
The catch is that Guardian Spirits protect grave sites, meaning they’re gone if William respawns after death. They’ll return if the grave is found and touched (or they’re summoned back at the cost of the Amrita), and they’ll also return upon a second death (again lacking that Amrita), but even their temporary loss can be keenly felt.
Nioh‘s not been shy about its inspirations, which include western action-RPGs alongside the Soulsborne games. Diablo is the most specific game to come to mind, since Team Ninja went out of its way to drown players in scores of loot. Between eight core weapon types, armor for the head, legs, hands, and feet, and tons of accessories, there’s a near-overwhelming fountain of gear to pick up with tons of randomized statistical bonuses.
You better believe they’re color coded for rarity!
Favorite gear can be leveled at the blacksmith by sacrificing higher level items, and many of their bonuses can even be rerolled for a chance at something more useful. I think I’ve spent just as much time messing around with weapon customization as I have undertaking missions, constantly enhancing my gear and rolling the dice to see if I can get some juicy attack bonuses, Ki cost reduction, or free healing for every kill I score.
The two pillars of Nioh‘s creative success are ripped quite liberally from two massively popular games, that much is true.
The tough-but-fair, meticulous structuring of Dark Souls has been married to the dungeon crawling acquisition of treasure that compels so many Diablo fans. The way in which Nioh blends these two elements together so successfully, unified with a unique aesthetic and keenly polished gameplay, ensures this production is truly greater than the sum of its parts, far more than a mere copycat of successful predecessors.
If I’ve one major criticism it’s that boss fights aren’t quite as memorable as they could have been. They’re certainly tricky customers, and some of them are satisfying to finally put down, but they lack the kind of creativity one expects to find in a game such as this. Plus, some of them rely on obfuscated attack patterns and poorly telegraphed moves to get their shots in.
They’re not even that bad as far as bosses go, which is why it’s not a criticism I’m particularly aggrieved by. They’re simply not as spectacular as they deserve to be, on the whole.
For players who want scads of content, Nioh‘s got the bases covered. As well as lengthy story missions that players could spend hours exhausting of treasures, there are plenty of sidequests, excuses to replay levels, and a selection of tough-as-nails Twilight missions featuring stiffer competition in exchange for tempting loot. In truth there’s a ton I’ve got left to do and I’m quite happy about that. I want this one to just keep going.
There’s a ton of stuff to do with a world map that gradually fills to offer an exciting array of options and reasons to keep playing even when one gets a bit fatigued by all the clanging of steel and slaying of big-tusked demons.
Online play comes as standard, with connected Williams able to summon other Williams that have signed up to help. Handled better than the Souls games, it’s easy to put out a call for allies via any shrine while those seeking to lend aid can search for requests when navigating the world map.
Once together, players can explore any mission and, naturally, provide significant aid against any particularly meddlesome bosses. Going online can be a great way to stay invested and earn some quick rewards without pressing too far into uncharted territory, so it’s always worth hopping online here and there.
A major part of what makes Nioh so successful is its desire to consistently reward players for playing. These days, that’s an attitude to be applauded.
In spite of how brutal it can be, this is a game that’s loathe to turn its players away. As well as leveling stats via Amrita and accessing evermore tantalizing loot, player earn samurai skill points to unlock special moves for weapons, and additional points for the crafting of ninja tools and magical powers – if players are inclined to dabble in such side-gigs.
A number of in-game achievements, known as Titles, offer even further incentives, trading prestige points for titles that can be spent on even more passive bonuses. Oh, and weapons get more deadly as you use them and build up familiarity bonuses, because this is a game that wants you to play it constantly, and goes above and beyond in its efforts to maintain a relationship.
Whether you want to be a heavily armored, axe-wielding brute or a nimble ninja dropping poisonous clouds, Team Ninja has you covered with weapons, tricks, and tactics designed to cater to an impressive number of playstyles. It really is the complete package.
The staggering amount of effort Nioh puts in to winning its audience’s attention has paid off in spades.
Nioh is an arresting game, one that consistently encourages and spurs its players on even when it’s beating the tar out of them. It showers its challengers with increasingly powerful weaponry but is never shy about pummeling them via some hulking, terrifying demon from Japanese folklore’s ghastliest recesses.
When you mix in gorgeous looking artwork, as well as console graphic options that allow for adjustable framerate, you’ve got a game that really does go all out. This is backed up by terrific music, sound effects, and immersively diverse voice acting that crosses linguistic lines.
Nioh got attention for its similarities to other titles, but it deserves to be remembered as its own special game, one that sees and raises the efforts presented by its inspirations. With fast and uncompromising combat, an engrossing economy of loot, and a mesmerizing artistic style, action-RPGs have rarely been this refined or this captivating.
And the little green boys have bowls on their heads and that’s just delightful.