Platforms: PlayStation 4
Developers: Team Ninja
Produced by: Sony Interactive Entertainment; Koei Tecmo
Released: 7th February 2017 in NA, 8th February 2017 in PAL, 9th February 2017 in Japan
Play if you liked: Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Ninja Gaiden
When playing and reviewing Nioh, it’s almost unavoidable to make the obvious comparisons to Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
The parallels do run deep. Dark, brooding atmosphere? Check. Difficult, intense combat? Check. A lot of dying? You got it.
In spite of that, claiming that Nioh is just a Dark Souls clone is no more relevant than saying every first-person shooter is a clone of Doom. Sure, they all share a similar HUD and mechanically many feel almost identical – even down to their controls, but they’re all doing their own thing.
Nioh is very much doing its own thing.
As a matter of fact, Nioh reinforces the success and achievements that the ‘SoulsBorne’ franchise has managed, because only now is it apparent that it just may have kick-started a new genre of gaming which Team Ninja have simply used as a foundation.
As for the game itself, though, it’s absolutely its own entity and deserves to be treated as such – and will be for the purposes of this review.
Welcome to 16th Century Feudal Japan
Taking place in early 1600, Nioh’s plot unfolds across fictional, fantasy versions of the Sengoku and Edo periods.
To put it bluntly, the story is not really the shining star of the game, and it’s likely that Japan enthusiasts will find it much more compelling than those who are unfamiliar or have less interest in Japanese history and folklore. That said, Nioh does an expert job of providing a form of codex entry for every character and almost all Japanese cultural terms and items, complete with the correct English pronunciation. Although it’s very much a fantasy world, there’s things to be learned within the many detailed blurbs.
The story is definitely there, and presented reasonably well in the form of cutscenes and narrated comic book style images. Much of it is voiced in Japanese with English subtitles, though the main character, William, can often be heard speaking English in his native Irish accent.
The plot is standard. After taking control of William inside his Tower of London prison cell, it’s time to find an escape. It’s easy to achieve, and eventually he finds himself taking out the many guards and knights posted around the compound. The section acts as a tutorial of sorts and a chance to get a feel for the combat, which will be covered further down.
William arrives atop a guard tower and is met by the game’s antagonist – Edward Kelley. After having found a way to harness the powers of the much sought after Amrita stones, Kelley steals William’s guardian spirit, Saoirse, and flees to Japan where Amrita is in abundance. Thus begins William’s quest, which when broken down to its bare bones is essentially a ‘rescue the thing/person’ mission. Nothing completely engaging.
Still, it’s the journey that makes a story, and William’s is at least one that manages to hold attention. He crosses paths with several Japanese historical figures like Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Masanari, which along with the settings keeps the plot tethered to reality despite the heavy fantasy elements of the story – such as fighting Yokai (monsters and spirits based in Japanese folklore) and using magic.
The main storyline is mission based, rather than a single linear path. After each boss fight or mission completion you’re returned to the map screen to choose the next. There’s often plenty, including optional side missions and ‘Twilight’ missions – high difficulty replays of old missions for those with nerves and hearts of steel.
The side missions don’t add anything to the main plot and are usually devoid of cutscenes, but they add some character development and occasionally extra lore items for those who want it. They’re also often a welcome respite from the intensity of the main missions, offering a deserved breather.
It’s nothing to write home about and won’t be remembered in a year, but you’ll find yourself grateful that there’s a plot regardless.
Nioh’s niche is its combat, and it goes without saying that it is absolutely not for everybody.
It boasts a meticulously crafted combat system that, though we’ve seen before, introduces plenty of systems and mechanics of its own. The meat of it will feel instantly familiar – click the right stick to lock on to an enemy, hit X to dodge roll at the right time and use two buttons (square and triangle by default) to perform light and heavy attacks respectively. On the D-pad you can set shortcuts to commonly used items like elixir to restore health, shuriken and bombs that cause damage. Nothing revolutionary.
Nioh manages to reinvent the formula though. There are many different layers to the game’s combat, the most notable being the ability to invest points into seven different trees; five for each weapon class, one for Onmyo magic and one for Ninjutsu ninja abilities. As you unlock new skills, new ways to engage foes are available. For example, the Foot Sweep skill in the Kusarigama tree allows you to use the weapon’s long chain to swoop a careless enemy off their feet, allowing you to rush in for a heavy ground attack while they’re down. Likewise, the Water Sword skill lets you repeatedly slash enemies with your dual swords at great speed. These skills keep the combat feeling fresh and gives increasingly different ways to dispatch the many weaker enemies. Bigger and stronger enemies are a different kettle, though, and will require upgrading Onmyo and Ninjutsu to help keep them under control. There’s a group of skills that allow you to envelop your weapons in various elements like fire, water and wind, for example, or in the Ninjutsu tree you can prepare bombs, shuriken or caltrops. It adds an element of strategy to your encounters and can affect the outcome of a fight drastically.
Like elixir, any items you have prepared will replenish when praying at one of the sparsely spaced shrines – also used as checkpoints and places to spend your Amrita to level up. Choose wisely when you do this, because praying at a shrine also respawns all enemies you’ve previously cut down. Should you not bother, you risk losing all of the Amrita you’re holding upon death.
Nioh’s combat mechanics go deeper still and it’s here where the game really takes its own path and starts to let its uniqueness shine through – with a few hiccups.
The first new concept is the stance system. By holding R1 and pressing triangle, square or X, it’s possible to change William’s fighting stance to high for all out aggression; mid for slightly less damage output but a bonus to blocking; and low for a high defensive bonus at the expense of dealing high damage. It’s an interesting concept on paper, and the game tries to sell the idea that it’s crucial to winning fights. The problem is that it becomes apparent too early on that remaining in high stance for the entire game is completely viable providing you’re good at timing dodges and parries. Later in the game, there are bonuses that can be gained from switching stances on the fly during combat, but it’d be a lie to say I ever felt the need to take advantage of it. Still, it’s entirely possible that future, harder playthroughs or DLC might call for other stances to be utilised.
A page is also borrowed from Gears of War’s book with the ‘instant reload’ mechanic. Hitting reload at just the right moment in that game allowed for an instant refilling of the ammo clip, with no need to wait for the animation. In Nioh, hitting R1 at the right moment allows for a quick recovery of a large chunk of Ki – the game’s take on stamina. Unlike stances, this particular activity is crucial to surviving most fights. Running out of Ki mid-fight is a sure fire way to take massive damage and probably die a death, and recovering just enough to dodge an attack will save you on countless occasions. It becomes second nature very quickly, but adds another layer to the already complex system.
This is never truer than when engaging one of the game’s many excruciatingly difficult bosses. Every sliver of Ki and health are paramount in these battles, because even at full health it only takes two or three strikes from a boss for an instant death. A handful of bosses even have moves in their arsenal that will one-shot you if you’re not savvy enough to move or roll with pinpoint timing.
Boss battles are the heart of Nioh. Each and every one is crafted to suit the design of the level you’re currently playing, almost all of them horrifyingly disfigured and grotesque to look at. Although all of them can be beaten with practice and patience, finally defeating one is overwhelmingly gratifying and feels like a true accomplishment. On the flip-side, there’s also a lot of moments when you feel like punching yourself in the face, so maybe get the controller as far away as possible when you feel the rage bubbling.
You’re well rewarded for your efforts thanks to Nioh’s cool loot system. Every enemy slain drops something, use-able or total trash. Bigger Yokai and bosses frequently drop weapons and armour which is colour-coded for rarity, going from the common white items, into uncommon yellow, rare cyan and ‘One of a Kind’ purple. It’s been touted as a Diablo style system, though it’s arguable that Diablo’s is actually much deeper and varied. Still, it serves a purpose and does what it means to do well. Rarer items generally have better stats as you’d expect, but sometimes it’s viable to sacrifice one for a lower rarity if it suits your build. The one downside is that items and styles repeat an awful lot and it can be tough to keep track of what you want to keep or disassemble.After a while it’s easy to gravitate towards picking up every item you see and throwing it out without even checking its stats.
A few hours in, item sets start to drop that give a number of stat bonuses depending on how many items of the set you have equipped. This adds yet another layer to the combat system, because you’ll increasingly find yourself needing to utilise those bonuses to suit your chosen weapon type. The Red Demon set, for example, is tailored for spear wielders.
Loot that you don’t want or have out-levelled can be traded in for Amrita or broken down into materials and reforged into new items via the blacksmith. While the latter is a nice option to have, loot is so plentiful that the blacksmith was frequently forgotten about unless it was to ‘Refashion’ items into matching colours and styles – of which there are plenty that look incredible.
One popular mechanic curiously absent from Nioh is PvP. It’s already been confirmed to be coming later as DLC, but it’s questionable why it was left out. However, scattered around the game’s environments are blood stains that mark points where other players died. Hover near them and you’ll be shown information on what the player had equipped and what killed them. You can summon the player as a revenant and fight them for a chance at their loot, but they’re AI controlled and act as such, often charging in unguarded so you can dominate.
Co-operative play is very much present though, and players can be summoned any time at a shrine to help with as much of a level as you like.
Level Design and Collectables
It has to be said that Nioh’s level design does leave a tad to be desired.
While every area does fit the narrative and cultural style of Japan, some diversity in environments wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Almost all of the areas in the game are set during the night so are dark and foreboding, and while it was never expected to have levels of sunshine and rainbows, there’s only so many Japanese temples, dilapidated buildings and murky caverns you can explore before it starts to feel a little samey. That said, everything is beautifully designed.
A memorable level for me is titled ‘Falling Snow’, which as the name suggests, features a snowy textures and whiter colours – but it’s only one of a handful that break away from the generic mould. Even so, the level itself plays like the others, it’s just that it sticks out in memory because it looked so unique.
The level and enemy variety is where Nioh fails to miss a pitfall that many new franchises fall victim to. By no means does it make the game bad, but it’s a long old journey and it becomes tireless defeating the same five or six character models time and time again. The difficulty also takes a tumble, since by the mid-game you know the attack patterns of most enemies by heart. A little enemy variety across different levels would be nice for possible future instalments, but it doesn’t take too much away from this outing.
Most levels consist of fighting your way through the various trash mobs, using shrines as checkpoints and exploring all the available paths. Oftentimes paths will be blocked by chasms, locked doors or broken ladders. In those cases there’s a path to the other side and the option to create a shortcut back to your starting point by bridging the chasm, unblocking the door or kicking the ladder down. Otherwise, the majority of missions – especially ones in the early and mid-game – are disappointingly linear in places. Now and again the narrow paths branch off and you begin to enjoy some freedom, but most quickly prove to be dead ends and you can never shake the feeling that the game is always tunnelling you to a specific point. It will only be a problem for some players, since it doesn’t take away from the addicting joy of slashing the hell out of Yokai.
For the kleptomaniacs among us, Nioh even has a couple of things to find and collect. Looting glowing bodies will sometimes reward a tiny piece of lore, but scattered around every main mission are Kodama and hot springs.
The former are cute, little green creatures with bowls on their heads that can also be seen jumping around and playing instruments around shrines. Each level has between five and ten, and finding them allows you to activate a range of bonuses such as increased chance to find elixir or better loot. They’re well hidden too. Many are behind boxes, around concealed corners or on top of roofs, adding more reason to explore every area fully.
Hot springs, on the other hand, are small pools of water that are almost always tucked away behind obstructions and down nearly invisible paths. There’s at least one on every level, and bathing in it restores health and gives a health regeneration buff for a short time.
Collecting either of these is optional, but make exploring every nook and cranny of a level much more meaningful.
Nioh has given me more enjoyment than any game in the past six months. I’m yet to dive into New Game+, but faster gamers than me report that new loot tiers and gameplay changes still await. The game isn’t without its downsides, and there are certainly aspects that can be improved and have been done better by other games in the genre.
Team Ninja have succeeded in building upon the foundations that were laid down by From Software. While this newly forming genre hasn’t managed to find a name that sticks yet, we’re certainly going to be seeing more games that use the formula and hopefully continue to improve and refine.
There are very few games that can match the thrill that Nioh can provide when fighting the hardest bosses it has to offer. While that kind of challenge isn’t for every gamer, don’t write it off simply because you didn’t enjoy, play or got too stuck on Dark Souls or Bloodborne. Give it a try. Attempt to learn its mechanics and master its complex systems. Exert patience. Practice. You just might be surprised how quickly you defeat your first boss and start to feel like an unstoppable Samurai.