With Nioh, Team Ninja has created that rarest of all beasts: a video game that gets compared to the Soulsborne games and yet actually warrants the comparison. Team Ninja quotes Dark Souls as inspiration although the frantic pace of combat and focus on offense instead of defense means that Bloodborne will be most prevalent in players’ minds as they push through a challenging, but enjoyable, campaign.
Developers attempting to mimic From Software’s formula often end up with a poor imitation of the real thing, however Team Ninja has created a fresh experience by mixing in influence from other series such as Ninja Gaiden, Onimusha, and Diablo. Nioh manages to stand on its own, despite uninspiring level design and a poor story.
Nioh tells a high-fantasy story loosely based on the real-life historical figure William Adams, who is believed to be the first western samurai. William travels to Japan on the hunt for his Guardian Spirit, Saoirse, after she was stolen by Kelley to help him find magical amrita stones on behalf of Queen Elizabeth.
Once William arrives in Japan, he meets Hanzo Hattori and agrees to join the side of Lord Ieyasu in the war threatening to divide Japan. From here, the story becomes a disjointed mess of weak excuses for William to travel to new locations to kill more yokai, mythical Japanese demons created from human emotions of anger and despair.
Team Ninja’s attempt to tell a story involving real historical figures and events is worthy of admiration, however the execution is woefully lacking and wastes quality voice acting and excellent animations. Every cutscene leaves you questioning who the characters are and what they just did. Characters are introduced without so much as a mention of their name, let alone their motivations. There’s a character log on the menu that adds information as you progress through the game, but it’s only ever adding in information after the fact. At the end of every cutscene, I had to dig through these “memories” to work out what the hell just happened.
Thankfully, Nioh doesn’t rely on its story to get you hooked. The combat is fast and challenging, with enough depth that you’ll continue to improve throughout the sixty or so hours it will take you to finish the main campaign. The options for combat are exhausting. William can choose two weapons from a selection of five: swords, dual swords, spears, axes, and kusarigama, chains with a lead weight on the end. Any combination is workable although I recommend combining a fast weapon with a slow one. Combat starts off as a set of basic light and heavy attacks with blocking and dodging for defense but soon opens up into a complex system of combos, stamina management, and stance switching. Playing in high stance makes you slower but able to hit harder, while in low stance you will be nimble but your attacks will be more like an aggressive tickle with a sharp feather.
Whatever weapons you choose, you’ll need to master the game’s stamina system, known as ki. As you attack, you use up your ki however you can quickly regain it by pressing R1 at just the right time you’ve finished your combo. This is essential when fighting large yokai who create pools of yokai corruption on the floor in which your ki regeneration is drastically slowed.
As you level up, you unlock skill points to customize your combat options, such as sneak attacks, parries, or ki boosts when you switch stances during a combo. You might start off playing Nioh by hammering light attack from the low stance, but before you know it, you’ll be doing combos in high stance, before switching to medium stance mid-combo to regain all your stamina, then jumping over the enemy and performing a back stab to finish off another helpless yokai.
You’ll need to master all these abilities as you make your way through a yokai-infested Japan with enemies varying from spear-wielding minions to large one-eyed Oni with fists bigger than your head. The enemy variety encourages you to mix up weapons and stances even if you are likely to favor one particular stance for most of your playthrough. If a yokai lumbers at you with a spear, then a low-stance sword attack is likely the best option, whereas lightning fast ninjas might be better handled with a high-stance spear attack that lets you stay at distance. As for enemies such as the Fire Monk–a wheel that rolls at you while spitting fire all over the place–well, if you figure out how to take them on, let me know in the comments.
The ultimate test of your abilities is Nioh’s boss fights, of which there are twenty-four in the main game and plenty of repeat fights in optional side quests. The bosses are a mixture of wild beasts such as the lightning-summoning part-tiger, part-monkey, part-snake Nue, and humans with similar skill sets and weaknesses to your own. Four or five of these bosses do nothing new or exciting and could easily be removed, however that still leaves about twenty mechanically interesting and often challenging fights.
Nioh is a hard game, but in true Dark Souls tradition, it is rarely unfair. The boss fights encapsulate that perfectly. While you might scream and curse after your tenth death to a quick vampire who seemingly never stops moving, your frustration will be targeted at yourself, not the game. Whereas Soulsborne games often have large beast bosses that don’t fit on the screen, Nioh has bosses with clearly telegraphed moves that are always easy to spot. Reacting quickly enough is another matter altogether. There are tracking attacks and a few hit detection issues, but for the most part, you’ll learn from every fight and get better each time. Usually.
If a boss crosses the line from challenging to frustrating, you can level the playing field with magic or ninjutsu skills which offer you an almost unfair advantage. With a good magic build, you can debuff an enemy’s attack and defense and then slow the enemy down for about ten seconds while you rain down samurai hell. Ninjutsu gives you poison, large bombs, and shuriken, in addition to bonus elixirs. You likely won’t have enough skill points to master both ninjutsu and magic in one playthrough, however if you get bored with one you can reassign your stats once for free. Changing your build changes the game. There’s a huge difference between using a sword and spear, with complimentary magic skills, compared to using dual swords and a kusarigama with ninjutsu skills. You’re still William Adams, but you’re a completely different samurai.
Your weapon choice works in tandem with your choice of gear, particularly your decision to go with heavy or light armor, or perhaps somewhere in between. You’ll collect an almost obscene amount of gear as you play through the levels and if you do a lot of the side quests you’ll end up spending far too much time with the blacksmith selling or scraping the crap. It does become a little cumbersome at times, but you don’t have to grind for loot. Not until the end game, at least.
Weapons and armor come in four different rarities, with the rarer gear typically having useful bonus stats such as elemental damage or XP buffs. You can also forge rare gear at the blacksmith if you have the required materials. The blacksmith offers a service called soul matching which lets you sacrifice a higher level piece of gear to bring another piece up to that level thereby increasing the base damage/defense. This lets you keep wearing gear with good stat bonuses or stuff you think looks cool.
While you’re offered substantial choice to create your own playstyle and loadout, the same cannot be said for how you’ll progress through the game’s linear and often claustrophobic levels. Regardless of whether you’re fighting through a battlefield towards a castle or slogging through poisonous silver mines, you’re nearly always funneled through a narrow path towards your destination in a way that is more akin to Crash Bandicoot than Bloodborne. Paths split occasionally to give you a modicum of choice for the route you take, but it’s still just another thin path which will either lead you to the end of the level or a random piece of loot.
The restrictive levels often border on the absurd. A village under siege initially looks interesting until you realize that the fire and debris force you to take a particular route through and around the houses to make the level feel much longer than it is. Or there’s the large mountain area that looks open as you cross a large rope bridge, only to find that the wooded area has rocks and trees to stop you moving off the narrow path.
Nioh tries to make up for its underwhelming levels by providing side quests that players can tackle when they need a break from the main campaign. These side quests come in three main varieties: twilight missions; ‘reverse level’ missions; and combat zones. The twilight missions are tougher versions of normal levels with revised enemy placement to up the challenge. You’re rewarded with materials for forging rare gear but it’s not enough of an incentive to make you want to replay a level–including the boss–when you’ve only recently completed it.
‘Reverse level’ side quests typically require you to go back to the level you just left and play it in reverse under the pretense of killing dangerous yokai or collecting a rare sword. Finally, the combat zones pit you against multiple tough enemies at once usually in three stages until you’re awarded loot or materials. Occasionally, you’ll fight a tougher version of a boss you fought in the main campaign. There’s no shortage of content in Nioh but there is a shortage of memorable levels.
Nioh’s two largest problems–its story and level design–could both be fixed by cutting down on the number of levels. The story suffers from the need to constantly move William from place to place on the often flimsy pretense of “killing more yokai.” Larger levels with a degree of player freedom would easily make up for a small reduction in the number of locations. Team Ninja went for quantity over quality with Nioh’s levels and the game suffers as a result.
The smaller levels, combined with lots of shortcuts and save points, ensure that you won’t lose your hard earned amrita (XP) all that often. I reclaimed my amrita after death on all but about 3 occasions. Annoyingly, if you leave a level before it’s completed, all the shortcuts and save points are reset. Some levels have multiple boss fights and can easily take two hours to complete despite their small size. If you get to the end boss and have to quit… well, try not to. The shrines and shortcuts also reset if you choose to replay a level. It’s annoying.
Credit where it’s due, Nioh looks as good as a game can look in 720p. The game manages a near-constant 60fps and it’s buttery smooth as a result. Going back to 30fps Bloodborne after this was borderline painful. Nioh has a “movie mode” that offers 1080p at a reduced 30fps and a variable mode which aims for a higher resolution at a variable frame rate. The slight improvement to the visuals in 1080p doesn’t come close to making up the difference in frame rate, so I recommended sticking to the default. On PS4 Pro, Nioh hits 60fps at 1080p, and higher resolutions if you sacrifice the frame rate.
A notable omission in Nioh is PVP. Instead, you fight revenants, the spirits of dead players, for the chance to win a piece of the gear they were wearing when they died. These fights can be tough, but they don’t replicate fights against real people. They’re just another samurai to fight, albeit one that happens to use elixirs and offers more of a challenge than a standard enemy.
While there are no PVP invasions, you can summon other players for co-op. Summoning brings in a player who has already completed the mission and is likely a high enough level to take the edge off of even the toughest bosses. Annoyingly, you can’t play co-op with a friend unless you’ve both already completed the level which makes the whole thing somewhat pointless. This even applies to new game plus, which is completely unnecessary. A lot of new game plus is a loot grind and while I don’t have a huge problem with that, the grind would be far more enjoyable if I could do it with a friend.
Nioh is difficult and the frantic pace of its combat means that even Soulsborne veterans can expect a challenge. Nioh’s combat system starts off simple, but the game gradually throws new features at you until you’re a shuriken-throwing ninja, a spell-dealing samurai, a lumbering axe-wielding soldier, or a combination of all three. You can focus on basic attacks or add in combo finishers, parries, and sneak-attacks. There are more than enough options for three completely different, yet equally satisfying playthroughs.
The lack of level variety is an issue, however I enjoyed every single fight thanks to the varied and deep combat. With three stances, five weapon types, skills, ninjutsu, and magic, it’s hard to get bored during a fifty to sixty-hour campaign and you’ll likely jump straight into new game plus without stopping for breath. Team Ninja set its sights high with Nioh, seeking to create a samurai-inspired Soulsborne game, with a distinct personality and combat style. Somehow, Team Ninja pulled it off.