I really wasn’t looking forward to reviewing Nioh. I played the alpha demo last April and came away completely disappointed in a game that I was originally anticipating in a big way. The camera was a joke, the loot system was more a hassle than a boon, and the insane difficulty kept me from having any fun. So when a package from Sony came to my doorstep with a review copy, I poured myself a big glass of scotch and sat down with more than a little trepidation. Thankfully, however, Nioh ended up being the first real surprise of 2017 and shows a revitalized Team Ninja ready to take on the world. There are a couple of problems that keep it from being an instant classic, but Nioh is a challenging experience that manages to expand the Dark Souls formula into an exciting new territory.
(I have to make a note here that I’m going to frequently compare Nioh to Dark Souls. This may annoy or enrage some of our readers, but Team Ninja was clearly inspired by From Software, and comparing the ins and outs of the two approaches is the best way to analyze what does and doesn’t work in Nioh.).
The story of Nioh is… Okay, it’s kind of a giant mess that you should probably ignore. All you need to know is Irish sailor William Adams loses his beloved guardian spirit (it’s like a magical familiar or something) to a weirdly pale magician and must travel to Japan to reclaim what has been lost. Along his journey, William’s path crisscrosses with various historical figures of the tumultuous Sengoku period, but none of this is directly related to the monster slaying you engage with. What’s a real headscratcher is just how much time is devoted to various cutscenes and blocks of text that try to give context to what William is doing. Team Ninja could have just given players a moody atmosphere and sense of dread akin to Onimusha, but constantly trying to tie your missions to a story ends up failing in almost every respect. You’ll get a mission to investigate an evil group of mages, or maybe head off a retreating general, but it all amounts to killing humans and monsters in level after level.
And the basic level structure is probably Nioh’s biggest departure from the Souls formula that it clearly draws inspiration from. All of the areas are disparate, with a map separating every encounter and potential sub mission. While this hurts the overall fluidity of the experience, it does pay off when it comes to replays or engaging in jolly cooperation online. It’s far easier to have fun with a friend or random stranger in Nioh (though you can only help people after you’ve completed a mission, and co-op is limited to two players), and I’m sure a huge community is going to sprout around this design conceit.
Nioh certainly throws you into the deep end as soon as you gain control of William. Following a pretty nice tutorial in the Tower of London, you’ll learn the ways of the samurai just in time to land flat on your face the first time you fight a would-be assailant. Between stances, ki pulses, five main weapon types, yōkai realms, and large skill trees, Nioh asks more of the player than just about any game in recent memory. Even after my experience with the demo last year, the opening hours of Nioh are probably the most arduous task I’ve ever engaged in when it comes to my nearly twenty-five years of gaming. Thankfully, the various problems from the demo (awful camera placement and “gotcha” encounters) have all been smoothed out to create a far better sense of pace and reward. I said before that Nioh works best when you face an enemy one-on-one, and the developers seem to have listened and focused on this style of combat.
Eventually, I noticed that I was dying less and starting to find success in the samurai jungle of Japan. Half of my trouble was figuring out when to use the specific stances. Coming off of a great deal of Bloodborne and Dark Souls III, I was expecting mid stance to keep me safe if I was dodging between attacks, but it wasn’t working quite as expected. I made the switch to low stance and found a damn near night and day experience with Nioh. I was suddenly more mobile and able to guard against an errant enemy swing. True, I wasn’t doing as much damage, but it kept me breathing and fighting. I now find myself only switching to high stance when I need to break through an adversary’s guard, but I’m sure other would-be samurai will find their own paths to success. What makes Nioh so special is just how deep this combat system can go. Everything is governed by ki (the analog to stamina in the Souls games), and you’ll quickly learn to take advantage of the pulse system to regain ki after a series of attacks. It acts very similar to an active reload in Gears of War, and it adds just a little extra spice and player input. You can also use pulses to remove yōkai realms that halt your natural ki replenishment, and certain skills take advantage of a full pulse to give you minor statistical advantages. It’s a lot to take in, though, and I’m sure some people will find Nioh almost too much to handle.
There are only five main weapon types, which is both a blessing and a curse. Each weapon has a dizzying number of moves and permutations, but those who complained about Bloodborne’s limited toolset will find a lot of problems with Nioh. I’m also not convinced that the weapons are balanced in their current form. Maybe it’s just personal preference, but I can’t imagine anyone turning away from the spear’s balance of power and range compared to the other available weapons, and some bosses actively made my life a living hell when I tried to hit them with the far slower heavy axe.
Nioh attempts to add its own spin on loot by bringing us a Diablo-like system of colored rarity and various character boosts. You may only have five weapon types, but you’re inundated with swords, spears, helmets, pants and boots to sift through, sell, or breakdown into component materials. Every piece is lovingly crafted and beautiful to behold, but I’m not sure this really adds anything to the experience. Having chosen spears early in my playthrough, I would only swap my weapon when something with a higher damage output came along. While there are some interesting bonuses to be found (like ki reduction on attacks or higher block rates), the action-based combat remains the focus above all of the RPG elements. Maybe things will get more nuanced as I continue to roll through New Game+, but I found the loot to be more of a hassle and nuisance than anything else. This also directly affects the level design, as finding randomized loot turns the game into more of a dungeon crawl than I had expected. It’s not a bad thing, per se, but it prevents the levels from standing out as much as From Software’s best. Remember finding the Iaito in Blighttown? Yeah, nothing like that really happens in Nioh.
Twenty hours into Nioh and I was feeling like the ultimate badass samurai. It took a long time to get there, but eventually I was floating through attacks and striking with the fury of a waterfall (or something like that). I hit a plateau of fun with Team Ninja’s latest that had me smiling and sweating in equal measure. Unfortunately, two key problems keep Nioh from greatness. The first issue is the level design. Nearly every stage attempts to recreate a small-scale Souls environment based around shortcuts and passageways, but they very rarely come together in a positive way. There are a couple standout areas (like a ninja castle filled with hidden assassins and rotating doors), but most levels are overly complicated and lack any sort of visual identity or key locations with which to keep your bearings. The worst offenders sent me wandering down path after path until I nearly gave up trying to find a shortcut or shrine (think bonfire/checkpoint). It seems almost every Souls-like game avoids using a map because, hey, From Software didn’t use a map, but none of these games have managed to capture the sense of place, space and scale as Yharnam or Lordran. Compounding this issue in Nioh is the limited bestiary. After reaching the third main area of six, I ended up growing bored of fighting the same enemies in the same methods over and over. I’ve killed countless yōkai and human soldiers, and nothing could really stand up to my abilities by that point. Team Ninja took the lazy route to difficulty and gave the enemies inhabiting the game’s final areas a stupid number of hit points to keep you slogging through the hordes until you make a mistake and die. I hoped there would be some new horrors to challenge me, but killing another cyclops followed by another tongue demon got old real quick. It feels like Nioh has about twenty hours of stuff to show you, but ends up trying to double that so there’s enough *cringe* content. Worse still, the side quests are little more than remixed versions of the main missions. Team Ninja certainly gets a lot of mileage out of Nioh’s world, but it makes the whole thing feel very small and claustrophobic at times.
The biggest issue in Nioh, however, is undoubtedly its boss fights. Just about every main mission ends in a boss that feels more like a roadblock preventing me from experiencing the best parts of the game. I hope you like insanely quick grab attacks and two-hit death combos, because Nioh’s bosses are filled with this type of frustrating garbage that had me inventing new swear words. I only had “fun” with a handful of these tough customers, but the vast majority felt like a migraine mixed with a colonoscopy. A couple bosses break the basic mechanics of the game, ignoring your attacks and never losing ki to any of your strikes. This brings us back to the loot system, as you’ll start to second guess whether you are outfitted correctly when you drop to an out of nowhere combo after whittling down a boss’s mammoth health bar. Oh, did I mention that bosses have so much health that these fights degenerate into five to ten minute surgical precision death battles where one mistake leads you back to a shrine depleted of health elixirs (and, yup, you may find yourself needing to farm for those, too)? None of these fights are visually interesting, either. Nothing matches the nightmarish grandeur of Ludwig or the palpable danger of Nito. And there’s a few gimmick bosses that somehow outdo the worst From Software has ever put out… Ugh.
Nioh manages to carve (ha!) its own identity by expanding on the Souls template. I fell in love with the combat after I finally wrapped my head around it, and it’s going to be hard to go back after experiencing a game that’s this responsive and snappy. The depth in each weapon is also a welcome addition, and I’m sure we’re going to see some crazy YouTube videos that push Nioh’s mechanics to the limit. Unfortunately, Nioh eventually runs out of steam and begins to fall into rote repetition. I would love to fight some new challengers given how far my skills have developed, but all I have left is large damage sponges with the same attack patterns. And then there are the bosses, and I’d rather not think about them because my blood pressure can’t handle it. Nioh may not be the instant classic many were hoping for, but it’s a far better game than I was expecting and easily my favorite Team Ninja game to date. There is a lot of room for improvement, but I’m glad I was wrong about Nioh.