For those of you who still don’t know, which would likely be most of you, I’ve never played any of the games that are part of the new sort of genre known as “Souls-Type”. Not the Demon’s/Dark Souls games, not Bloodborne, not even the similar Lords of the Fallen. This reviewer sometimes gets easily frustrated as it is when playing certain games, and after hearing much about how frustrating and challenging these “Souls-Type” games can be, I decided to not get involved with them in order to avoid any unneeded bouts of frustration and self-loathing (I get enough of those as it is). But after Nioh was brought to my attention about a year ago, I saw it as the perfect game to introduce me to this particular “genre” of action-RPGs. Its focus on feudal era Japan, samurai and ninjas, and Japanese-styled demons had me hooked from the get-go. It looked like the spiritual successor of the long-dead Onimusha series combined with the more updated “Souls-Type” gameplay and the fast-paced ferocity of developer Team Ninja’s other hit ninja/demon-focused series of games, Ninja Gaiden. I played the Alpha and Beta demos for Nioh last summer, and while they were indeed punishing, it turns out they weren’t impossible, and I enjoyed them greatly (especially the Beta). So, how’s the full game? Kickass, that’s how it is. Tis not without its flaws, but the game’s pros largely outweigh the cons.
You are Geralt of Riv- I mean William, an Irish-born pirate who finds himself imprisoned within the Tower of London. Before making his escape, William’s personal Guardian Spirit and best friend is taken from him by one of the main antagonists, so he then endeavors to follow his enemy’s trail to Japan in order to save his friend. Naturally, there are evil forces at work here that seek to impede William’s progress, but other like-minded individuals like the ninja Hattori Hanzo and the mage Fuku decide to join William and assist him (in the cutscenes, at least) in defeating the demons, or yokai, that are also causing havoc across their homeland. Much like in Koei Tecmo’s Samurai Warriors and Warriors Orochi games (as well as Capcom’s previously mentioned Onimusha series), Nioh features many of Japan’s most popular historical figures in its story, such as the aforementioned Hattori Hanzo, Ieyasu Tokugawa, Ishida Mitsunari, Shima Sakon, Tachibana Muneshige, and many more. Unfortunately, the game’s huge cast of characters, as impressive and well-modeled as they look, can’t hide the utterly weak narrative.
While I know little of the stories in the Demon’s/Dark Souls and Bloodborne games, I know that most of the lore in those games is revealed less through cutscenes and more through exploration and finding bits of hidden information within the game worlds themselves. This is not the case with Nioh. This is a mission-based game with separate levels, and while many of them have collectibles to find and secret areas to uncover, they have very little or nothing to do with expanding on the game’s lore. The cutscenes themselves are short and offer very little in terms of narrative. New characters are introduced in almost every cutscene, and many times they are there for mere moments and are usually asking William to take care of their problems for them. Sometimes we’re not even told who these characters are until later when they speak to William through text boxes while on the world map between missions. There’s just very little exposition and character development all around, so it’s difficult to care about most of these characters or even what’s going on between Japan’s warring clans, since in the end it all leads to William just advancing to the next level to kill more enemies.
As expected, Nioh is carried by its gameplay. Once you start a mission, you are left to fend for yourself. Enemies can and will cut you down mercilessly if you’re not careful. Even the lowliest of bandits will devastate you if you’re too slow to defend yourself or let more than one of them surround you, never mind the more deadly samurai and ninja enemies, not to mention the yokai. The thing is, while most enemies have patterns to their attacks that can be exploited, they can still make short work of you if you’re not at the top of your game. Despite the challenge, the game rarely feels unbalanced. Running out of Ki (stamina) leaves you unable to attack or dodge for a second or two, but you can thankfully still move around. But, if you run out of Ki by being hit by attacks or even from blocking them, then William will be left huffing and puffing harder than a certain wolf we all know who has a taste for pork. However, enemies are also susceptible to these same setbacks when running out of Ki (it’s slightly different for yokai, though they’re still at a disadvantage). This system really helps in making enemies, especially bosses, seem like they’re not entirely insurmountable obstacles, but it does so without making them feel like pushovers (because they’re not). It really is impeccably balanced.
Naturally, the bosses offer more of a challenge than the regular enemies. Some are surprisingly easy, though most are challenging and some even seem like unbeatable foes that cannot be toppled, but even the mightiest boss can be beaten with dedication and proper tactics, as well as by familiarizing yourself with their attack patterns. Now, the earlier missions were strangely easy for me overall, especially after letting myself get overleveled. It got to the point where I was purposely leveling myself up little by little while still keeping most of my experience points (Amrita) stored away so that I didn’t go too far above the recommended levels for each mission. This didn’t last too long though, since the higher your level gets, the more Amrita you’ll need to reach the next one, and soon I was out of my surplus experience points.
Like in the Souls games, each of your stats (Heart, Strength, Spirit, Stamina, etc.) affect different aspects of combat and survivability, whether it’s how powerful you are with technical weapons or more heavy weapons, how much weight you can carry in terms of armor, how effective ninja or magic items are, etc. The main weapons you can choose from are swords, dual swords, spears, axes/hammers, and kusarigamas, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, swords are solid, all-purpose weapons that require getting in close to your enemies, spears offer more reach (and flexibility?) but aren’t too useful in more cramped or narrow environments, and axes hit hard but are also slow. You can use as few or as many weapons as you want as well, the choice is yours (I’m a sword and axe guy myself). The use of bows, rifles, and cannons was also well done in this game. They are fired from an over-the-shoulder perspective, and while they’re not all that practical in direct confrontations, using them to pick off enemies or at least weaken stronger ones from a distance before they’ve noticed you can be invaluable in making upcoming battles more manageable.
All these weapons, both melee weapons and firearms, have familiarity meters that fill up the more you use them, and reaching full familiarity allows these weapons to grow in strength and also improves the effectiveness of their special attributes, whether they be providing life recovery for each successful strike on an enemy or adding elemental attributes to their attacks. Combine all this with the low, mid, and high combat stances William can take advantage of that offer increased agility, improved blocking, and stronger attacks, respectively, as well as the many skills and combos available for each weapon, and you’ve got all that you need to make William a force to be reckoned with. And don’t forget to take advantage of his Guardian Spirits, of which there are many to choose from. Temporarily granting William with increased attack power and invulnerability, they can really come through for you in a pinch. As a sidenote, one aspect of the combat that I found to be a rather minor flaw involves exploiting enemies’ weaknesses to elemental attacks or debilitations, namely fire, water, lightning, earth, wind, poison, and paralysis. I felt it could have been done better. As it is, most enemies aren’t really weak to any kind of element, and those that are don’t take a particularly large amount of extra damage when you do attack them with an element they are “weak” against.
The different types of light, medium, and heavy armor you can wear add further buffs to William’s stats, like increasing health, defense, ki/stamina, or resistance against the previously mentioned elements and debilitations. By visiting the blacksmith between missions, weapons and armor can be purchased or sold, and you can also take advantage of the “soul matching” option which lets you power up one weapon or piece of armor by sacrificing another weapon or piece of armor and using it as material, or you can use the “reforge” option which lets you choose an attribute for a weapon or piece of armor and replace it with a random one. There’s a bit of a learning curve to using these functions, but they’re easy enough to use once you do. Except the “forge” option for making new weapons and armor, I simply have no idea how that works. The in-game tutorial for using the forge is very basic and doesn’t go over any specifics of the process whatsoever, plus it just seems strangely complicated. Even looking up a somewhat more detailed tutorial online didn’t help me since I simply couldn’t follow the whole thing with using materials like iron and cords and deciding their rarity levels before using them to forge weapons or armor. I’m fine with games not holding your hand or making everything too obvious, but to me they took it a bit far with this forge stuff. In any case, I didn’t need the forge since I was getting new weapons and armor left and right as loot drops from defeated enemies, in chests, and from completing missions. But it’s there for those gamers who want to use it, assuming they can figure out how it works.
As previously mentioned, Nioh is made up of separate missions split into main and sub-missions. The sub-missions aren’t mandatory, but they’re normally worth playing through since they provide extra opportunities for gaining more Amrita and other weapons and items. This goes double for the special training missions that pop up in the game’s “dojo” as you progress, where certain characters offer William some extra training in weapons combat, ninja items (Ninjutsu), and magic techniques (Onmyo). Furthermore, completing these training missions lets you unlock the higher tier skills for your weapons, Ninjutsu, and Onmyo. The main and sub-missions, when you get right down to it, are all very similar. You begin at the starting point, and as you explore the level you can find alternate routes and shortcuts to other shrines where you can save your game and replenish your health, level up, equip Ninjutsu and Onmyo, switch Guardian Spirits, etc. You will, of course, be fighting an effectively endless number of enemies in these levels since they respawn whenever you use a shrine or die, and let’s face it, at some point one of those things IS going to happen, no matter how good or skilled you are. Speaking of dying, much like in the Souls games, a grave marked by your Guardian Spirit will be left where you last fell, and getting back to it will let you retrieve your Guardian Spirit and your Amrita along with it. Dying again before you can reach your grave will have you lose all your Amrita, but at least your Guardian Spirit will return to you (plus, there are items that let you call forth your Guardian Spirit from your grave without you having to physically go back to it, and some of these items even let you retrieve your Amrita as well).
Despite the levels taking place in different locations, such as temples, forests, fields, and villages, they are all laid out very much the same for the most part. Though there are exceptions, like a ruined snowy village which felt like an endless maze, or a ninja headquarters filled with traps and rotating walls. So yeah, there is definitely some repetition to this game, but soon enough it gets broken up by a particularly tough boss fight or a group of strong enemies barring your path to your destination. There is an online portion to this game, and believe it or not, I actually gave it a try for a bit. I’m not really into online play, but being able to assist other players as they make their way through the game’s main and sub-missions was surprisingly fun. You can also invite other players to join your game, though I personally did not partake in that. All in all, Nioh has definitely got the goods. It’s action packed and challenging, has deep and satisfying combat, and there are plenty of collectibles and secrets to find in the levels, and there are also those Twilight Missions that let you replay previous missions with tougher enemies lurking about but that also provide greater rewards. And I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent in the equipment menu just choosing the right combination of weapons and armor with the most beneficial stats to make William the strongest (and most badass looking) samurai in Japan. I imagine Souls veterans will find this game to be a worthy contender, and those new to the “Souls-Type” games, like myself, could certainly do worse than to take their first stab at the genre with the honed samurai’s blade that is Nioh.
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: 7th February 2017 (North America), 8th February 2017 (PAL), 9th February 2017 (Japan)