Nioh Review – The path to mastery is a rocky one, amrita?

It’s really hard to approach Nioh without talking about From Software’s Souls franchise’s influence on modern videogame design. Nowadays, practically every game to come out with action RPG elements is invariably compared to Souls. While From Software’s groundbreaking work is undeniable, it’s worth pulling the break and look at games for their own merits. Nioh borrows many elements from those games, but it would feel lazy to just call it a “Souls clone” and be done with it. Not only would it be a disservice to what’s easily Team Ninja’s best title in years, it would also be selling it criminally short.

Nioh’s a redemption of sorts for the troubled developer. The game’s development proved to be quite an interesting process, given how open Team Ninja was to suggestions as they served the game in continuously more complete state for players to try out in three separate public tests, two of which I participated and saw for myself just how the game changed between versions. Although still very much on everyone’s mind thanks to just how much of an impact Ninja Gaiden had on the industry back in 2004, Team Ninja has been struggling to get a foothold in the generations of consoles that followed, putting out flop after flop ever since star developer Tomonobu Itakagaki left the studio back in 2008.

That’s not to say that Itagaki was the only one responsible for the popularity of the studio during the Xbox days; heck, he hasn’t really done well on his own (see Devil’s Third lackluster reception back in 2015), proving that something clicked with the Ninja Gaiden reboot nearly fifteen years ago. It blew the competition out of the water thanks to its smooth and extremely fast gameplay that ultimately rewarded you for learning through repetition. The same argument could be raised for difficult games as a whole, but it was Ninja Gaiden that started the trend in modern games of beating the idea of mastering it without (mostly) resorting to cheap tactics, giving you the tools you needed to do the job, not pulling any punches along the way.

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So where does Nioh fit into this? It’s clear that it doesn’t try to directly imitate the Souls games; it’s its own thing that just happens to be structured in a similar way to them, but then again, the same could be said about all games that come out a little after a landmark title hits. It’s happened with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time back in 1998, and it’s been going on ever since Dark Souls came out. Undoubtedly, their mechanics might not be wholly original, but were so honed and refined that they’ve become staples of modern videogame design.

Apparently based on an unreleased Akira Kurosawa script, Nioh opens in 17th century England with protagonist William, an Irish sailor trapped in the Tower of London for unknown reasons. After promptly breaking out thanks to the help of his guardian spirit, he discovers the plans of an evil alchemist who then steals his guardian and flees to feudal Japan in order to use the mysterious power of amrita — Nioh’s equivalent to souls — to harness the strength of demons in order to promote war, but most importantly, keep it a secret from the rest of the world, as ordered by Queen Elizabeth, who used it to secure her victory against Spain’s “invincible” armada. It’s a slightly absurd premise admittedly, but it serves as a nice excuse to bring William to Japan and have him learn the ways of the samurai, the ninja, and even the onmyo mages, and also to meet many of the legendary names from Japanese history, like Ieyasu Tokugawa, Hattori Hanzo, Kuroda Kanbei, and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, as well as take part in a few famous and historically important events such as the battle of Sekigahara, which gave way to the relatively peaceful Edo period in Japan.

For as crazy and fantastical some of the events in Nioh can get, the locations and characters feel grounded and real thanks to Koei’s tradition of faithfully reproducing actual landmarks and characters in decades of producing historical games like the Nobunaga’s Ambition series. Unlike Dark Souls, the story plays out via cutscenes and through scripted events, but there’s also plenty to be gathered from items too, with thorough and surprisingly interesting flavor text, from armor sets passed down from the many clans from Japan to lesser items like… dung. Yes, even those have something behind them.

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The way gear works in Nioh is also pretty in-depth. In a more Diablo sort of treatment, dropped loot from enemies and treasure boxes seemingly goes for quantity over quality. That is, you’re showered with all kinds of armor and weapons that range in rarity and usefulness throughout the game. The rarest and best ones obviously take a little more work to find, the brunt of your pickups serving as spare parts for the eventual crafting you’ll do via the blacksmith. Or you can simply sell them and get the money needed to fund the ludicrously expensive item combination system, in which you put two distinct set of weapons and armor, and combine them into something with stronger stats, like the way monster wrangling works in Puzzle & Dragons. You can also get gear by killing the ghosts of defeated players that are summoned at tombstones marked by bloody swords that litter Nioh’s levels. If they happen to be carrying rare loot, there’s a good chance they’ll drop it if you can beat them.

With that in mind, it’s important to find a playstyle you like and speccing your character around it, both gear and stats-wise. Nioh’s leveling is certainly the closest tie to From Software’s games, treating the amrita enemies drop as points you use to level up and add a point to any of William’s statistics. Unlike those games, though, Nioh straight up tells you which stats help with what weapon and skill you might want to use, making it much easier to form a path that favors the way you like playing the game. You’re also given points the more you use and master weapon types, that in turn can be used to unlock moves that can help boost your powers or even factor into customizable combos. Out of the three skill trees you can unlock, the samurai section is the one you’ll want to focus into at the start of the game. The ninja and onmyo only really open up a little further into Nioh, providing some of the more useful skills, like imbuing elemental seals for weapons, or the ability to nerf an enemy’s attributes.   

The combat in Nioh gives you plenty of room to sink into and feel comfortable experimenting with different move sets thanks to the sheer variety that each of the weapon types bring into the game. Traditional single katanas play more like your usual sword and two are basically a storm of blades flying in the face of enemies. Spears and hammers put an emphasis on constant movement, positioning and range. By far my favorite though is the kusarigama, a weighted chain with a sickle on its end usually associated with ninjas.

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Thanks to Nioh’s combat stance mechanic, which gives each weapon three fairly distinct compromises between power, speed, and mobility, I was able to settle in quite well with the more flexible but ultimately tricky nature of the chain weapon. Its low stance, for example, allows me to be mobile enough to jump into an enemy’s combo, do some quick damage of my own and roll back, while its high stance hits like a truck and has longer range, but spends a ton of Ki.

Ki is the stamina that decreases with each attack and refills when you time pulses, by correctly timing a click to the right shoulder button, like active reload in Gears of War. Later on, these pulses can be pulled off when dodging, which helps when it comes to their secondary use: clearing the ground of a form of desecration brought in by demons when they spawn in. As long as you’re stepping on that, your Ki doesn’t recharge as quickly and you’re more likely to run out and be defenseless, leaving you open for a devastating counterattack. But by pulsing at just the right time, you can purge these and put the screws to the monster you’re fighting, an important skill to learn and use, especially in boss fights.

The aforementioned guardian spirits are earned after specific fights and missions and work as a way of further speccing your character due to how each of them boosts specific stats and give special powers that can be used after filling up a gauge that’s displayed in the top left corner of the screen. Upon activation, they turn your blades into living weapons, powered by whatever skill your currently equipped guardian has, like a specific element, for instance. Some of these can even activate by themselves, such as Suzaku, who becomes active after you take a hit that would have otherwise killed you, giving you a chance to heal up and turn tables to your favor.

Nioh’s progression is mission-based. These open up on a map, and the more main levels you complete, extra side content is made available. These primary quests progress the story, and the secondary ones serve the purpose of helping buff up William with more gear, as well as materials and plans for crafting. Eventually, twilight missions are also made available, which turn up the difficulty on previously visited areas, with slight twists on where you start and the location of save points and the enemies you face. Some of the side content can even take you as long as a main mission to complete, from 20 minutes to an hour, not counting the times you’ll probably be running back to the boss’s room.

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These fights are Nioh’s most divisive distinction. On one hand, right from the get go, you’re treated to some of the biggest, most aggressive and thrilling boss encounters this side of Ninja Gaiden, with fast, demanding move sets that easily kill you in a few hits. As the game progresses, you’ll also run into smaller, human-sized opponents that aren’t as impressive looking, but are just as deadly. The real downer, though, is that the closer you get to the end of the game, Nioh’s two or three closing boss fights fall into a mix of ridiculously easy difficulty and downright boring design, a disappointing climax to the general high quality encounters that come before them. It’s like Team Ninja ran out of steam by the end and just phoned it in. The actual final level and boss fight feels like DLC material, the sort of content that adds very little to the overall experience of the game, let alone for the story, which fake ends — credits included — in somewhat of a good note before dragging on into another straightforward stage and boring fight.

But unlike its lackluster closing, Nioh’s post-game content is surprisingly consistent and is quite different from what you’d see in a Souls game. For starters, you’re not pushed to starting new game plus after finishing the story. Instead, you’re given access to even more difficult levels which in turn unlock a special item quality tier otherwise inaccessible during the main game, basically allowing you to keep powering up your character well beyond a mere NG++ run would take you, sans the repetition of previously played content.

Regardless of the issues towards the end of Nioh, it’s a fantastic action adventure game with amazing combat, challenging encounters, deep skill customization that serves as a nice deviation from Souls and is an incredible successor to Team Ninja’s games of the past. Its fun, positively absurd story is also sure to have you flipping through Wikipedia and finding out just how much of it actually happened for real. You’ll be surprised.

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