In the months leading up to its release, when asked what Team Ninja’s action RPG, Nioh is all about, most people would describe it as “Samurai Dark Souls, basically.” While this comparison is not completely inaccurate, it also does not do this game justice. Nioh proves in its roughly 40 hours of gameplay that it has the heart, ingenuity, and creativity to set it apart from From Software’s classically punishing series.
Nioh tells the tale of William, a blond haired, Irish swashbuckler. After the kidnapping of someone dear to him, William travels to 17th century Japan on a personal quest of vengeance and rescue. Along the way, he will meet powerful and legendary figures from Japanese history and folklore, while honing his skills as a samurai. However, it’s not just angry bandits and warriors that William must deal with, as Japan has become overrun with the demon-like Yokai.
While intriguing, Nioh’s story is by far its greatest shortcoming. Told through cut scenes and written snippets of dialogue after the completion of quests, it never truly reaches the heights that it could. The game’s main villain is fairly one dimensional, and the cast and characters are never given the opportunity to develop. William himself is sadly a rather bland and one-dimensional protagonist, his only defining feature being his remarkable resemblance to Geralt of Rivia.
Let’s get this out of the way first, Nioh is hard; like, really really hard. While Nioh certainly has its difficulty spikes though, I never once lost my temper or patience with my play-through. This is because, while Nioh is certainly a difficult game, it is also a very fair one. I never felt cheated or tricked after a particularly devastating death or a notably punishing boss battle. Nioh gives players the tools to succeed very early on, and its enemies and hazards seem manageable to someone with patience and practice.
Nioh gives players a choice of combat styles and allows them to customise and refine their chosen style of play to a knife’s edge (or katana’s edge, I guess). Players may choose from either a standard katana, dual katanas, spear, axe, hammer or the difficult-to-master-but-insanely-badass kusarigama; not to mention the ability to spec into Ninjustu skills or Onmyo magic and a variety of ranged weapons. This allows a nice variety of choice when it comes to combat, and players aren’t locked into one style of play either.
While you will certainly choose a primary weapon early in the game, Nioh never locks you out from experimenting with other combat styles. This is handy in a tight spot as Nioh’s enemies constantly keep you on your toes. A fast moving enemy is slicing you up faster than you can hit it? Switch to your dual katanas and slice back. Getting pelted with explosives from an enemy hiding on a rooftop? Pull out your rifle and blow their head off. Nioh is full of tactical situations like this. Each weapon also has its own unlockable skill tree, allowing players to learn fancy new moves and techniques.
Nioh also employs a unique form of stamina management known as Ki. Ki is the bread and butter of Nioh’s combat. Slashing a sword, dodging an attack, or even running away from enemies (no shame, we all do it sometimes) drains players Ki. While most games have a similar stamina system, Nioh’s is particularly important because when that Ki bar runs out, you are completely vulnerable. You could be hacking merrily away at an enemy only for your Ki to run out and William to stand there, out of breath and vulnerable to a crushing counter attack.
Nioh works around this issue by introducing the Ki pulse. After attacking, dodging or what have you, blue energy will begin to surround William momentarily. By pressing R1 at the right moment, William can perform a Ki pulse, which will allow his Ki to replenish far more rapidly. Think of it like the rapid reload system in Gears of War. A player not utilising this technique will struggle greatly with Nioh’s challenging combat.
A “perfect” Ki pulse is also necessary for defeating the games primary enemies, the Yokai. Yokai do not naturally replenish Ki like William does, they must summon small energy circles known as “Yokai Realms” to replenish their stamina. While standing in these circles, Yokai will replenish stamina, but William’s will replenish at a much slower rate. Performing a perfect Ki pulse while standing in one of these circles will destroy the Yokai Realm and give William the edge in combat once again.
One of Nioh’s other defining gameplay features is the stance system. Players may switch between three different stances at will: low, mid and high. Low stance will give the player faster attacks but less damage, high stance will deal more damage but is slow and drains more Ki, while mid stance is a healthy balance between the two. Nioh could be played exclusively using only one stance, but that would take away one of its greatest features. Switching stances mid combo or to suit the enemy you are facing is one of William’s greatest skills. Mastering the stance system, and deciding which stance to use in any given situation, could be the difference between victory or defeat.
Loot also plays a large role in Nioh, with enemies, treasure chests and corpses providing weapons, armor, and consumables in plentiful quantity. This Diablo style loot system ensures that players rarely get bored of their equipment. Finding armor with higher stats or a shiny new weapon with elemental effects is one of Nioh’s greatest joys. The game also has a blacksmith available to improve, forge and sell weapons and armor after any mission.
The Blacksmith also has the ability to refashion any weapon or armor to look like any previously held. This may seem like a small feature, but it was one of the things that made Nioh so enjoyable for me. The ability to kit out William with the coolest looking weapons and armor without sacrificing stats was a nice surprise. Let’s face it, stats are cool and all but we all really play for the fashion, right? And nobody likes running around in mismatched armor just because it gives them the most defense. This is one of those small but great features that I wish more developers would use.
Nioh boasts some fantastic and detailed environments, inspired by classic Samurai cinema. Rain swept castles, dank caverns and snowy mountains provide hauntingly beautiful landscapes to battle murderous Yokai. Speaking of Yokai, William is faced with a menagerie of unique and dangerous foes inspired by Japanese folklore. From the bog-standard skeletal samurai to hulking cycloptic giants ready to pummel you at any second, Nioh’s enemies never fail to shock, amaze and terrify. Nioh’s bosses are no slouch either. Each boss encounter provides an equal mix of excitement and sheer terror. These bosses range from titanic, destructive monsters to skilled and deadly humans. These human bosses are where Nioh truly shines. There’s no greater thrill than going one-on-one with a fellow samurai warrior. Trading counters, dodges and slashes at breakneck pace.
So, those are my thoughts on Nioh. What did you think of the game? Did it live up to your expectations? Or is the path of the Samurai not for you? As always, let us know in the comments and on social media!