The first thing I noticed when I started up Nioh is probably something you’ll notice as well, and that’s just how much like Dark Souls it is. That’s not exactly a false statement either, as the game is built on a lot of stuff that Dark Souls made famous; brutal and rewarding combat, intricately designed levels that can be explored for hours, and boss fights that might make you question every choice you’ve made in the game are all featured in both the Souls universe as well as Nioh.
The thing that makes Nioh different from anything else, however, is the surprising addition of a combat system that forces you to change your style constantly, an equally distinct and unique character of foes to fight, and a story from Team Ninja that is equal parts goofy and fun to follow.
Taking place somewhere in the 1600’s, Nioh tells the story of William Adams, a western born man who makes his way East while studying the ways of the Samurai. Caught in the middle of a Japanese civil war, you find that Yokai – spirits and demons – have begun to infiltrate the world in the midst of the chaos. While the game does root itself in semi-real facts (William Adams was a real-life Sailor), this title quickly turns you into a typical demon-slaying badass.
While the story of Adams isn’t anything to particularly invest yourself in, the world he finds himself in certainly is. Teeming with a colorful cast of characters, Nioh’s take on the Sengoku period of Japan is something any history buff would appreciate. Japanese figures such as Hattori Hanzo and Yasuke (a black Samurai who fought under Oda Nobunaga) all make appearances, and the surprising attention to detail in the world takes what would otherwise be a bland story and makes it something to fawn over.
In a game that could be considered more complex than the Dark Souls world it branches off from, Nioh does an incredible job at easing you into each aspect of it. A brief opening level has William escaping the Tower of London and teaches players the basics of fighting, item management, inventory assigning, and more, and a second tutorial mission has players learning more about the intricacies of the games combat system.
As touched on earlier, the first thing you’ll notice in Nioh is it’s similarities to Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but you’ll find that fades away the second you’re introduced to the complex style of combat found within Nioh. While Dark Souls is known for it’s slow, patient-based system of combat, Nioh takes that and merges it with the frantic fighting style of something out of Ninja Garden. There are three “stances” that a player can fight from – High, Mid, and Low – that all offer their own advantages and disadvantages, and all can be switched at a moment’s notice by using the R1 button in conjunction with the PS4’s face buttons. The high stance allows you to pull off stronger attacks that are slower and cost more stamina.
The high stance allows you to pull off stronger attacks that are slower and cost more stamina. Mid stance fighting is for instances where you’re fighting multiple enemies, and low stance is made for easily picking some health from an opponent and dodging back. Certain enemies will fight you in specific stances, meaning you really do have to watch and adapt to a fight on the fly, making the game even more challenging.
In Nioh, you’ll find that your stamina – or Ki – is crucial to survival. Every time you attack, dodge, block, or run, you expend some of it and recharging it is a must if you want to win any sort of fight. Introduced in the game is something called a “Ki pulse”, which allows players to hit the R1 button right after an attack to quickly regain your stamina, sort of like Bloodborne’s parry system, although your enemy won’t be knocked down while this is happening. Making sure you execute a perfect Ki pulse is important, but no more so than when fighting a Yokai.
When fighting certain demons, you are surrounded by what’s referred to as a “Yokai realm”, a black and white circle that stops you from regaining stamina. Performing a perfect Ki pulse allows you to dispel the aura around the demon and regain stamina against the gigantic beasts you might be fighting. While some might consider this method of recharging stamina exploitative, the game does a great job of balancing out just how much stamina you spend, making every use of the pulse vital.
Much like the Souls game that Team Ninja was inspired by, Nioh has a lot to offer in the way of play styles. There’s a myriad of different weapons to find and play with, and the game encourages you to keep exploring, as your weapon will break down over time with use. Each weapon type can be tweaked with special abilities that give you stance-specific advantages over opponents, and the inclusion of aspects like this only make you want to keep playing to master every form of combat.
In a game that features so much varying styles of fighting, it’s a bit sad to see there was no PvP gameplay put into the game at launch. While a post-launch update is coming that will include the mode, it would be nice to be able to fight against live opponents. The closest you’ll get now is through the games Revenant system, a take on Dark Souls’ bloodstains, which allow you to fight the ghosts of past players who have died where you find yourself. Killing a revenant might be tough depending on their level, but is rewarding in the form of a potentially good item drop. The game does feature a co-op mode, summoning a friend into the world of Nioh will make the average level incredibly easy (including the bosses). Thankfully, Team Ninja thought of that when creating Twilight missions, which are essentially past versions of missions you’ve already played, only with the difficulty turned up past 11 to make it hard for you and your friend.
When it comes to a game such as Nioh, you’re only as good as your bosses, and Nioh is very good in that department. The game already hit a home run in terms of enemy design and variety, and the bosses only add to that impressive list of uniqueness. Each fight seems vastly different than the last; one boss might be a frighteningly fast demon that forces you to dodge constantly, and another could be a gigantic, lumbering beast that forces you to take things slower. Every boss is designed wonderfully, and each fight is memorable in some way.
While some might play Nioh and see nothing but a Dark Souls clone, the game is surprisingly much more than that. Not only is the game refreshingly challenging and packed with enough content that even 100 hours might not see a player find and complete everything, it manages to take inspiration from a great series and build on it in a way that makes it it’s very own. Team Ninja made a truly marvelous game with Nioh, and when all is said and done, this could easily go down as a bonafide classic in the action RPG world.
This review was based on a copy of Nioh on the PlayStation 4 provided by Sony.