I was wrong about Nioh, I’ll fully admit it. Playing the various alpha and beta tests released to the public for a limited time, it struck me as all the difficulty of Dark Souls with none of the creative design. Something to maybe pick up cheap later in the year, and certainly not something on par with the series it’s so clearly inspired by. Having finally finished it (main story and most of the side missions, but not the epilogue. At the time of writing I’ve just got to the epilogue’s boss), I feel like it’s something worth talking about, as not only a good Souls-clone (which as I’ll elaborate on is reductive in this case) but one of the best games I’ve played this year, and indeed for some time.
Very loosely based on historical events, Nioh tells the story of William, a real life English sailor who travelled to Japan and eventually became the first White, Western Samurai. In this game he’s an Irish Pirate who travels to Japan to rescue his “Guardian Spirit” (seen in the picture above) and ends up on one side of a real life Civil War going on in 1600, with an evil English sorcerer on the opposite side. At first the change in nationality irked me, given our limited representation in videogames, but given how skewed Nioh’s approach to history is it quickly stopped being a problem. The game is split into levels, with often brief cutscenes at the beginning and end in which William and one of his two new Japanese mates will meet with someone, with it really just acting as an excuse to navigate feudal Japanese locations hacking up Yokai (an umbrella term for the supernatural; in this case a variety of demons and monsters) before fighting a tough boss. The story itself is largely forgettable but as I said, it’s primarily there to frame the gameplay. The characters themselves are the stand-outs; particularly Hattori Hanzo, an expert Ninja who carries a cat around in his coat to use as a clock and endearingly speaks English to William with a thick Japanese accent, and Okatsu; a young female ninja who is ostensibly William’s love interest but acts more as her own agent with goals and feelings separate to him. Elsewhere Oda Nobunaga turns up because of course he does, and then there’s my personal favourite: Yaskue, “The Obsidian Samurai”- a real life African man freed from slavery by Nobunaga who then became the first Black Samurai. He only turns up for a boss fight, but he made the biggest impact on me.
On the gameplay side of things, it’s hard to avoid talking about the Dark Souls influence. Even lowly enemies can deal heavy damage, groups can be punishing and level-up currency must be retrieved from the spot you fell upon death. Shrines take the place of bonfires, clothing and armour all have weight that must be balanced efficiently and combat is easy to learn, difficult to master, especially given the precise timing involved. It is not, however, merely a Dark Souls clone. For my money Nioh plays like a mixture of Bloodborne and a character action game; developer Team Ninja previously worked on Ninja Gaiden and it shows. William is swift on his feet even in heavy armour (unless you go over the weight limit), blocking and dodging are mostly equally reliable, and each weapon can be used in three stances: low (fast, nimble, low damage), medium (good defence, moderate speed and damage) and high (slower, high damage but leaves you open). New skills can be learned, ranged weapons are an important part of your arsenal and you generally feel more capable and lethal, particualrly as the game goes on. Imagine a character from a character action game, like Devil May Cry or God of War filtered through a Dark Souls template and that’s basically what Nioh is: you’re an absolute badass, but getting clobbered with a Katana and/or a big demon’s fist hurts like hell. Enemy variety is somewhat lacking, but it builds up a sense of familiarity as you learn the best way to dispatch threats over the course of the game rather than constantly having to learn how to fight a whole new set of foes who blind side you and drain your health in two hits. The game largely avoids cheap deaths, too, which was a genuine and pleasant surprise. This is exemplified in the game’s stamina system; here called “Ki”, which depletes when hit by enemies (it’s technically your fighting spirit, not your actual stamina, so it does make sense). That might sound unfair, but enemies are affected in the exact same way, and a completely depleted Ki meter on you or your assailant allows for a high-damage finishing move type deal. Adding an extra layer to this is the “Ki pulse”, and I’ll just call it what it is: it’s a stamina Active Reload. Tapping R1 at the right moment not only speeds up Ki recovery but also purges the “Yokai Realm”- pocket dimensions created by enemies that boost their Ki and stop yours recovering. Add in the aforementioned Guardian Spirits that offer various stat bonuses “living weapon” modes in which you invincibly wail on an enemy for a limited time and you’re more than capable of tackling everything the game throws at you.
The game has its problems though. The most egregious is the occasional padding with recycled enemies; the final story level (not counting the epilogue) has seven bosses, and four of them are bosses already fought in previous levels. This isn’t so bad in side missions, but this was a mandatory fight required to finish the game. One of the bosses original to that level returns in the epilogue in the room before the final boss; this time there are three of them. In one room. They can kill you in two hits. While not as much of a problem the game doesn’t have the variety or detail in its environments and enemies that Dark Souls and Bloodborne do. It does have enough variety to get by but you better get used to feudal Japanese villages and caves. Despite largely averting cheap deaths it does have the occasional blindside, overpowered attack and dodgy hitbox, though these are often amplified by their infrequency.
Overal Nioh is a pleasant surprise. Initially I expected a Dark Souls clone set in Feudal Japan. What I got was a game that used Dark Souls as a framework and built on it with excellent results. The combat is engaging and satisfying, it feels like a fair challenge and arguably understands the importance of a player having fun more than Fromsoft’s games do. If you’re a fan of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, this is a good one to move on to. If you’re new to all this, I’d say this is a good place to start: the difficulty and measured approach of Dark Souls with the speed, violence and elaborate fighting of a character action game.
By James Lambert