It would be a great disservice to directly compare Nioh to Dark Souls. From Software has effectively created an entire RPG subgenre with its innovative dark fantasy adventure, one that many other RPGs have tried imitating in one form or another with various degrees of success. So while Team Ninja does take ideas generously from another series, Nioh brings enough original ideas and twists to the formula that it creates an action experience that is distinctly its own.
You play as Irish sailor, William. After becoming imprisoned in the tower of London, a plot is uncovered by an evil sorcerer that wants to harvest the spiritual energy from the land of Japan. It’s tied to some convoluted nonsense about the Philosopher’s Stone and Queen Elizabeth’s ongoing war with Spain. Once William escapes, he makes a voyage to Japan in order to warn them of the incoming threat, but slowly becomes involved with the final decisive battles of their war. Making things worse is the fact that various supernatural monsters and spirits, or Yokai, have arrived in the aftermath of the death and destruction done to the island nation. Given the fact that William can somehow see and interact with the various spirits and Yokai that plague Japan, he quickly becomes allied with the likes of Hanzo Hattori and Tokugawa Ieyasu in order to help bring order to the land and prevent its destruction.
It says a lot that this manages to be Team Ninja’s best attempt at storytelling to date while also being unabashedly silly at the same time. The plot heavily draws from actual historical events and characters. The game is set in the year 1600, the late Sengoku era of Japan, and full advantage of that fact is taken. There’s a level where you explore the destroyed temple where a key player in the war, Nobunaga Oda was betrayed and killed for example. Even the protagonist himself is based on the real-life William Adams, the first Western Samurai. All of this helps ground the experience in a level of romanticized realism, a more Eastern version of an Arthurian legend or a grand fantasy epic. But then a lot of this gets contrasted with the game’s more overt supernatural elements. The big bad in particular feels like something out of a comic book with his command of magic, dark skin, and evil glowing red eyes. All while stacking the deck against the heroes and throwing obstacles in their way. It all adds up to a narrative that has just the right amount of camp while still having a sense of danger.
But of course, this is all in service to the gameplay. Nioh has some familiar Action RPG elements such as fast and intense real-time combat that focuses on patience, precision, and stamina management and large sprawling levels full of collectibles. Levels that are expertly well designed with built-in shortcuts and optional tangents to reward more exploration heavy players. Enemies advance in difficulty, ramping up from run of the mill bandits to hulking undead soldiers to twelve-foot tall demons. Killing enemies gets you a special currency called Amrita, which you can use to level-up at various shrines placed throughout the levels that double as checkpoints you return to when you die. And of course each level ends with an intense boss battle that puts your skills to the test.
Standard fare to be sure, but it is in the details the game truly finds its own identity. First and foremost, the weapons and enemy designs are exquisitely Japanese. Your choice of weaponry ranges from the standard katana with its long sweeping slashes, the heavy and brutal swings of hammers and axes, and the long reaching thrusts of a spear to the more exotic whipping chain of the kusari-gama. Ranged weapons include bows, matchlock rifles and even handheld cannons. As for the demons, every single one of them is pulled from Japanese folklore and myth. Stuff as visually silly but undeniably deadly like demonically possessed umbrellas or tiny one-eyed imps to more intimidating fare like boss battles against a kaiju-sized mound of living water or a giant tiger-monkey-snake monster that commands lightning.
This even extends to the game’s stats and specialized builds. In addition to learning magic that can range from throwing magical blasts at enemies and coating your weapons in elemental power, you can specialize in learning ninja arts and skills. Things like always having bombs and traps on your person to slow down your opponent and control the battlefield to empowering your items with strong poisons and paralytics.
The combat is also a much more aggressive affair. While prior action RPGs rely heavily on patience and cautious strikes, even facilitating environmental awareness with a generous amount of hidden death traps, Nioh rewards quick reflexes and combo attacks. This is thanks in part to the game’s introduction of a mechanic called the Ki Pulse. All of your attacks run off of a stamina bar; every time you perform a certain light or heavy attack, the bar depletes and slowly replenishes itself as normal. But a Ki Pulse is a sort of instant recovery move you can do by tapping a certain button at exactly the right moment at the end of a string of attacks, allowing you to regain most of the stamina spent. Think of it as the action RPG equivalent of the quick reload mechanic in Microsoft’s Gears of War games. If timed properly, using multiple Ki Pulses can help you chain a simple set of three slashes into a lethal barrage.
This is directly tied to another mechanic where every single weapon in the game has three distinct stances you can switch between, each one with its own move set and advantages. While Ki Pulsing and sticking to the same simple strikes in the same stance will serve you just fine, you are actually rewarded for Pulsing and switching to another stance by regaining even more stamina, an active incentive to mix up your moves and keep pressing your advantage
This is especially important since the game heavily emphasizes stamina management. On the off chance that you go one attack too far and completely deplete your stamina bar, you will be left exhausted and completely helpless until the bar recovers. While in this state, any attack that comes your way will be devastating. But this exploit works in the other direction since every enemy in the game also has a stamina bar that can be drained and exploited in a similar fashion. It can lead to immensely satisfying instances during a rough boss fight where you hit them at just the right moment to put them in the red and you start to punish like there’s no tomorrow. Flying into a combo of powerful blows that slowly knock them back, completely helpless against your assault.
There is also the use of Guardian Spirits. At the beginning of the game you choose a spirit animal which gives you a unique set of passive bonuses, everything from a simple boost to certain stats to allowing you to see where enemies are. When you die, the spirit creates a grave to protect the precious Amrita you left behind, and if you manage to return to them you regain both your precious resource and the aid of your spirit. Die a second time and the Amrita is lost and the spirit returns to you. But while a minor change to stats might not seem like much, the spirit also has another benefit built into it: Living Weapon mode. As you fight and progress with your spirit at your side it slowly builds up a gauge. Once full, a simple button press will let you unleash your spirit’s power, making you temporarily invulnerable and greatly increasing your attack power. This can help turn the tide in many pitched battles, but if you get hit too many times or forget to extend the mode with some well-placed Ki Pulses the mode will end quickly.
Yet with all of this in play this game will challenge you; but never unfairly. More times than I can count I was ambushed by monster attacks or struck with a decisive blow by an enemy and my reaction each time was always something proactive. Sweep the area with my bow first, lay down some caltrops and bottle neck the incoming enemies, etc.. There’s even a robust online co-op system where you help and get helped by other players by offering a certain consumable item at shrines if you need that extra push to get through a tough section.
If you’re expecting the world of Nioh to be a large interconnected world with its plot told entirely through the environment and minimal dialogue, this is where you should lower your expectations. The game’s missions are structured more like traditional video game levels with an overworld map connecting everything. Once you select a main story mission the task is always the same: fight your way to the boss battle at the end and win. Everything else in-between is informed by voice-overs by various spirit animal support characters, and cutscenes set at the beginning and end of each level. Thankfully Team Ninja gets a lot of mileage out of these levels, re-using them for optional Sub-Missions with extremely tempting rewards like new Guardian Spirits and hard versions of older levels called Twilight Missions.
If there is an issue I do have with Nioh is that it can be overwhelming with its more time-consuming ideas. While the combat itself remains semi-elegant with its nuts and bolts, the way the game approaches loot is more akin to Diablo. You are showered with various types of armor and weapons chock full of different stats, perks, buffs and elemental advantages. There’s a blacksmith you can visit that allows you to reforge or even combine stats and perks on to other weapons you may enjoy, provided you have enough gold obtained from enemies and looting treasure chests. You can also offer items to shrines for additional Amrita and healing items. There’s a familiarity mechanic that encourages you to use multiple weapons which helps empower them and gives you points to spend on skill trees dedicated to each weapon type. And a title system where you can unlock even more minor passive boosts to your all important stats by performing certain tasks.
My overall problem with this deluge of micromanagement is that it always finds a way to slow the action down to a crawl. Because of how frequently armor and weapons drop that are conveniently labeled as better than my current gear, I wind up flooding my inventory far too quickly. This lead to multiple instances where I spent anywhere between five minutes to half an hour selling each and every individual irrelevant piece of gear just to get some breathing room. Combining and reforging items at the Blacksmith also feels like complex busywork for what amounts to higher damage and defense.
The skill trees’ usefulness can vary as well. Mastering several different ninja tools, backstabbing my enemies like a silent assassin and becoming a bona fide master with the kusari-gama weapon all to unlock the ability to make shuriken damage six percent more efficient isn’t exactly something to get hyped for compared to the more utilitarian stuff you get early on like being able to prepare poison or create scrolls that help you run faster. Especially since some of the skill tree perks are locked off until you finish a certain mission or task.
In spite of all of these problems, I have poured an insane amount of time into Nioh. I’m well over forty hours into my playthrough, cutting through monsters, watching William slowly become accepted by the other Samurai, and trying to get my gear maxed out to an almost neurotic degree, and I’m pretty sure I’m only just now coming up on the game’s third act. And yet I have not experienced a single dip in quality in the game’s polish or presentation.
In addition to some great weather effects and some impressive environmental design, the game boasts a truly innovative set of visual modes. Movie Mode has the game locked to 30 FPS at the cost of some visual details, and then there’s Action Mode which keeps things at 60 FPS at the cost of some truncated animation. It says a lot that Team Ninja put this much thought into these options since it helps appeal to those who like their games to be more cinematic and those who want to play the game at a proper framerate. But I digress.
In conclusion, Nioh is a confident and engaging action RPG that wears cultural pride on its sleeve like a badge of honor. An absolutely absorbing time sink that continues to reward and challenge the further and further you go. A masterful return to form for the action chops of Team Ninja, one that I will gladly return to with love even as it pounds me into powder.