Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Koei Tecmo, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available On: PS4
Released: February 7, 2017
Referring to games like Nioh, Lords of the Fallen and upcoming games Etir and The Surge as “Souls Games” would seem more expedient, but also more fair than simply calling them Dark Souls clones. Characterized by tactical, melee-oriented combat with a focus on exploration and character development; Souls games have slowly grown in popularity over the last few years to the point where, including Nioh, we’re now getting at least three Souls games that From Software has nothing to do with in 2017 alone. Considering the ubiquity of other genres like shooters, Ubisoft sandboxes and first-person horror games, Souls games haven’t yet reached anything like market saturation yet, but despite or indeed because of that, each Souls game should be doing its best to distinguish itself from it’s brethren, which luckily is the case with Nioh.
Whatever, it’s great.
Demon Souls, Dark Souls and Bloodborne have all had what I would call passive stories, where we learn about the world and it’s characters through the environments and item descriptions. Conversely, the story of Nioh is much more straightforward and features protagonist William, who looks anomalously like Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher, in pursuit of Edward Kelley across Japan to rescue his spirit companion, Saoirse. The narrative is ultimately nothing special, but it is entertaining at times and I found the story of William travelling through this strange land that, to him, might as well be another planet to be an interesting one.
Despite the fantastical nature of the game, many of its characters and events are rooted in real history. William himself is William Adams, who in real history was an English navigator and the first of his nation to reach Japan. Adams was also made a samurai and known as Miura Anjin. Though here reimagined as a kind of evil sorcerer, Edward Kelley was also a real person, as was the famed ninja Hattori Hanzo. The story takes place during a civil war near the end of the Sengoku period (look it up) in the year 1600. The developers clearly did their homework when it came to making Nioh’s setting feel authentic despite being heavily fictionalized.
On the other hand, I have to question the choice to give nearly every item and piece of equipment an authentic Japanese name; to a non-Japanese speaker, many of the item names might as well be written in wingdings. In an Action-RPG, when I start examining the items dropped by my fallen foes in a “Got, got, need, need, got” fashion, I shouldn’t have to stop, close my eyes and try to remember what grenades are called. By the end of my time with Nioh, I felt as if I’d gone through an unusually elaborate Teach Yourself Japanese course.
After choosing one of three “Game Modes” which either optimizes the resolution, framerate, or balances the two, I awoke in a prison and upon being instructed to escape, was immediately slaughtered by the very first guard.
It wasn’t long before I started learning the nuances of Nioh’s combat; blocking, dodging, using items and figuring out when it was and wasn’t safe to attack.
I soon began working my way through the prison and before long found my first shrine, Nioh’s equivalent to Bonfires. It was about ten minutes later when I opened a door that had been barred on one side and realized it led back to that same shrine that I really began to feel that souls game vibe. Invigorated, I climbed the rest of the prison tower and beat the boss on my very second attempt.
Though the game encourages caution when exploring new areas, when combat kicks in, Nioh is easily the fastest Souls game around, even more so than Bloodborne. Combat still focuses on timing your attacks and managing your stamina, now called Ki, but Nioh attempts to explore each mechanic further than its predecessors. Every weapon can be wielded in a high, medium or low stance, changing the weapons speed and damage profile. This may seem like it would make many weapons feel the same, but Nioh still manages to differentiate weapons from one another by taking what I can only imagine are real-life inspirations for how different kinds of weapons can be handled. In a way this outdoes Bloodborne in terms of changing the functionality of individual weapons. Like Bloodborne, you’ll want to stick with one or two kinds of weapons over the course of the game, familiarizing yourself with their nuances.
Attacking expends Ki, represented by a bluish light leaving your body, but pressing the stance button at the end of a combo will instantly recover a portion of your spent Ki. Unlike other Souls games, you can actually see the Ki of your enemies as well, which can give you an indication of when you should press the attack and when to adopt a more defensive posture. Performing a perfectly timed Ki recovery is called a Ki pulse and not only recovers the maximum amount of Ki, but also purges the surrounding area of corruption caused by Yokai and other supernatural enemies. Standing in the corruption of the Yokai realm, your Ki barely regenerates, so it’s a good idea to learn the timing of your primary weapon and try to perform a Ki Pulse whenever you attack a Yokai.
Also at your command are Guardian Spirits, supernatural beings accompany you through the game. When the game begins, you can select one of three spirits, but you’ll have the opportunity to acquire many more throughout the game. Each spirit imbues you with a different set of passive buffs and can also be activated as a kind of super move called Living Weapon once a meter, built by defeating enemies, is fully charged.
Activating Living Weapon imbues your weapon with power and replaces your health and Ki meters with a single large gauge that depletes as you attack. Once your Living Weapon gauge is empty, you’ll revert back to your normal state with full health. Though you can’t be killed in this mode, being hit also depletes the gauge, so it’s still advisable to avoid attacks as per normal even during Living Weapon.
Though I would actually argue that Dark Souls and Bloodborne aren’t true open-world games, the areas in Nioh are actually divided into proper levels with beginnings and ends; though it took me quite a while to realize this, as every area including the first one are sprawling open-ended areas that loop back around on themselves and have many secrets to find. Most levels have friendly spirits called Kodama populating them, which can be sent back to shrines when found. Kodama come in several forms that correspond with different item types (Elixirs, weapons, etc.) and can grant you a buff at shrines causing more of those items to drop. Once a level is completed, usually culminating in a boss fight or a particularly difficult arrangement of enemies, you’re brought to a world map from which you can select your next destination.
Nioh has plenty of side missions in addition to it’s main ones, usually tasking you with recovering a person or special item, or killing a specific target. Though some side missions reuse maps of previous levels, they always do something to shake it up by having you approach the area from a different direction or by changing the enemy placement. Also available are Twilight missions; these special side missions are only available at certain times and are especially difficult, but reward you handsomely if you can finish them.
Each region of Nioh’s world map has a home base known as a Starting Point. Despite the fact that “Starting Point” is a really unimaginative name for a base and I feel stupid having to write it, it does have several useful functions. Firstly it can act as a shrine, allowing you to level up between missions. This is especially useful because not every mission starts you off near a shrine.
The Starting Point is also where you can engage in Nioh’s multiplayer modes using Torii Gates. From a Torii Gate, players can either join another player’s game or take part in Yokai Realm with a Companion, the games co-op missions. In Yokai Realm levels, players share a survival bar which depletes if a player dies and is refilled slightly at shrines. If it empties entirely, both players lose.
Offering an Ochoko Cup at a shrine, players can summon others to assist them fighting through a level or beating a boss. It’s rare to find Ochoko Cups just lying around, but you can get them somewhat reliably by killing Revenants.
Revenants are AI-controlled copies of other players that can be summoned from glowing red swords in the ground that mark the spot where those players died. Revenants are not only faster and tougher on average, but they can use any items that player had equipped, making them much harder to kill than standard enemies.
Then there’s the forge, which houses multiple deep and well-though-out systems for improving and modifying your equipment, and all of it is a complete waste of time.
What with Nioh being a loot-heavy RPG, enemies are constantly dropping procedurally generated weapons and armor. Since the average quality of loot rises as you progress, you’ll constantly be replacing your gear; as a matter of fact, I don’t think I went thirty minutes without changing out one piece of equipment or another.
More than once I forged a new weapon or piece of armor and found a superior version of the same thing less than an hour later. You can also fuse weapons with other similar weapons to gain some of their power or effects, as well as the option to refashion an item, changing it’s appearance to that of another item. However, just like newly forged items, you’ll probably end up ditching those items before too long, rendering the system ultimately rather pointless.
That brings me to one of Niohs major problems, this game has far too much loot. If you pick up every item you find, you’ll soon find yourself swimming in a tumultuous sea of low-quality swords and old boots. My advice; don’t even start.
When you find a new sword that’s better than what you’re currently using, drop your old one right where you’re standing and don’t look back. Weapons and armor have up and down-facing arrows next to their names that show a comparison to what you’re already using. Every once in a while, just stop and purge your inventory of everything you don’t need. Don’t think about keeping anything just to sell because money is borderline useless; the only things worth purchasing are consumables like antidotes and arrows. By about the halfway point of the game I had the better part of half a million gold and nothing to spend it on.
But by far Nioh’s biggest problem is how it’s healing items are handled. Like Bloodborne, Nioh makes use of consumable healing items that must be scavenged from the environment. It smacks of a developer copying a system from another game without thinking about why that system worked in the game it was lifted from. Bloodborne actually had multiple ways to recover health; it’s regain system made it possible to recover large swathes of lost health just by hitting enemies back within a few seconds, meaning players didn’t always have to lean on the game’s consumable Blood Vials.
Elixirs are Niohs only reliable method of health recovery, which would be fine except that they’re also somewhat uncommon and can’t be purchased anywhere. This leads to situations where even once I’ve built up a decent stock of Elixir, I’m afraid to use them because I can never know when I’ll be able to find more, which in turn causes me to die much more than I probably should.
This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that in many cases, bosses simply deal too much damage. The very second boss in the game can use a massive laser-beam attack that has virtually zero wind-up and will insta-kill you if it lands, no matter what. The philosophy behind a good Souls boss is that you’re meant to learn their attack patterns and eventually figure out how to take them down, but when a boss can kill you with two swift strikes mere seconds into the fight, the challenge becomes not figuring out how the bosses attacks work, but trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
Dying loses you two things in Nioh. Firstly your Amrita, Niohs equivalent to Souls or Blood Echoes and secondly your Guardian Spirit, meaning that you won’t have access to your Living Weapon or your Guardian Spirits buffs until you get it back. Like most Souls games, dying in Nioh makes the color wash out of the screen and displays the text “Freed from this mortal coil”. It forms an interesting counterpoint to the traditional “You Died” that Darks Souls displays, as it seems to evoke much less of a visceral, “Thanks game, I know I died!” response, at least from me. Incidentally, if all I can do from the death screen is retry, you don’t need to ask me if I want to retry. This can be especially annoying when I’m banging my head against a hard boss and dying several times.
Nioh takes the mechanics of past Souls games and iterates on them in interesting and intuitive ways. It’s almost certainly the deepest Souls game around mechanically, and I could write at length about each of the different systems if doing so wouldn’t just be like reading an instruction manual and utterly soul-deadening to both read and write.
Though the moment-to-moment gameplay of Nioh is absolutely stellar in its fluidity and versatility, the game can be far too difficult at times, in fact I almost gave up on the first boss, who has far too much health; and the scarcity of Elixirs and the Ochoko Cup summoning item can make the game unnecessarily punishing to players below a certain skill level.
The story isn’t exactly a timeless classic, but the travels of William of Rivia have a quirky charm to them and were compelling enough to keep me intrigued. The story also knows when to stay out of your way and mostly sticks to between-mission cutscenes.
Between Bloodborne, Let It Die and now Nioh, the PS4 has, to my mind, inarguably become the definitive console for Souls games and fans of the genre could certainly do much worse than checking out Nioh.
+ Fast, Smooth Tactical Combat
+ Clever Iterations On Conventional Souls Gameplay
– Poorly Thought Out Healing Mechanic
– Mishandled Loot System / Economy
Also Try: Bloodborne, Muramasa: The Demon Blade