Whenever a game that is stuck in development hell is brought up, you would almost always hear the names The Last Guardian or Duke Nukem Forever being mentioned, but a lot of people, myself included, seem to have forgotten that Nioh was actually first announced in 2004. A whopping 13 years later and we finally get to play the game. I think it’s only fitting I start this off by saying: welcome back Team Ninja, I’ve really missed you.
Nioh took many forms over the years of its troubled development. It had gameplay elements focusing on commanding an army, which was then scrapped, and it even closely resembled Ninja Gaiden at one point when Team Ninja took the helm. All of this was inevitably done away with and it eventually became a Souls-like game. While this is a term that’s been used fairly often these days to describe games with some semblance of challenge and difficulty, Nioh really does at times feel like FromSoftware’s flagship franchise. Environments are huge with branching pathways and shortcuts. Shrines, this game’s version of bonfires, act as resting places where you can level up and restore your health while simultaneously respawning all enemies in the vicinity. Combat at its core is tough and often methodical with a heavy focus on stamina management. If you take the game at face value then it’s easy to think of it as a clone of a more popular series, but that would honestly undermine a game that has so much going for it beyond its inspirations.
You take on the role of William Adams who is based on a real life navigator who became the first western Samurai in Japan. The story in the game isn’t a historical retelling of his journey however, as the William in this game travels to Japan during a time of civil unrest to defeat a man, likely to be the main antagonist introduced in the opening chapter, who seeks to bring demons into the world. I can’t comment much on the plot right now, but the opening chapter really kicks things off with a bang and establishes the bad guys pretty well.
Soul-crushing, yet addictive and satisfying
Your character has base stats that affect various attributes such as Strength which determines your attack power and Heart which governs your stamina, or Ki as it’s called here. As you level up you’ll sometimes gain skill points which you can use in the 3 skill trees, Samurai, Ninjutsu and Onmyo (magic). The Samurai skill tree is further divided into each of the game’s various weapon types, and by becoming proficient in that weapon, by way of continuous usage, you’ll also gain skill points, allowing you to learn weapon specific abilities and moves which can then use to customize your combat moveset. The most intimidating part of it all however is the Stance system.
William has three stances that he can switch between on the fly, in and out of combat. High stance allows for slow but powerful attacks, Mid stance is your most balanced one with moderate attack speed and damage while Low stance provides lightning fast attacks that don’t do much damage but can be quite powerful when the enemy is hit with continuous barrages. Each stance also provides its own dodging speed and when you factor in weapon specific and stance specific moves, you end up with quite the comprehensive combat system. One of the coolest features of the game however is the Ki Pulse. Akin to Gears of Wars’ Active Reload, when you press the R1 button at the right time after attacking an enemy, you immediately regain the stamina you expended, allowing you to further continue your assault without your stamina running dry. It’s a brilliant mechanic that sometimes encourages players to keep pushing forward, much in the same way as Bloodborne’s health regain system did. It takes a while to get used to it, but it’s really satisfying when used in combat.
Mastering all these moving parts, however, is imperative to your survival as enemies, especially the big baddies in the early game, hit fast and hit hard. I’m talking one to two hit kills. This game is no cakewalk, and it’s probably one of the hardest games I have ever played, even outdoing Ninja Gaiden Black and Souls. It all seems like a lot at first but I cannot stress enough just how fun this game is once you get a grasp on the mechanics. There are so many options that play out in your head at once during combat and the feeling you get when it all works out is something really special. You’re given so many ways to approach combat that you would think it gets overly convoluted, but after a while it becomes second nature to the point where you’ll be instinctively switching stances and weapons without much thought, which beautifully leads into players naturally creating their own, unique playstyle.
The combat was always at a constant high, never feeling stale, and never disappointing. The same can’t be said about the enemy variety though and this is probably the only issue I have with the game. The lack of enemy types made the game feel routine at times. This is not to say it made it any less fun, but it would’ve been nice to have some more variety throughout. Thankfully, the boss fights make up for this as they provide some truly challenging and fun scenarios. My favourite among them were the humanoid types and as someone who’s always had an obsession with samurais, having these 1v1 duels felt like a dream come true. At the end of the day, the combat and bosses are strong enough to overcome the lack of enemy variation.
Nioh looks and sounds fantastic. The art style and world design feels authentic, making you feel like you’re a real samurai in the feudal age of Japan, something I haven’t felt since Onimusha, which makes me truly and utterly happy as I absolutely adore the setting of that game. A nice touch that I feel more games should have is the ability to prioritize framerate over graphics. You can choose Action mode, which runs the game at 60 fps with less graphical bells and whistles, while Movie mode plays the game at 30 fps with better graphics. There is a hybrid mode as well with a variable framerate and better graphics, but I found Action mode provided the best and smoothest experience and in all honesty, it doesn’t really look like much of a downgrade from Movie mode. Either way, options like this are always good. One last thing I have to mention is that both the English and Japanese voice acting is really, really good.
It’s an absolutely engaging game that’s soul-crushing, yet addictive and satisfying.
Even after dozens upon dozens of hours, Nioh’s gameplay remained satisfying and enchanting. Where the stance and skill system initially felt intimidating, it was now empowering. Overcoming powerful enemies provided a high few other games have given me and it’s all thanks to the beautiful flow of combat. While at first I approached it in a really slow, methodical way, the game is actually always encouraging you to push forward, more so than I initially realized. Ki pulses became integrally linked to dodges and stance switching via skill unlocks, making for even faster and more engaging encounters. Couple that with the near instantaneous transition into a running animation and the combat ends up feeling more akin to Team Ninja’s earlier games. While I feel that the comparison to Souls is an important, if not obvious observation to make, by the time I was well into the game, I felt like I was experiencing something new, different and wholly unique.
The online options are pretty standard though. Co-op is easy to get into, whether it’s with randoms or with a friend, under the condition that you’ve completed the level of the game you’re being summoned into. I spent a lot of time playing co-op, mostly because it’s really fun tackling previous bosses with other players. There is also a clan system, which I suspect will play a bigger role once PvP is introduced. For now, you can join a clan and contribute points to a global leaderboard. These points can also be used to buy new gear and weapons. As it stands, the online experience is pretty standard, but works well enough.
On the flip side of things, the customization and loot system is pretty extensive. You’ll very often get loot from fallen enemies and treasure chests which have varying levels of rarity. Rarity affects not only the stats of the gear but also what added effects they have such as reduced Ki consumption in a specific stance or added elemental damage. Over the course of the game you’ll acquire an insane amount of gear and sifting through them can feel overwhelming at times, but once you get into the habit of sorting out your loot after each mission, you’ll find that it provides you with an incredible amount of options. To take things even further you can visit the blacksmith to craft rare gear, overwrite existing gear effects with new random ones as well as overwrite a piece of gear’s level with that of a higher one. One of the best features is the Refashion ability which you can use to transform the look of your equipment so that you’ll no longer have to choose between fashion and stats.
The narrative really surprised me at times, and not because of its quality, but it has some really odd tonal shifts that gave it its own unique flavour that I really ended up enjoying. For instance, early on in the game, you emerge from a tough battle against a monstrous Yokai, when you’re greeted by the legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo. What seemed like a pretty serious scene soon took a weird turn when Hanzo pulled a cat out of his garments which he uses to tell the time by looking at its eyes. It’s apparently something ninjas of the time did, but it was such a weird and humorous contrast that I couldn’t help but laugh. The story itself continues with these weird tonal shifts, and even though it is a bit hard to follow at times, I did enjoy it and the extra lore details.
Nioh is one of those games that I never knew I needed until I played it. It was and still is a consuming experience that had me thinking about it even when I wasn’t playing. Team Ninja did an excellent job and I’m really, really glad to see them making quite the comeback.