Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment JP; Koei Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: February 7th, 2017
Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Time Played: 60 hours
Nioh is a brand-new title from Team Ninja, servicing as a spiritual successor to their acclaimed Ninja Gaiden franchise. Based in feudal japan, Nioh notoriously plays similarly to the Dark Souls series–but the story and style is all its own. You play as William, a pirate from the British seas sent to Japan. His mission was to claim a type of material called “Amrita” to help the British win the war against Spain. Once the war was over, they wanted to keep the substance secret, so all the pirates they hired were thrown into prison. This is where the game begins. Once you make your escape, your “guardian spirit,” a mysterious protective force, is taken from you by the main antagonist. You must follow him back to Japan to retrieve it, all the while fighting through hordes of human mercenaries and demons called Yokai to retrieve your guardian spirit. You’ll also meet new allies and gain new guardian spirits to help you fight through all that oppose you.
In the beginning, you start with little to nothing (as you would, you know, in jail) but once you escape the experience changes drastically. As you learn the art of war, you can level up multiple trees to gain bonuses with weapons such as the katana, dual swords, spears, axes/hammers, and kusarigama (which is a scythe on a chain). Additionally, you can choose to upgrade your Ninjutsu or Onmyo magic, with each upgrade tree having its own unique combinations. Combat is topped off with a set of three different fighting stances: High, Middle, and Low, each of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. Ranged weapons such as bows, matchlocks, and hand cannons don’t have their own trees, but they’re still an integral part of battle. Here’s a quick breakdown of the weapon types.
Katana: The most balanced of the weapons with decent strong combos, serviceable swing speeds, and fairly good damage. I found this to be the most commonly used weapon in the game, as I noticed lots of people sticking to this sword for their playthroughs.
Dual swords: This weapon style favors quick attacking with flurries of jabs to take advantage of openings and escape tougher enemies. This is one of my preferred weapons, but its damage is less potent on late-game opponents.
Spears: These have range to deal blows while keeping enemies at a safe distance. Its speed isn’t the greatest but its evasive combos make it a decent weapon. It’s probably not the easiest to start fights with, but it works in emergencies if you find yourself taking a lot of hits.
Axes/Hammers: As you would expect from this weapon set, it utilizes slow heavy damage to kill your enemies in a brutal manner. Unfortunately, it takes quite a bit of time and stamina to use.
Kusarigama: This is my personal favorite of the bunch. With quick hard damage and some moves with CRAZY range, its definitely a weapon I always fall back on
Ninjutsu: This is where you will find your ninja tools, such as kunai, shuriken, and smoke bombs. It’s a sneaky set of tricks to keep combat in your favor.
Onmyo magic: Onmyo is the power to control the elements, using them to buff your weapons, attack enemies with elemental damage, and all that fun stuff.
Bows: The bow is a weaker ranged weapon, but it the carries the most ammunition, it’s quickest to draw, and its light weight doesn’t hinder your movement speed.
Matchlocks: These are your medium damage ranged weapons. They’re slower to draw, they have slightly less ammo, and movement is a little slower.
Hand Cannons: These are insanely powerful. You are unable to move while using and it has the slowest draw speed, but a single headshot can down most opponents, and anything that does survive won’t be long for this world.
As shown in the breakdown, there are plenty of fighting styles to choose from. This variety, along with the progression and perk systems, makes it easy to change up the way your character plays. Mixing and matching strategies to take down different demon types is the main selling point of the combat. It keeps the experience from getting dull.
The gear system is executed in a traditional RPG style, with item rarities ranging from white (common), blue (uncommon) and purple (epic) gear. Each set levels with you and adds yet another form of progression to keep your character tough. Then, there’s the stamina gauge, another traditional feature, but it contains a unique twist. The new addition is a move is called “Ki Pulse” which allows you to strategically regain a large portion of your stamina guage. In the heat of the fight, a well-timed Ki Pulse can mean the difference between life and death. Finally, the leveling system is the foundation of the overall progression. Here, the game draws again from Dark Souls; instead of “souls” as experience, you obtain the Amrita, and instead of “bonfires” as leveling stations, you use shrines. Again, its almost a carbon copy in regards such as these, but the various progression add a unique flavor. At the shrines, you can upgrade your body, heart, stamina, strength, skill, dexterity, magic, and spirit, each of which provides different perks and tools to help enhance your individual character and gameplay style.
The only downside to all of this combat complexity is that systems often seemed cluttered, throwing in less useful abilities to make the system seem more expansive. There’s sometimes a clear meta-game to achieve, and specific builds are stronger than others, but this isn’t a major concern. Over-complexity is preferable to under-complexity.
For those of you who loved Dark Souls but hated getting invaded by trolling players, Nioh has a fix for that. Its pseudo-multiplayer encounters (called “Revenants”) are marked by graves of fallen dead players. You can individually pick and choose the AI-controlled ghost of a dead player to duel for a chance to win pieces of their gear. This idea is highly innovative. However, the co-op system has its problems. In Dark Souls, you could easily play through the entire game with up to 4 friends, but Nioh’s setup is more restrictive. Team Ninja made the last-minute decision before launch to change their 2 player co-op system drastically. With this change, you can only play a level together with a friend after BOTH of you have cleared the level by yourselves. This can be extremely frustrating if–like me–you bought it to play with friends, but you’re all limited by each others’ progress. If you’re having a hard time with a boss and you need to phone a friend, that friend can only assist if they’ve already beaten it alone. I understand that it’s a design tactic to prevent boosting and cheap victories, but I feel like that asks a lot of new players still learning the ropes. It’s easy to get frustrated when struggling with a difficult boss fight and knowing there’s nothing you can do to pass it on your own.
The world in this game is beautiful, almost like it’s taken directly from an old Japanese painting. Little details add to the game, like the sinister shading on the flowing fields of wheat, hinting that all is not as it seems. Enemies will often spring from these locations, constantly keeping you on your toes. The combination of aesthetic and usefulness gives you an appreciation for how much time went into creating this world. Dark and gritty, but at the same time visually stunning. Environments alternate between bright and dark, inviting and gruesome. It’s awesome. In contrast, the music isn’t really interesting and I never found a song I enjoyed very much.
With plenty of main story missions and side quests, it requires a hefty sum of hours to fully complete the game at base difficulty. Additionally, there are harder versions of some of these mission called “Twilight Missions” which have stronger enemies and sparser health pickups to always keep you on your toes. While I personally found the game’s narrative to be weak, the clear appeal of the game is its gameplay. The experience is both fun and challenging. It gives you the freedom to try different builds, weapons, combos, and spirits, but always applies constant pressure with its range of enemy types and combat encounters. Combat is sharp and precise, and every time you defeat an extremely powerful boss, the rewards are gratifying. The best thing about these challenges is that the difficulty is organic, not bred of frustrating mechanics or monotonous grinding, but by the pure inventiveness of the boss fight designs. Because of how well the combat is executed, the game never felt cheap or broken. I always felt if I was stuck on an enemy, it was more that I wasn’t utilizing a skill as well as I should have, or my build had met its weaknesses. Instead of feeling like glitches in the system, they felt like honestly formidable foes. The thrill of finally overcoming those odds and improving as a player is–in my opinion–the best feature of the genre, and Nioh offers plenty of opportunities for these epic showdowns.
Nioh may be similar to Dark Souls in multiple ways, but it manages to differentiate itself enough feel fresh and special. Overall, the game is a solid contender in the genre of brutally difficult hack-and-slash games. While it does fail in some aspects, its solid game design and unique variety forge a grand experience to stand on its own.
Final Score: 85/100
This review was written by an amazing guest reviewer, Jared Stearman. If you’re interested in becoming a guest contributor, find out more information here!
All of the screenshots were kindly submitted for NLGO use from PSN User JCHAOTIC.