Nioh, from Team Ninja of Ninja Gaiden fame, is a game that took a very long and winding road to release. In production in some form for nearly 12 years, what released is being affectionately referred to by many as “Samurai Soulsborne” in that the game takes a lot of cues from the Dark Souls and Bloodborne series of games. Death comes fast and often and when dying, you drop all of the Amrita you are carrying (similar to souls) which you can then gain back should you make it back to your death location. That said, it certainly has its own identity along with a typically Japanese sense of style and humor. I’ve been playing it quite a lot over the past week and while this won’t serve as a formal review, I wanted to post some impressions for our audience.
First, something most don’t seem to know, is that the story is loosely based on history. You play as William who is based on William Adams, a British explorer who landed on the island of Japan in the year 1600 (the first to do so). Adams settled and became the first ever Western Samurai of which there were very few. The history is fascinating and while the game has added supernatural elements based on Japanese lore, it’s still worth understanding the history of the character in my opinion (which you can do more of here to start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Adams_(sailor) ).
Onto the game, Nioh is a much faster paced game than the Souls series, and even faster than Bloodborne. Combat is fluid yet complex with many skills and moves at your disposal. While the main weaponry is less varied with a finite number of choices to “main”, the way in which you use them is more varied, with branching skill chains for each weapon type. Additionally, you can quickly switch your equipped items with a second set in real time, allowing you to vary the way in which you engage enemies. The fluidity of the combat is one of my favorite parts of the game as it simply feels right. At no time do I feel like I’m fighting against the game. If you put the time in to learn and practice your moves (which you can do via the in-game Dojo), the game will reward you.
Nioh also allows you to build out your Ninjutsu (techniques like shurikens and makibishi), Onmyo (similar to magic such as adding elemental damage to your weapons), and your Spirit Animal. Using your Amrita, you are able to level up at any shrine. Along with the standard Heart/Stamina/Strength/etc…..you can also put skill points into Dexterity, Magic, and Spirit which improve these abilities. Ninjutsu and Onmyo each have their own skill trees as well which will unlock additional ways to use the abilities. Lastly, you are able to assign a Spirit Animal that both gives you attribute bonuses and acts like a super attack. You slowly build a meter that can then be used to give you a “living weapon” that does bonus damage and a massive singular attack. The game starts with three to choose from but you can unlock seven more over the span of the game.
The other aspect I truly love about Nioh is the loot. I fully admit that I love loot games and taking the Soulsborne formula but adding meaningful, randomized loot drops is my idea of heaven. You are able to equip two melee weapons, two ranged weapons, two charms, five armor pieces, and eight items at any one time. Armor consists of pieces for your head, arms, chest, waist, and legs. Loot is then varied by common, uncommon, rare, and one of a kind. And as with any good ARPG, they come with a plethora of randomly rolled statistics and bonuses that are more substantial the rarer the gear. In my opinion, this is what the Soulsborne games sorely lacked and makes simply killing enemies much more engaging in Nioh. Killing a tough enemy after a long fight to then see blue and purple beams is exciting every, single, time.
Further adding to the depth of the game as an ARPG, are the options in player builds and managing/modifying your gear. Early on you will unlock the ability to visit a Blacksmith. Beyond simply buying and selling, you can also craft gear and special blueprints can be earned by completing some side missions. Crafted gear can be rolled in any rarity and crafting components are gathered by disassembling the gear you have collected on your travels (with crafting items following the same rarity scale as gear). You have the ability to re-forge both weapons and armor to keep trying for that ideal roll and you can even make your gear look like any other gear you have collected while retaining its core stats for those that want to play fashion Nioh (transmogrification). Lastly, you have an option of “Soul Matching” gear which allows you to level up gear that you may not want to get rid of. Say you find a one of a kind katana at level 10 but you are now level 20 and it’s too weak. Simply take a level 20 item you’ve found, and use it to level your katana up. It will keep all of its core statistics but will now have the damage output of a level 20 sword. This is a very costly procedure and it becomes more expensive the more you do it, but it’s nonetheless a very cool addition to the loot management aspect of the game especially when you can often find yourself attached to a specific weapon.
Where the game varies from the Soulsborne formula is in having stages and a world map. Rather than having a progressively larger world that interconnects over time, after the initial training mission in Nioh you open the world map and the ability to choose the missions you play. Beyond just the main missions, you have the ability to replay any mission at any time, side missions that offer additional loot/rewards, and “Twilight” missions that are challenging variations of existing missions that offer high-end rewards. There are both pros and cons to this design. I like the ability to re-play certain areas while looking for missed collectibles or to simply farm for loot. Yet, because of the closed stages, the world doesn’t feel as grand as it could and feels more like an action game with levels rather than a living world.
And that brings me to my largest complaint with Nioh ; the level design. Exploring the Soulsborne games is an almost euphoric experience. Moving through the world cautiously, uncovering secrets, and admiring the world around you is fascinating. The architecture of the worlds and enemies in particular can be breathtaking at times. Cainhurst Castle and Boreal Valley immediately come to mind as environments that were simply stunning and I can still picture them in my mind today. Nioh’s levels and environments are highly forgettable and there hasn’t been a single instance where I’ve thought “Wow this is beautiful” or even stopped to take a look around. Even the opening level, which has you escaping the Tower of London which you think would make a memorable backdrop, is incredibly bland.
Enemy design, at least to the point I am in the game, is less than stellar as well. While there are varying combat techniques, and each can kill you quickly, the variety of enemies leaves a lot to be desired. Again, to reference the Soulsborne games, in them you will often find a new way to go only to see a hulking, menacing enemy standing in your way. You know that battling it will be different and more challenging than your standard enemies, but that beating it will reward you in some way. But most importantly, those enemies are one of a kind. You won’t find them anywhere else in the world and thus, they become memorable. Nioh has nothing of the like. While there are larger enemies, they are often repeated with the same combat tactics and movements. More egregious, is some of them are simply re-colored and presented as new or tougher enemies. It absolutely detracts from the experience as other than the boss fights, I haven’t found any enemy to be memorable or even highly challenging.
Boss fights are treated as an occasion as you would expect. They can be tough and frustrating with trial and error being key to figuring out how to combat them. Some are more grandiose than others and other than a couple exceptions, they have generally been spectacular fights. I’m not at the end yet, but I’m anxious to see what other designs the game comes up with. Here’s a lovely example of the first time I faced a particular boss:
Overall though, I’m really enjoying Nioh. The gameplay is stellar and the addition of proper loot in this style of game is a major plus for me. I just can’t help but feel as though the game would be near perfect if it had a better world to exist in. It’s one of those nagging complaints that can be overlooked due to how good the game is otherwise, but annoys you to think of what could be. That said, if you enjoy the Soulsborne games or simply challenging action games in general, absolutely check out Nioh.