If we are to judge Nioh by its cover then it may seem like another ARPG shilling on the popularity of Souls games with a protagonist that frankly looks quite an awful lot like Geralt. However, the more hours I invested in Nioh, the more I realised how painfully erroneous that judgement is. While Nioh does take some inspiration from From Software, it has enough originality to be credited as something of its own. Nioh is quite possibly the best and one of the most unique action titles of 2017.
It is no secret that Team Ninja’s reputation has hit rock bottom ever since the mediocre Ninja Gaiden sequels and the endless milking of the Dead or Alive franchise. It no more possesses the glory of its former self. Nioh is completely dissimilar to their recent games. It is the perfect title to restore their long lost reputation. Now, before we move further into the review, I’d like to make sure that we are on the same page here. The developer being discussed her is Team Ninja and not Ninja Theory, the developers of DmC. People get them confused more often than you would think.
STORY FORGETTABLE JOURNEY OF A FORGETTABLE CHARACTER
Nioh takes place during the Sengoku Jidai of Japan. A period of heavy conflict where landlords all over the country were fighting each other in the hope of becoming the supreme ruler of Japan. It tells the tale of an Irish sailor who is based on the real-life historical figure, William Adams, albeit in name only. An evil mad scientist Edward Kelley, also based on a historical figure steals William’s “Guardian Spirit” to locate a source of immortality called Amrita, something which is found in abundance in Japan. The protagonist journeys to Japan to fight Kelley. William acts as a demon slayer working under Tokugawa Ieyasu (a powerful landlord of Japan) in exchange for help to find Kelley.
I think you can understand the story is not something that you would call memorable. While it gets the job done as a “good enough place-holder story” for a game which you would be mainly playing for the gameplay, I have to say, I came to really like the story. You see, Nioh much like other games published by Koei Tecmo is very heavy on Japanese culture and history. It expects you to already know a thing or two about the Sengoku history and Japanese mythology, nothing a few minutes of YouTube video or some anime can’t solve. I’d like to categorise Nioh’s story into two sections. There is the original story which the developers themselves wrote that is, William going to Japan to save his guardian spirit. This frankly, deserves little praise as it is an incredibly generic and predictable story. Neither William nor Edward are likeable characters. William is devoid of any personality whereas Edward is just a one-dimensional egotist character who dresses up in dark rags.
But then there’s the latter half of the story which is based on true Sengoku history. I absolute came to love this part. Now, I understand everyone isn’t a Japanese history fanatic but there’s such a diverse array of characters all based on real historical figures. Some are humorous, some are serious, but they are all engaging even more so if you take a liking to Japanese history. While the game does take some artistic liberties in the characters and the historical events, quite a few characters are portrayed accurately to their historical counterparts. This is especially true for Tokugawa Ieyasu who is portrayed as a ruthless and shrewd ruler who’ll sacrifice anything, even his own family if that is the cost for victory, quite the contrary to how modern anime and games treat him as the powerful hero who unifies Japan. What Nioh does best with its historical story is combining real history with Japanese mythology. I think we would all agree than horned naked demon monsters didn’t play a part in Japanese history but Nioh combines them so flawlessly that it makes them believable. For instance, consider the battle of Sekigahara and the mythical creature, Gashadokuro.
The battle of Sekigahara was a fierce standoff between the allied clans of the east and that of the west which took the lives of several Japanese men. Gashadokuro are spirits that are said to be born from starving Japanese soldiers.
A fair warning, we are treading into some minor spoiler territory here, not that it would affect your gameplay experience in any significant way. If you are convinced of the quality of the story, it is safe to skip the next paragraph.
[In, Nioh when the Western clans lose the battle, Ishida Mitsunari, the commander of the West exchanges the souls of 300 of his men to Edward Kelley. In turn, from all these dead men, rises a Gashadokuro, a towering figure of a Skeleton. This skeleton monster is used to fend off the East as a last resort. This taught me 3 things. It educated me about Sengoku history of Japan. I learned about the Japanese spirit, Gashadokuro, as well. More importantly, I learned about the character of Ishida Mitsunari, someone who’ll sacrifice his own men so that he can achieve what he desires. While Gashadokuro never took any part in Sekigahara, Nioh employs this artistic liberty so that we better understand the character of Ishida Mitsunari. And, it is true that Ishida was someone like this in history as well.]
I just cannot help but praise the research in Japanese history and mythology that the developers went through. It’s sad that the main plot did not receive this effort.
Moving on, let’s discuss Team Ninja’s take on humour. Now, this may not be the kind of game which you would expect to have much humour, but it is difficult to neglect the presence of it. It has that eccentric Japanese humour to it. Love it or hate it. It can either make you go: “It’s so weird, I hate it,” or “It’s so weird, I love it”. For instance, the game starts with the protagonist, much like the Chosen Undead, locked up in a jail cell. However, you instantly understand what grievous mistake you did by comparing those two when you find yourself punching the wall to escape the cell. (Sadly, I did not find any lava level where you punch a boulder to make way). And, how can we forget the famous ninja, Hattori Hanzo who had the habit of hiding a cat under his clothes which, he somehow, used to tell the time? How exactly does he use a cat to tell time? Good question.
COMBAT RISKY FLAMBOYANCE
But forget the story, forget the humour. What we are here for is the real juicy part — the combat. Is it any good? Oh, it’s fantastic. Nioh somehow manages to incorporate two very distinct types of combat systems which are the polar opposite of each other. There’s the hack and slash mechanics of games such as Devil May Cry with its stylish array of combos which you can’t help but show off but then there’s also the risky methodical approach of Dark Souls where you have to keep dying to an enemy until you learn every trick they have up their sleeves.
I find it quite the challenge to describe the complexity of Nioh’s combat in something as primitive as words but I will try my best. The game fools you into thinking it is to be played anything like Dark Souls. At first, yes. The combat is very limited, you haven’t unlocked many skills. Baiting enemy attacks, then pouncing when you see an opening is your only hope to victory. Soon enough, though you will find yourself evolving into something greater than a Dark Souls character. It’s of course, up to you whether you will move out of your zone of comfortability and start experimenting with the combat. Nioh doesn’t force you to choose a playstyle. You could very much play it like a Souls title but soon enough you will find out that is quite a boring and repetitive method of playing it.
Nioh has basic Souls elements. There is stamina (which is called ki in-game), light attacks, heavy attacks, dodges etc. The animations, however, are much quicker. Attacks begin and end in a flash. Eventually, you learn stances. There are 4 stances. High, mid, low and sheathed. They are fairly easy to understand. High stance means high damage but low speed whereas low stance is the complete opposite of it and mid stance is the best of both worlds, and sheathed is, well… sheathed.
Then there is ki pulse. As your stamina decreases, a light blue bar begins to take its place much like in Dark Souls where the green stamina bar is replaced by a yellow bar to signify the stamina consumed. Upon a well-timed press of a button, the timing of which is hinted by a flash of light your character emits, you could instantly convert that light blue bar into usable stamina (Note, the stamina you gain by this is not always 100% the stamina you consumed. It’s a bit less than that to prevent the player from attacking indefinitely). You could use this as your advantage to perform chains of combos much longer than what Souls-like games usually permit you to. This not only prevents players from mindlessly smashing buttons but also gives them an opportunity to try something other than landing a few hits and then backing away to gain back the stamina lost. It addresses the issue of both combat systems but employs the pros of both. At first, I was under the impression this was a bonus way to regain stamina but soon enough I realised, the game mandates you to perfect this skill. This blue bar exists only when you’re in the middle of a combo or when you have just finished a combo. If you attempt to dodge or block, this blue bar will disappear and won’t come back again until you regain your stamina and start spending it again. So, let’s say, if you pressed the attack button thrice, you can get that stamina back instantly upon the perfect press of a button, but if you attempt to go defensive by dodging, blocking or staying stationary for long enough, then any opportunity of gaining that stamina back instantly is lost. The game rewards you greatly upon a perfect press but also punishes you severely if you don’t.
Samurai hair locks, a collectable item that is scattered throughout the levels can be consumed to gain new attacks for a particular weapon. Upon pressing certain action buttons in a particular rhythm, this new attack or move can be performed. However, quite a few of these attack rely on the same rhythm. So, you would need to set priority for the skills. You need to declare upon performing the rhythm, which skill is actually expressed. I was first disappointed in it as I wanted to perform multiple skills seamlessly without having to go through the combo menu and setting which skill should be activated at present, but I realised it’s not so disappointing as I initially thought it to be. For example, consider 3 instances for the katana:
- The player has a skill activated called ‘jumping slice’ which is a high damage attack that is performed upon finishing a light attack combo with a heavy attack.
- The player has a skill activated called ‘kick’ which is an attack that deals high ki damage and is also performed upon finishing a light attack combo with a heavy attack.
- The player has no skill activated at all.
Now, in the third instance, I could attempt to do a flurry of light combos and then finish it with a heavy attack (In XBOX controller, this would mean x,x,x…,y). But there would be a brief pause since you cannot normally chain light attacks with heavy attacks. After the heavy attack, a new separate heavy combo will start. The only thing this will achieve you is death. That brief pause is enough for the enemy to attack you and quite possibly end you. Also, that blue bar we discussed earlier will disappear in this pause as the initial light attack combo has ended, and the heavy attacks are a part of a newly started combo. If you remember, the blue bar only lasts as long as a combo is active.
In the other two instances, however, I could attempt to chain a light attack with a kick. This gives me one extra new attack that deals a lot of ki damage to finish the light combo with. Then I could easily ki pulse and start a new combo and repeat all over again. Or, I could attempt to finish the combo with a jumping slice, a slow high damage attack. Which skill is performed depends upon which one you have presently activated. You could easily see the disadvantage of this. Some enemies are more susceptible to kick while others are to jumping slice. I don’t want to go to the combo menu and change my activated skill whenever I see an enemy that is not susceptible to my present skill. That’s where the beauty of stances come in. I could set it so that a light attack combo performed in high stance is finished with a jumping slice while a light attack combo performed in low stance is finished with a kick. This gives the combat a methodical approach. You see an enemy susceptible to physical damage, you better switch to high stance, you see an enemy susceptible to ki damage, you better switch to low. I found myself plucking my hair creating the perfect roster of combos best suited for my playstyle. There are several such skills like this and we just discussed it for one class of weapon.
There are 7 such melee weapon classes, out of which Odachi or rather, the great-sword is my favourite because it has something that the other classes don’t. It has skills which seamlessly lets you change into other stances. Start a slow heavy combo from the high stance then suddenly chain it to flashing fast light attacks from the low stance then end the combo but not before you have switched it to heavy attacks from the midstance. It’s an absolute genius combat system which encourages you to play in an aggressive playstyle experimenting with several combos while instantly regenerating your ki with a pulse. Keep in mind, combos are risky since you cannot move or cancel them while you’re in midst of animation but the reward this risk provides is titanic. And that’s just the surface of it. There’s an upgrade menu with a complex mesh of skills which can completely change your playstyle such as activating a ki pulse when dodging or regenerating more than 100% ki when changing stances. This would let you perform a set of combos and then dodging behind the enemy to instantly get the ki back. And then attacking from behind. After, finishing your combo, you realise the enemy still isn’t facing you. So why not instead of dodging, change stances to get more ki than usual and continuing your attack from there. The game encourages to stick to your opponent at all times but never let them land a single hit on you.
Let me explain the thought process I went through in the gif above. I initiated the combo with a heavy attack from midstance. I did this because if you notice, the animation is a thrust. Thrusts are great because they are long range. I start the combo from a safe distance in case the enemy does not stagger. Now, heavy attacks from heavy weapons obviously cost heavy stamina. So I decide to change to a low stance and ki pulse along with it. Changing stances gives me some bonus ki. I decided a low stance since I was close to the enemy. So I initiate a low stance light attack combo which I ended with a heavy attack. This heavy attack seamlessly changed into high stance. It’s the skill I discussed earlier. Then I sheathed my weapon and began a draw cut. This was a risky move but I still went with it solely because it’s stylish. Then I finally ended him with some nice sweeping attacks from the midstance.
There was this one combo move which I was really proud of when I “invented” or rather realised the presence of it. It is very effective against the Oni enemies. The Oni are incredibly dangerous foe belonging to the Yokai class of enemies. The Yokai are supernatural beings which have very high poise. In other words, they won’t stagger to your attacks….. unless you deplete their stamina completely or land an attack on a weak portion of their body. The Oni’s attacks have very precise tracking which can kill you quite easily. The fact that they have a large pool of poise makes it incredibly challenging to stick close to them. However, a “Eureka” moment made me realise the perfect strategy to deal with them. First, using an Odachi’s high stance I landed two hits on them. The overhead attacks of the Odachi’s high stance make it a menial task to cut off their horns. This depletes their poise completely, making them stagger for a brief period of time. Then I quickly switched to my katana. A skill I unlocked, makes it so that William switches to the Katana in such a manner that it lands an attack on the enemy while he’s in the midst of switching. Not only does this move provide a free hit but switching weapons also activates a ki pulse. This way I regenerate the ki I lost while attacking with the Odachi. Then, I followed it up with a short combo from the Katana. The combination of Odachi and Katana attacks as well as the cutting off of the horns generally kills an Oni very easily. I did not even need to move my character a single time. Just had to press a particular set of buttons in a specific manner. This is the genius behind Nioh’s combat. There are several such chains of combos you could perform, some of which are very effective against a particular type of enemy. You have to experiment with it to find out what’s best for you.
Nioh also has something called Living Weapon. After you have absorbed enough Amrita which you would do generally through killing enemies, a metre will fill up. When the metre is filled up, you can buff your weapon with the power of your guardian spirit. This buffs your weapon temporarily and you are completely invulnerable to all damages as long as the buff lasts. This is basically the “spam buttons mode”.
Nioh also has 3 ranged weapons. Bows, rifles and cannons. These are a lot more useful than you would expect them to be. You could snipe enemies and kill them with one headshot. Changing from melee to range can also be done in just a press of a button quiet seamlessly. It’s exactly how I would want ranged weapons in action game to behave. The developers outdid themselves when it comes to comfortability of the controls.
The only gripe I have with the combat is it is only satisfying against 1v1 situations. Fighting several enemies is doable but sometimes annoying if they are high level. Nioh does not seem to acknowledge this as there are a few missions, more than I would prefer, where I have to fight more than 1 strong enemy at once. There are also double boss fights which I nearly gave up on.
FUN FACTOR THE END OF THE HONEYMOON PHASE
If you play Nioh right, you will have an incredible time with the game. You will find yourself lost in its wide array of playstyles and builds you could create. You will come to acknowledge the game’s respect for players’ freedom. Sadly, that only lasts until the “honeymoon phase”. While the game is a blast for the first few hours. The flaws of the game soon start to appear, and boy, there sure are a lot of flaws.
Let’s start off with something simple, the graphics. You may have already realised this from gameplay videos but Nioh is very unimpressive when it comes to graphics. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem for an action title but the washed out colours and bland lighting suppresses the colourful environment of Nioh. On the contrary, the cutscenes are quite beautiful with high res models and colourful lighting. The game performs really poorly as well. It was tested on GTX 980, i5-8600k, 8GB RAM @2600Mhz, I was unable to receive constant 60 fps in max graphics. I had to tone down the shadow settings and ambient occlusion and even then I would get dips here and there. Absolutely inexcusable for a game with such subpar visuals. The PC version is a terrible port. The terrible performance is one thing, the game also has terrible K&M (Keyboard & Mouse) controls to the point it is unusable. A controller is highly recommended.
With what little complexity in graphics Nioh has, it still manages to evoke a pleasing atmosphere in certain levels. A copious amount of levels, however, feels very linear and similar to other levels. There aren’t many ways to progress through a level. There’s only one straight path. It’s only when you are close to the enemy in the midst of a battle that the non-linearity starts. The lack of variety in enemies doesn’t help either. The Oni, skeletons, and human enemies (Samurai and bandits) are what you encounter in the first few main missions of the game. You will keep encountering these same enemies throughout the end of the game. There would be the occasional new enemies but they still aren’t enough to help mitigate the boredom.
And don’t get me started on the loot system. It’s a completely RNG based loot which you would get tired of quickly. Each weapon has a base damage value with some random bonuses attached to them such as +10% ki regen. Throughout the game, you will find weapons of the same name but higher levels and different bonuses. In addition to that, the placements of the items tell no story like they do in Souls games. There’s a level 100 sword in the ground of some part of the map which possesses twice the attack rating of your current weapon which you upgraded spending precious gold just minutes before. Why? Must they provide a reason for everything? You just have to accept it. What’s worse is a select few bonuses suffer from mistranslation. One common bonus present in several weapons is “% reduction against firearm damage”. Little did I know firearm meant all ranged damage including damage from all magic and ranged attacks like lightning and fireballs. You could combine your equipment in such a way that you could nullify ranged attack from all sources but I never bothered doing so since I was under the impression it would only prove effective against firearm damage.
To stand a fair chance against the enemies of Nioh, you have to grind, and I mean grind a lot. In addition to main missions, there are side missions which you have to repeat several times to farm loot. If you intend to craft good boss equipment, you have to gather the materials first by repeating a mission over and over again until you have beaten the boss enough times to get the necessary items. This makes Nioh an incredible chore after mid-game. If you do stuff right, you could possibly finish the game without much grind but you would find that quite difficult without proper guides.
The little enemies and bosses that are present in Nioh, are very well designed. All of them feel different and unique but Nioh ruins it by reusing them every second and employing artificial difficulty. There’s quite a few enemies and bosses that could easily two-shot you if not one. The second boss you encounter is Onryoki. Now, there’s one side mission I distinctly remember where you have to fight two Raven Tengus, an enemy which is already difficult enough when fighting alone. But that’s okay, eventually, after several deaths, you manage to kill the two Tengus. But does the game reward you for that? No, instead it just spawns an Onryoki right after that for the sake of difficulty. After a long tireless fight with all your healing items wasted in the Tengu fights, you get a few meaningless loots with RNG numbers whose only purpose is to prevent you from getting one shot in the next few missions. This is not even the only side mission that reuses the Onryoki. There are several such missions. However, the greatest offence of them all is this one mission where you have to fight an Onryoki on steroids. This Onryoki has a colossal health pool and can easily one-shot you. At first, I thought maybe I am under-levelled. So, I came back to the mission after progressing much further into the game, and what do I find? Still getting one shot.
Nioh focuses more on quantity than quality. As a single player experience, it is packed with a multitude of good stuff but that content easily dries up as most of it is thrown at you in the early hours of the game. The latter half of the game entirely relies on recycled content. What the game does have is a good system of replayability. If you did enjoy the game from start to finish, then you would be glad to hear, there is a lot more content waiting for you after the end of the game. There are several difficulty levels which are essentially New Game Plus that unlocks new features such as equipping more than one guardian spirit (guardian spirits are equipable spirits that provide you with bonuses) and a new divine tier of weapons which adds a new depth to the smithing mechanics.
All in all, the game does a lot of things really well but it goes completely downhill in some other aspects. I have a love-hate relationship with Nioh. Sometimes, I feel that it deserves the highest degree of honour I can give to a game while at other times, I find myself genuinely not having any will to play it. What I see is a game with tremendous potential being plagued by choices made under poor judgement. I feel like giving this game a 10/10 but that would be somewhat irresponsible of me as I am judging my opinion solely on the first ten or so hours of the game. As to whether this game deserves your $49.99, you need to ask yourself that. Although the single-player campaign could easily go up to 60 hours, several people would give up halfway through not only because of difficulty but also of boredom. If you are looking for something to fill the void in your heart that is there because of the lack of single-player action experiences like Ninja Gaiden and if you are not bothered by RNG loot, then sure, go for it but be warned if you’re a Souls player. There’s fifty-fifty chance if you’ll like it or not. While the game does share a select few similarities with Souls, what’s appealing about games like Dark Souls is its punishing but fair difficulty. Fairness is something Nioh throws away in the bin mid-game. It’s best if you wait for a sale. Nevertheless, the game was a breath of fresh air.
|Combat||Fast and flashy non-linear combat with countless playstyles||10|
|Level Design||Colourful levels brimming with carefully placed ambushes and traps but lack variety||7|
|Enemies and Bosses||Beautifully designed enemies and bosses based on real Japanese history and mythology but are often reused||7|
|Story||Main plot is generic and forgettable but interesting subplots which blend together real Japanese history and mythology. Requires minor knowledge of Japanese history. A must for people who take a liking to history and culture.||9|
|OST||Above average OST but very little variety. Soothing ambience themes for the environment but boss themes are often reused||7|
|Graphics||Subpar graphics, look washed out, unacceptable performance. Cutscenes look beautiful, on the other hand||3|