Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment, Koei Tecmo
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Genre: Action, Role Playing Game
Rating: M for Mature
If Nioh were a dish, reading its description on the menu would immediately decide my meal for the evening. All of the ingredients were hand-picked with me in mind with a recipe that promises to satisfy every aspect of my palette. Samurai, Japanese demons, a Dark Souls gameplay style, and Team Ninja is working the kitchen tonight? Bring it on!
Now that I’ve finished the 50-hour entree, I’m happy to report a fantastic, hearty recipe I’ll happily come back time and again for.
Nioh is chock full of demons, magicians, spirit animals, and more. In terms of spirituality, it views the world with a very Japanese lens. The yokai, or demons, are everywhere and make up the vast bulk of higher-tier enemies. “Onmyo” magic allows you to create various buffs and healing abilities and many onmyo mages can seal away evil yokai spirits.
On top of yokai, nearly every major character has a spirit animal that grants them some sort of boon. In terms of gameplay, it grants the player something to collect and allows you to unleash devastating attack phases with those animals leading the charge. Nioh also has a slew of less violent spirits called “kodama” that, once again, act as a series of collectibles and are hidden throughout all of feudal Japan.
The main enemy, Edward Kelley, is an evil mage covered in arcane runes with the ability to summon creatures.
Nioh, like its Dark Souls relatives, is brutally violent. Each enemy you slaughter will be grossly dismembered and blood sprays all over the place. This even occurs when you get a headshot with a bow or firearm. Beyond blood spatter and arm/head discombobulation, there’s nothing particularly heinous.
There is some language in a cutscene or two. There’s nothing R-rated here, but you’d still be disconcerted to hear them on network television.
One or two female characters are somewhat scantily clad. Those characters are rare sights and in those instances, the characters are disgusting creatures trying to rip you apart. There is a lady ninja in a knee-length kimono, but nothing revealing with this character is ever shown.
William, our protagonist, has sailed to Japan to retrieve something dear that was stolen from him. Along the way, he meets major players in Sengoku Japan and takes on a more noble purpose that will affect the outcome of an entire nation.
At first glance, Nioh looks like an offbeat sequel to one of From Software’s Souls games. At its core, the combat and exploration systems are similar, but Team Ninja has gone out of its way to craft a completely unique gameplay experience that easily stands on its own. While the core combat will instantly be familiar to anyone who’s roamed Lothric, Nioh adds weapon-centric skill trees for some added flavor. This lets you utilize a variety of martial arms from different stances to perform unique techniques and combos. Nioh has also added a “spirit animal” system that allows you to choose a guardian spirit and activate a super-attack phase when a combat meter is full. Overall, the combat is faster-paced. Boss encounters maintain the sense of scale you’d come to expect from the genre. Unfortunately, the challenge feels somewhat lacking. While there are certainly some brutal encounters, I often beat new bosses on my first attempt without much extra effort.
Unlike its genre brethren which typically make weapons and armor a rare find, Nioh has instead adopts a Diablo-styled loot system. While it’s fun to see the wide variety of arms and armor you can acquire, comparing every piece of gear can eventually become a drag. Team Ninja clearly knew there were some inherent flaws in this system and built a couple systems for dumping old gear. You can either offer gear up to a shrine for extra amrita (Nioh‘s experience/currency) or sale, reforge, or disassemble them at the blacksmith.
Souls players may take umbrage with Nioh for its mission-based system. It’s certainly a two-edged sword. On one hand, it provides players a clear objective and finite area, eliminating much of the aimless wandering of Souls games. On the other, it limits the atmosphere of the world, eliminating an air of mystique From Software’s offerings are known for. That said, there is still plenty of game here with collectibles and side missions to complete (and you should complete as many side missions the game offers for their unique challenges and backstory).
The narrative and lore in Nioh are some of its strongest factors. At first, having a Caucasian samurai in Sengoku-era Japan felt severely out of place. However, the game’s narrative (and actual historical research) are solid in establishing William Adams‘ place in the tale. Edward Kelley, an evil mage in employ of Britain, has kidnapped Adams’ spirit guardian, Saoirse, to find amrita in Japan. Adams gives chase to Japan and is enlisted by Hattori Hanzo to fight for Tokugawa Ieyasu. Throughout the game, we run into an assortment of historical Japanese warlords, warriors, and mythical Japanese spirits. From start to finish, it’s an engaging world to be swept up in, despite Adams’ relatively lackluster dialogue.
From a visual perspective, Nioh looks great. From wheat-covered fields and icy mountains to decrepit castles and caves, the world feels beautiful but war-torn. The gear is all fantastically modeled and period-appropriate. Characters look lifelike and the spirits have a ghastly, imposing air to them. Animation is smooth and crisp, though there were occasionally frame drops at times with heavy fire or fog. The game’s sound design is also top notch. The world is brought to life with ghastly moans, sizzling matchlock rifles, excellent voice acting (except perhaps our English-speaking protagonist), and more, accentuated by an emotional, driven soundtrack.
With titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild, the first quarter of 2017 has unleashed a tidal wave of top notch games. Nioh has earned its place on the mountain beside them and, arguably, as an excellent competitor to the Souls franchise. Despite a few minor flaws, the game features fascinating lore, an intriguing (loosely) historical tale, excellent mission and character design, and plenty of hidden goodies to discover. I’m already excited for its DLC.
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The Bottom Line
Nioh is a fantastic Dark Souls-styled game that gives players a more accessible way to approach the genre while handily establishing itself as a potent newcomer to watch in the future. Japanese myth, culture, and history are also fun, interesting, wonderfully executed boons to the budding franchise.