If there was a recipe for Nioh, the ingredients would surely include the fast-paced combat of Ninja Gaiden, the hard-as-nails bosses and character development features of Dark Souls, and a loot system not too dissimilar to that of Diablo‘s. Sounds appetising, doesn’t it?
I mean, I don’t know about you, but I love Ninja Gaiden, I love Dark Souls, and I really love Diablo. Thankfully then, the finished product is just as tasty as its ingredients would suggest – Nioh is a delight that you can never quite get enough of.
Set in Japan during the 1600s, as you probably already know, Nioh is a rock-solid action RPG that’s not for the faint of heart. Placing you in the shoes of a European samurai called William, there’s surprisingly a fairly enjoyable story behind it all – much more so than I could have ever imagined anyway – but it’s relatively inconsequential. The real draw of Nioh is its gameplay, which to put it bluntly, is like a drug.
Nioh starts as it means to go on – strong – with the first couple of areas you’re thrown into acting as both training and an intoxicating taste of what’s to come. Once the first ‘proper’ boss has been bettered in arduous combat however, Nioh opens up, presenting you with a map by which missions are undertaken and a plethora of character development features are managed in safety. It’s this mission-based structure that, in my view, truly enables Nioh to stand on its own two feet, preventing it from feeling derivative of the titles that it draws inspiration from.
Moving from region to region as the story progresses, there’s a great variety to the environments you find yourself cautiously battling across, and while main missions reliably come to a close with an epic boss to test your patience and mettle, the plethora of sub-missions on offer sport more varied objectives. Oh, and don’t think that Nioh’s structure means that it’s your typical 10 hours and done type of game either – across the six regions that missions are scattered, there’s easily over 100 hours of gameplay on offer. I spent way more than 15 hours playing before leaving the first region alone.
While I wouldn’t say that Nioh is derivative of FromSoftware’s Souls series, it is clear that mechanically at least, Team Ninja has taken considerable inspiration from it. Areas are often sprawling affairs that offer helpful shortcuts for those prepared to explore; defeating enemies rewards you with Amrita which is used to level up at shrines, though dying in action will have you vying to return to your corpse to avoid its forfeiture; and the difficulty of the game is pitched rather highly, requiring you to approach enemies with care and grow not only your on-screen avatar but also yourself to survive. Nioh builds on these mechanics though, bolting on a myriad of its own quirks and features that give it a unique sense of identity. It’s quite insulting to consider Nioh simply a clone of Dark Souls with an oriental setting. It’s much more than that.
Perhaps one of the biggest differentiators between Nioh and Dark Souls is combat. On the surface it appears similar; both have standard and heavy attacks, ranged options and rely on stamina – or in Nioh’s case, Ki – to create an ebb and flow to battle. Over time, the combat in Nioh begins to feel deeper, faster and more rewarding though. Each weapon type has a wealth of skills for you to learn and master, considerably expanding your moveset. Spirit Guardians offer passive bonuses and can also be activated to temporarily grant you invincibility and otherworldly attacks. Meanwhile, Ki pulses reward those with expert timing the opportunity to quickly recover their energy, maintaining the upper hand in battle. And multiple stances can be adopted, allowing you to prioritise attack power or defence as you see fit. With an expansive range of combat options on the table, Nioh feels like it shares more in common with the Ninja Gaiden series at times, and that can only be a good thing in my book.
Adding yet another dimension to Nioh’s already absorbing and utterly rewarding gameplay is the abundance of loot on offer. Employing a typical colour-coded system for rarity, everything from katana swords to charms can be looted or gained as rewards for completing missions, each randomly bestowed with a range of status enhancements and effects. It means that there’s more scope for a variety of builds; that players can accurately fine-tune their characters in line with their playstyle. It also means that there’s always a reason to take on new missions or replay old ones – the pursuit of perfect loot will become quite an obsession for many. Loot that you have no practical use for always comes in handy too. You can offer it up at a shrine, gaining Amrita and perhaps an item or two in appreciation, or sell it at the blacksmith to earn some good old-fashioned coin. Perhaps the most resourceful method of disposing of unwanted loot, however, is to disassemble it into materials, enabling you to forge your own creations at a later date.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that in all my time playing Nioh, the only aspect of it that has really irritated me on more than a few occasions is the balancing of it; or rather, of its bosses. While the standard humans and demon-like Yokai that prowl the majority of Nioh’s missions offer a fair challenge that increases appropriately as the game progresses, the bosses range from being enjoyably hard to pull-your-own-hair-out-in-despair hard with reckless abandon. Sure, with patience, skill and a bit of grinding any boss can eventually be overcome, but sometimes you can’t help but feel that the gap between them and the enemies you’ve defeated to get in their face doesn’t quite correlate. At the end of the day it’s not the gravest of issues though, as you can quite easily summon another player into your game to provide some assistance if you really feel like you’ve hit a brick wall.
In no uncertain terms then, Nioh is something special. It’s one of those rare games that surpasses expectations, taking the best elements from a variety of genre-defining titles whilst sprinkling in a handful of its own ideas to create something that feels both familiar yet excitingly fresh. The fluid combat works in tandem with the game’s RPG elements to envelop you into its violent world; a world in which you’ll die time and time again yet always return for more; your pride hanging in the balance until you emerge triumphant. With Nioh, Team Ninja has graced Sony’s PlayStation 4 console with a title that should be considered essential, and demonstrated that they still very much have a finger on the (Ki) pulse.