Some time ago I expressed how Bloodborne effectively ruined me for other action games. In the heat of Witcher 3’s release and global acclaim, I said at the time (and still stand by my belief) that Bloodborne offered a much better combat system and overall a better experience for me personally. The Lovecraftian-inspired world, combined with a faster combat system than FROM Software’s major franchise, Dark Souls, made Bloodborne the best game I played in 2015 by a mile. I’m happy to say that with the release of Nioh, I’m getting some very familiar sensation: this Japan-centered action title from Team Ninja is sure to be a home run for any fan of the genre.
In Nioh you control William, an Englishman who finds himself entangled in a plot by to exploit a mystical power source known as Amrita to help bring the world under English control. After a run in with a malevolent sorcerer, your personal fairy is taken captive and you travel to Japan in order to find them; partnering with ninjas and other samurai during the tumultuous Sengoku period of Japan. Sounds fantastical, I know, but it definitely is a departure from the melancholy and solitary adventures you may be used to from the Dark Souls universe. While on your journey, there are a number of detours that come up as different allies task you with assisting them with various errands such as dispatching bandits or rescuing family members. In another important departure from games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls, Nioh has a backstory and larger world that is much more lively than the static and ruinous worlds you found in FROM Software’s titles. England and Spain’s conflicts are referenced frequently; there are kingdoms and actual people around that you interact with, which brings a lot more life and dynamism to the game and helps to alleviate the solitary feeling of exploring a ruinous world with hardly anyone in it to speak of.
The fantastical elements of the plot, while refreshing in some respects, can certainly work to Nioh’s detriment. Some of the plot, particularly around the development of the main villain, makes you feel as though he should be standing over a tied up damsel on a railroad track in terms of its predictability. The groans, however, are often outweighed by excitement as you follow William’s blood-soaked journey from warlord to warlord in his quest to reclaim his companion and right the wrongs of his country.
The strongest element of Nioh is its crisp gameplay. To say there are a number of engaging and complex systems in place would be an understatement, but we’ll start at the top.
Once you start the game properly you have a chance to select a primary weapon to specialize in, with a second selection to help diversify your repertoire. You might go with a sword as your primary for ease of use combined with an axe for those heartier enemies, or utilize a spear to keep enemies at bay with dual swords as a backup for fast and furious battles against numerous foes. Whatever your decision, each weapon has three stances that you can alternate between by using the R1 button in conjunction with triangle (high stance), square (mid stance) or X (low stance). Each stance offers its own benefits and drawbacks: low stance helps to preserve your stamina and makes it easier to guard, but at the cost of lower attack power. Mid stance offers a balance between offense and defense, while high stance emphasizes slow and strong attacks at a higher stamina cost. You can also sheathe your weapon, which offers its own set of unique skills once you invest the right points into the weapon.
Skill points are an essential element in Nioh. In addition to the standard “accrue and spend experience to level up” system, as William walks the path of the samurai he will earn skill points to reflect his ability with various weapons. Whether you’re interested in performing a quick-draw slash with your sword or want to increase your Ki recovery speed when your health is running low, each of the weapons has a robust skill tree to explore. There are also skill trees for Ninjutsu and Onmyo magic, which can grant you skills such as blessing your weapon with various elemental properties, or just being able to stock up and throw shurikens. Go ninja, go ninja, go!
As you learn new skills, you may find some overlapping with the same commands. Nioh lets you customize your play style by assigning the skills you’d like to certain inputs. Maybe instead of a quick slash and jump back at the end of a combo you want to end it with a kick to help destabilize your enemy. Not a problem. This detail applies to each individual stance as well, so you can micromanage your actions quite effectively.
Aside from your melee weapons you also have the option to carry two ranged weapons. Whether you’re sporting a bow & arrow, rifle or hand cannon, the ranged weaponry helps to pick out enemies from a distance. I have to say that using the ranged weapons feels really good, and the aiming system is a lot more forgiving when compared to similar titles.
Like Bloodborne and Dark Souls, your actions are limited by the amount of stamina you have; in Nioh it’s referred to as Ki. An interesting spin that Nioh takes with Ki is that you have a chance to recover your energy after an attack: if you press R1 at the right time you can regain a good chunk of the Ki you just spent to keep your combos flowing smoothly.
Be careful: miss your opportunity to replenish this essential energy and you’ll find yourself at a disadvantage!
Rounding out your commands are the dodge (X) and guard (L1) abilities. The nature of the dodge depends on which stance and what weapon you’re wielding, so don’t expect to be dive-rolling while wielding a giant axe. Guarding also has its own set of additional abilities including parries and stuns to up your defensive game.
These layered abilities result in every battle being a well-calculated dance: balancing your stamina, changing stances when needed, and quickly recovering your Ki to dispose of your enemies quickly.
Nioh does help you out with a final ability…an interesting ace to hold up your sleeve: Living Weapon. Once you’ve filled the living weapon gauge, you can activate it with triangle + circle to render William invulnerable to damage and give his weapon a boon of speed and attack power. If you’re hit while wielding the living weapon it drains the gauge faster, so it’s not a free pass to go crazy, but it also allows for an invaluable window of time to engage your enemies without fear of death.
Of course, killing your enemies is no simple task in Nioh. Failure to account for even the simplest of enemies will cause you to be “Freed from the Mortal Coil”, as the game so elegantly puts it. Whether you’re struck down by a hulking Yokai or deftly sliced up by an opposing samurai, you will be a walking embodiment of 1,000 Ways to Die. As you could probably guess, you aren’t the only one capable of utilizing multiple stances and regenerating Ki: the more challenging enemies have these tools at their disposal as well. Still, the thrill of the challenge should not be lost on you if you’re familiar with this type of game. Sure, you may find yourself cursing at your TV when you get taken out on your way to recover your body, but the process of strategizing and picking apart enemies is a real treat.
I love the gameplay in Nioh. It’s fast, fluid, responsive, and unforgiving. The ability to recover Ki reminds me of Bloodborne’s ingenious health-recovery mechanic that helped to keep the action flowing. The extensive customization allows you to explore various weapons and play styles as you quickly learn that charging enemies with an axe isn’t the best way to go. While there are a lot of systems built into combat, it reveals itself as slowly or as quickly as the player is comfortable with. You could go the whole game rocking the mid-stance, or you could change stances multiple times in any one fight if that’s what suits your play style. The ability to embed complexity while preserving a pick-up-and-play feel is a big win for Nioh, and I definitely give it props for balancing those two elements.
One more thing to call out before I wrap up is Nioh’s mission structure. Unlike huge, sprawling worlds like the one in Bloodborne, the levels (still large on their own) are split up and you can enter into them separately via different missions. It disrupts the monotony of re-treading the same huge world by allowing you to step out of it and dive into a different area.
Overall, I believe Nioh has been unfairly referred to as a Dark Souls clone. There are certainly some elements that are familiar, but there are enough departures from the standard formula that it successfully stands on its own as a solid title. With a vibrant and engaging world, a vast selection of equipment and weapons, and an insane amount of detail and complexity built into the combat system, Nioh is sure to be a blast for any action RPG fan. Enjoy!