The character action game genre has a pretty high bar to clear to be considered a good game, let alone one that stands with the best games. If you’re down for some fast zippy action, Ninja Gaiden (the Xbox version), Bayonetta or Devil May Cry are probably what most gamers consider the best in the genre, otherwise Dark Souls / Bloodborne is the best of the somewhat slower but just as strategic, combat simulator going around. Nioh, made by the folks at Team Ninja of Ninja Gaiden 1 & 2 fame (and Ninja Gaiden 3 and Ninja Gaiden Yaiba, the not so great games) then had a rather difficult task on its hands to best other games in the genre. But with their strategy of taking the best aspects of Ninja Gaiden and also borrowing liberally from the Souls games, Nioh manages to create their own fresh take on a character action game, and the result is a stunning success. Coupled with the perfect performance even on a regular PS4 (action mode runs at a silky 60 frames per second and is the only way to play), the game moment to moment combat is as nimble, quick, powerful and destructive as anything I’ve played. Anybody who enjoyed any of the games listed above should also give Nioh a shot.
Nioh starts off very similar to a Dark Souls game. The first thing is that its hard, and you should prepare to die. Enemies will destroy you in two and if you’re lucky maybe three hits. If you’re trying to make progress at the start of the game and if you’ve never played a Dark Souls game before, you might make it one or two enemies down the path the first time around. After an hour you’ve worked out how to best use the dodge button and with the help of some elixirs (healing potions) stay alive for a few minutes. The Oni is still difficult to beat, so you’ve gone down an alternative path for now. Finally after about 2 hours, you’ve made it to the next shrine, you can save and level up. Levelling up can increase your health so you can stay alive longer, or you could put it into your Ki (green bar stamina) allowing you more actions like striking or dodging. Now you’re feverishly levelling up to gain an edge and after a while you start to get a real feel for things and stay alive long enough to beat everything but the boss. The boss is a huge jump up in difficulty and you die over and over again, but then you start sussing him out and find he really only has 4 or 5 moves in his repertoire, you know his short range, mid range, long range attack tells, you work out which ones are blockable and which to dodge, in the end it comes down to execution, though that’s no easy task. Getting your fingers to come to perfect harmony with your brain takes practice. I can tell you by game’s end you do become a true Samurai, a combat machine that destroys everything in existence. Through hours and hours of combat, comes knowledge, understanding, sheer mastery over the controls and execution of the game’s frankly limitless combat options.
That’s what it feels like to play the game as a novice. But what about the game systems themselves? How does Nioh play and what does it do to differentiate itself from the other games on the market?
As said before the game feels very much like Souls. Players will control William Adams, an Irishman in Japan during the late 16th/ early 17th century. This is a fantastical Japan overrun with Yokai (Japanese mythical monsters) all taking place during probably the most important time of its history, the period leading to the battle to unite Japan at Segikahara. You’ll get dropped into a map and most of the time you’ll want to kill all the monsters on the map, most of them will be standing in your way to get to the next shrine, a place where you can save, level up, offer your weapons for amrita (you use amrita to level up) and change your guardian spirit (your guardian spirit is like your superpower invincible move that lasts for a short period of time). You can always save at your previous shrine, but all enemies will regenerate, meaning that’s good if you want to grind out some extra amrita to level up or bad meaning you’ll have to fight all the enemies again. It’s a risk/reward thing. Most of the enemy encounters are very Souls like, so they’ll be standing around and only when you walk within their sight zone, do they rush out and attack. Thus you can always take them out with a long range weapon or kite them towards you by throwing a stone or shuriken. It’s a problem in general that I have with most character action games in that they feel like one long gauntlet run and replaying sections over and over again (as these games do because you die alot) make them frustratingly rote. You’ll repeat what works most of the time, because enemies are so difficult they’ll kill you in two or three hits, and it’s far easier to take on one enemy at a time rather than multiple.
The actual combat on the other hand is simply sublime. It’s the best in the business by a country mile. While I’m no expert on Devil May Cry, Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden though I have dabbled in all of them, what Nioh offers is options upon options in combat. Firstly there are five melee weapon sets available all of them which play differently. The five are Katana, Dual Katana, Spear, Axe/Hammer, Kusarigama. The Katana is pretty straight forward single sword dual handed weapon that is fairly fast. The Dual Katanas hit with less damage, but are faster than the single one (good if you want to get your hit in first against faster enemies). The Spear has an awesome move set that’s great for spacing enemies due to its long reach. The Axe/Hammer is slower but is more powerful with each hit. The Kusarigama is a chain with a pickaxe on the end, that you swing above your head like a maniac (or a very skilled samurai), its beauty comes via a range of strike distances as you can hit close or far. Each weapon has a huge skill tree with a number of skills you can learn along the way to beef up your moves. You’ll need to upgrade your skills if you want to survive. To complement your melee weapons, the game also offers three different long range weapons, bow and arrow, rifle, hand cannon. The ammo is fairly limited so you can’t just fire away like a sniper through the entire game. You’ll have to pick and choose which combat scenarios you’ll want to use your long range weapon, but its a rather useful thing to have.
Not only does a samurai have to become a master of weapons, he needs to also learn Onmyo magic and Ninjitsu skills. These also have skill trees of their own. With Onmyo magic you can create talismans which get replenished every time you visit a shrine. The talismans act as buffs for a short period of time, so you can get an advantage for more difficult enemies or bosses. There’s a wide range of buffs from lowering your enemy’s defence and attack, to buffing your own defence and attack to a speed debuff on your enemy that helps immensely for enemies that are just too quick or powerful. Ninjitsu also get replenished everytime you visit a shrine too and will consist of things like Shuriken, smoke bombs, traps. All of these talismans and ninjitsu skills are available to put in your shortcuts menu where you’re allowed eight items to carry into battle. That offers significant flexibility and advantage to the samurai that fully uses their magic and ninjitsu to tilt the battle in their favour.
But back to the actual melee combat, two truly new additions to the genre are the stances and the way ki (stamina) regeneration works. And it’s here that Nioh seperates itself from the other games. With stances, the player can switch using R1 + face button to change from a high/mid/low stance, offering strategic flexibility to each fight and if you’re skilled enough flexibility in the heat of the battle. The high stance for each weapon offers slower longer windup but does more damage, it also makes the player roll and has a small window of invincibility. The mid stance offers damage and speed somewhere in between the low and high stance. It’s also the best stance for blocking melee attacks without losing too much ki. The low stance is the fastest, but damage is the lowest too. The low stance is also great for dodging and has a higher window of invincibility. You can go through the entire game in one stance if you wanted or you could pick and choose a stance for any particular fight and the fight will feel different immediately. You can also play the game, switching stances in the heat of battle, dodging attacks in low stance, getting right into an enemy’s face and hitting in high stance. You can do it. You can also change weapons by flicking to your secondary weapon going from your axe with lighting damage to your katana with water damage. I don’t think any other game offers this number of ways to go about an enemy encounter. It’s one thing to be stuck on a section without options, but Nioh always asks questions of the player to try a different tactic. Everytime I died I always thought about changing up the combat, the flexibility makes it really satisfying to play.
The second wholly new feature is ki (stamina) regeneration. In Souls games the bar needs to refill before attacking again. But in Nioh ki regeneration works a bit like the Gears of Wars ammo refill mechanic where you try to time your button press (R1) to gain your ki back faster. As you strike the opponent, the ki goes down but it’ll change from green to blue. The blue is the amount you can get back if you press it at just the right timing, if you do you get all your stamina back without having to wait and you can continue your attack chain, but you do have to get the timing right. Missing it means your stamina regenerates as per normal and you can be open right up for the enemy to attack you if you’re without ki. Enemies ki also works in much the same way as your own ki, so if you can deplete their ki (either by hitting them enough times or making them block), you can stagger them making them open for a grapple move that’s much more devastating than a regular attack. The game then becomes about extremely careful ki management, losing all your ki will leave you doubled over and completely open to being grappled, while you’re trying to do the same to your opponent. Advanced techniques on ki regeneration have you unlocking skills where you switch stances (from say high to mid) where you gain even more ki back than normal, possibly a requirement for even more difficult enemies on the harder difficulties. You can really go to town on learning techniques in this game. The very best players in the game on youtube switch stances constantly, have multiple moves and use both weapons/magic/ninjitsu all at once and straight up clown the very hardest enemies. It’s really impressive to watch.
Another gameplay system that’s been added is the amount of loot in this game. Nioh is basically Dark Souls/Ninja Gaiden and Diablo combined. This game has stuff dropping after just about every enemy kill, and your inventory will fill up faster than games on your PS4 500gb system. Luckily there’s no limit to what you can carry, though the game does have weight restrictions on what armour you can wear so you can’t just expect to wear the very best armour and sting like a bee and float like a butterfly. The game has weapons in classes of normal (white), uncommon (yellow), rare (blue), one of a kind (purple), divine (green) (New game plus weapons). Weapons also have dozens upon dozens of various special effects just like in Diablo, so be prepared to do a ton of reading on all your weapons and how to tailor your character to suit. The most impressive thing I found about the weapon system was how it never overpowered the game in anyway, except maybe towards the final few stages, where I did feel a bit too powerful. The developers did a great job balancing the weapons and armour so that you have to play the game based purely on skill alone but at the same time you do get a noticeable bump up when you upgrade to a more powerful weapon or armour set.
I’ve mostly talked about the positive aspects of the game, most of which is the gameplay because that really is the standout feature, but is there anything negative about Nioh? Personally speaking, as someone with limited time to game, Nioh took over my life for the best part of two months. At a finishing time of 72 hours, the entire thing felt like running a marathon or climbing a Himalayan peak. It felt great to finish, but man I was completely done even just halfway through the game. It was long enough at 40 hours, never mind 72 hours. Many of the stages are incredibly long, some of which have you creeping around a cave so you don’t get blindsided by an enemy around the corner or have spiders dropping on you. The slow pace in these levels make the game even longer. Being such a dangerous place also makes the player save up their amrita by going back to an existing shrine thereby regenerating enemies all over again. Of course there are probably players that just beeline to the boss and complete the game in half the time, but there are also going to be players that play it safe. Most of the time, being too aggressive in these games end up costing more time anyway. Did the game need 6 regions? No, probably not in my opinion, with all the side missions (offering rehashed stages with different enemy placements), twilight missions, DLC missions AND extra difficulty modes, the game didn’t need 6 regions and 20 missions. It could probably have done with 4 regions and 14 missions, effectively cutting 30% of the time to finish the main story. Yet I’m probably in the minority, the trophy stats say 30% of people finished the game which is in line with most other games, so it sounds like most people are fine with the length. Having thought about it for a good while now, length is a rather subjective thing. It may be too short for some and too long for others. I haven’t lowered the game’s review score because it was too long, but it was important to discuss in the review. If anything, the length of the game probably had an effect on the number of various enemy types, which do get used over quite regularly. You’ll fight the Oni from the second level all the way to the last level.
Another aspect I was disappointed with and which I felt did have an impact of the score was the story which was just poorly told in general. The game which features an Irishman William Adams (who was an Englishman in real life) in Japan has him in a foreign country battling yokai chasing after an evil Voldemort like bad guy Edward Kelley who wants to harness the power of a spirit stone (amrita) to rule the world. The story basically has William chasing Kelley all over Japan, narrowly missing out on catching him at every location, well because Kelley can teleport in and out as he pleases. But did we learn anything over the course of the entire game on William? What a huge missed opportunity. Or his ninja friend Hanzo Hattori or Okatsu for that matter. Okatsu literally turns up in the game as needed as eye candy to sell the game in a trailer. At the beginning or end of each stage there is a beautiful water/ink painting story cutscene that tries to inform the player of the events during this time period, but most of it is very unfocussed and fails in every way to convey a proper story. You could say it was being cryptic, but I think it was told badly.
The game also isn’t very graphically demanding. While the performance is silky smooth, the environments are frankly drab and just a step above the best PS3 games. While the look of the game is fairly consistent throughout, the game is probably held back by the fact its set at night for 95% of the game.
It’s hard to list everything about the game in one review, there’s still the blacksmith which forges/crafts weapons, PvP, Dojo training missions, Twilight missions that are significantly harder but with better loot, guardian spirits, collecting kodamas (spirits that give you bonuses). In short they all work as they should, though I haven’t tested PvP as I don’t have Playstation Plus.
As it stands, Nioh despite some of its flaws, is a magnificent game, a huge achievement for Team Ninja as the gameplay along with all the systems in play work together wonderfully well and is a complete blast. If Nioh was my only game and I was stranded on an island, I would happily play it, beat all the missions and DLC and all the difficulties and try all the weapons and move sets. But we live in a world with many truly amazing games, and I’ve played Nioh plenty enough as it is. A great game if a little too long for me.