12 years is a long time. Just ask Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, whose combined development lifetime was equivalent to that of a Freshman in college. 12 years in real life is a long time; in videogame development it’s practically ancient. A lot happens in the world of videogames in that span of time. We went from running and gunning in 2D with Megaman, to running and gunning in the open world of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto III. Games change, gamer’s tastes change, and the gaming landscape changes. So when Nioh, a passion project first announced in 2005 by former famed developer Team Ninja, began making waves again the past couple years, it would be only natural to have some trepidation in its prospects of success. No game comes out after that amount of time completely unscathed – just ask FFXV and The Last Guardian.
Then last April, during the release period of Dark Souls III, the gaming world received a surprise: its first taste of Nioh in the form of a playable Alpha. Combining many of the successful elements of its contemporaries in the realm of action and role-playing, it went from being a forgotten piece of gaming history to one of the more intriguing releases in the coming year. Sure it was rough around the edges, but there was something special about what was presented to us: a beating heart that didn’t want to quit. Months after we got a Beta, fixing a lot of the balancing and gameplay issues that people complained about from the first taste. It proved that after a string of disappointing releases, Team Ninja wasn’t ready to give up and go with the flow; that they were privy to the changes in the gaming landscape; that they were no longer working in a bubble.
12 years is a long time. It just so happens that after 12 years, barring a few bumps and scrapes, we are treated to one of the best action games in years and a promising new start for the legendary studio…I did say that no game this long in development comes out completely unscathed, remember?
Nioh’s narrative derives from an unfinished script by legendary director Akira Kurosawa. The story is an interesting blend of historical fact and Japanese fantasy lore, telling the story of a fictionalized William Adams, a Brit, that heads to Japan during the Sengoku period to assist in subduing Yokai – evil demon spirits – play his part in a war between Japanese Lords, and hunt down and take back his Guardian Spirit that was stolen from him by an evil alchemist. While there is the set-up for an excellent story, it often feels fragmented, jumping from one timeframe to another, adding new characters without really fleshing a lot of them out. Most disappointing, is William himself, who after a promising prologue is relegated to no more than a fish out of water role and acts as almost a blank canvas save for a sarcastic quip or two here and there.
Major reveals went mostly over my head because I didn’t remember half the names of the dozen or so characters the game throws at you. Thank god there is an extensive gallery to help keep track of everyone you’ve met, including his or her backstories and developments within the narrative. The story by no means is bad – if anything it made me want to read up on the real life history of these figures – but compared to the tight knit lore of the Souls games or the straightforward action movie story-telling of the Ninja Gaiden games, Nioh tries to split the difference, with less successful results. It’s mostly there as set dressing before you get back to the action.
This is where the meat of bones of the game lies and what a feast it is. Nioh takes the tried and true gameplay structure of a Soulsborne game and marries it with the fast, fluid action of a Ninja Gaiden or Onimusha. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate, it blends perfectly.
Similar to a Souls game, you gain experience – in this case Amrita – by defeating enemies, which you can lose if you are killed and do not successfully retrieve. Also like Souls, action is real-time and focuses around a stamina meter, that when depleted, leaves you unable to act. This is where Nioh goes a step further and adds to these existing systems in new and interesting ways.
When stamina – or in Nioh’s case, Ki – is depleted, it not only leaves William unable to act, but if he is hit in this state, he becomes staggered, leaving him open to his opponent’s devices. This conversely works the same for his enemies, which unlike the Souls games also have their own meter as well. This system creates a smart and interesting cat-and-mouse approach to combat, requiring you to read opponents attack patterns and capitalize on openings without getting too greedy on the offensive end, lest you deplete your stamina and get quashed in one combo.
If you are someone who likes to stay on the offence as much as possible though, then incorporating Nioh’s Ki Pulse system will keep you out of the red. After you attack, Ki energy will form around William and if you time a button press correctly – either with R1 or by dodging, once unlocked – you can recuperate your Ki at a quicker rate. This becomes almost essential to master, as it will give you the ability to continue attacking and pressuring your enemies into staggered form. It all comes together to make Nioh feel like a much faster game then Souls, and more akin to Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden series at times.
Its more action game inspired elements are further explored in the games numerous unlockable skills, which differ depend on which weapon you put your focus into. If you want to perform a spinning lariat with your axe or chain-whip your enemies into submission with your with ninja-style Kusarigama, the skill tree will afford you such opportunities. Furthermore, you can unlock additional benefits such as magic that can imbue weapons with elemental powers or ninjustu in the form of shuriken or other such weapons.
Speaking of weapons, on top of the half dozen or so main types, you also have the ability to switch between three different stances: high, medium, low. In high stance, attacks deplete the Ki gauge quicker and leave you more vulnerable, but offer the reward of more damage output, whereas low stance prioritizes defense and Ki management at the expense of power; mid stance falls somewhere in between. This adds a whole new layer of strategy as you may want to use low stance against smaller and/or quicker enemies and a more powerful stance against lumbering beasts – or why not both? Switching between weapon stances mid-combat is as easy as the press of RI and a corresponding face button and can even grant additional Ki Pulse benefits if you time your switch correctly. Life and death are always hanging in the balance and its these nuanced system that makes every encounter in Nioh a pleasure, whether it be Yokai grunt or the myriad of tough boss encounters.
These boss fights are some of the great highlights of the 40 plus hour campaign and range from showdown with samurai, to a giant pipe-smoking frog, or other large beasts that can take up the whole screen. There is good variety in design and in the way to approach these challenges, but the most satisfying have to be the one-on-one encounters with fellow samurai, compared to some of the more gimmick-based battles. Nonetheless they are all quite challenging and more so gratifying when you fell them in battle. My only complaint would be some of these encounters can veer off into “cheap” territory at times, with canned animations that can cause such annoyances as projectiles to veer 90 degrees toward you mid-dodge. I even faced a boss that, when I pushed their health down a third of the way, was completely stagnant while I circled him only to have him continue his actions the moment I backed off, as the game loaded in his change in attack form. It’s these little breaks in gameplay that show a lack of polish from time to time and could’ve called for some more resources or a bigger budget to fully iron out. While disappointing, thankfully this is kept at a minimum, as the majority of the deaths I experienced were the product of my own carelessness. Thankfully load times are almost non-existant between deaths, negating any lull in the game.
Nioh is an incredibly challenging game and yes it will seem overwhelming at the beginning due to the many systems in place, but those who are worried about the game’s difficulty or learning curve do not fret; it all becomes very manageable the more you delve in and learn the ins-and-outs of combat. By the end, I was confident that no matter who or what I encountered, my patience and skills would lead me down the path of victory. If that didn’t do the trick I could always finish off the battle with one of dozens of Guardian Spirits that grant William temporary invincibility and living weapon attacks that are as beautiful as they are powerful. Just a forewarning, these aren’t the be all, end all; you will still need strategy as getting hit can deplete your invincibility meter quicker than you can get off your first attack.
Between the multiple stances, Ki systems and weapon abilities, this is some of the most rewarding combat in an action game to date and its complemented by a Diablo-Style loot drop system that rewards every successful enemy encounter with tangible results.
Yes there is loot and yes it is glorious. These armaments are dropped from felled enemies and give Nioh its own spin on its obvious inspirations. Unlike Bloodborne and Dark Souls though, these pieces come frequently and are color-coded by rarity, which give you something to work towards when hacking down enemies. It’s easy to just attach the equipment with the best base stats, but each piece is imbued with their own unique attributes and abilities that might make it in your best interest to equip, for example, a piece of armor or a weapon that increases defense or attack power while in a stance you mostly use, than a piece with a higher general level.
If you rather craft your own weapons and armor you are free to do so as well through the forge. Or maybe you fancy a certain piece in the collection? You can increase its base power by infusing it with other equipment or even roll the dice at the chance to re-forge its abilities for something more suitable to your style of play. The game gives all sorts of options to customize your equipment to your liking, but the game never gave me reason to spend to much time worrying about these systems as new and better equipment comes in at steady rate.
In fact, the whole loot and item management system can be overwhelming at times, due to an overabundance of numbers and information that clutter the screen. There are options to organize your goods by different parameters, but even still, I found myself barraged by information overload. I didn’t even find out about the benefits of armor sets – perks given for how many pieces of a certain armor set you have equipped – until a friend mentioned them to me almost 20 hours in. Even with these inventory management issues, the promise of acquiring better loot through the games mission-based structure makes replaying levels or side missions a worthwhile endeavor, especially if you are having trouble with a certain section and want to grind for that extra inch.
This mission based-structure is where Nioh deviates from the Souls games and it works surprisingly well for the most part. The game is divided into 6 different maps, which house 3 to 4 story-based missions and a handful side quests. It’s a structure lends itself very to the pacing of the game. Finished off that extremely challenging boss from the last mission and want to cool off? Side missions give you that brief moment of respite, and while they can also be quite challenging, they’re truncated experiences that take a fraction of the time of the main course and help to break up the monotony and repetitiveness. It also helps that they are quite varied ranging from wave-based combat to exploration and item procurement.
There is good variety in the maps you explore as well. They can be large and labyrinthine with exploration off the beaten path rewarding you with rare armor drops, curative items or even little green creatures, called Kodama, that gift you with increased Amrita and item drops at the nearest shrine – the game’s equivalent of a Dark Souls bonfire.
I haven’t even talked about revenants, which, akin to bloodstains from Souls games, show you the resting place of fallen players. Instead of showing you how they died, like in those games, you can actually take on their AI in battle only to be rewarded with gear and Glory Points, which can be used to purchase special weapons, emotes and other goodies later in the game. They are scattered throughout the game and are another worthwhile time investment. They are fun to farm during missions alone or with your friends in the surprisingly decent online co-op – even if said co-op does rob the game of a lot of its difficulty.
My biggest issue with the whole mission based structure is the inconsistency in the level design. While a lot of them are intricately designed and devious, there is a lack of cohesion to the world – something that is found in Dark Souls or Bloodborne – and instead of it feeling like one interconnected world, it can feel like your typical stable of videogame levels – right down to its ice-based stage. In fact, the game feels at times more like a dungeon-crawler like Diablo than a Souls game, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The inconsistency in visual designs of certain stages are also a sore spot that needs to be pointed out; in fact the visuals in general are fairly weak. Looking at the game straight on, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear it was in development since the early days of PS3. The game is no looker, with muddy textures, washed out lighting and some janky animations from time to time. Coming from a studio that revolutionized console graphics on the original Xbox with Ninja Gaiden, the result can only be looked at as a disappointment. Thankfully there is a good selection of visual options to play with at your disposal, ranging from higher resolutions capped at 30 frames to the 60 FPS of Action Mode, which complements the fast and furious gameplay and is the preferred method of play.
Where the game does shine though is in the art direction department. The game features some incredible Yokai designs that are as frightening as they are jaw-dropping and their scope can be breathtaking – particularly the final boss, which is a treat for the senses. While there is a good amount of variety, especially when it comes to the bosses, I do wish there were a few more types of enemies. Also compared to the visually creative demons, human models look like they came out of some generic bargain bin action game.
The game shines most in presentation when it comes to its original music compositions, which set the tone for each situation. The soft somber violins accompany slower moments of exploration, while rock-tinged rifts fit right in with the high-paced action of intense encounters. It’s a treat for the ears in those moments where it might not be a treat for the eyes.
4.25 out of 5
Nioh is a special kind of game. A game this long in gestation had no right to be as good as it is, but here we are 12 years later with a game that delights more often than not. It may wear its inspirations on its sleeve, but it delivers its own brand of action RPG and has resulted in one of the genres finest. With a bigger budget to help clean up some of its presentation issues and gameplay kinks, I can’t wait to see what is in store for a second go around in this promising new franchise.
It is telling that after playing for over 40 hours, the game still keeps on giving, with new missions, including the remixed twilight missions, and a new game plus mode with a new tier of loot drops. If you are a fan of the methodical pacing of Souls-like games with the heavy action and challenge of Ninja Gaiden or are just looking for a game to sink your teeth into for a long time, here it is. Not only one of the biggest surprises of the year, but what is surely to be one of 2017’s finest.