Stumbled trying to reach the stars…
In 1600, the bloody Battle of Sekigahara effectively established Tokugawa Ieyasu as Japan’s shogun, a seizure of power that lasted 268 years. This was fresh off the heels of Oda Nobunaga’s ambitious effort to unite Japan in the 1570s, a brutal and violent campaign that left the country in disarray when he was assassinated before realizing his dream.
Not a whole lot of media explores feudal Japan, let alone games that appeal to western audiences—Team Ninja has set out to correct that with their latest effort. Much like Nobunaga, Nioh has lofty aspirations. But does it live up to the team’s pedigree?
Nioh is a celebration of Japanese history and folklore. You play as William, an Irish-born English pirate inseparably tied to his guardian spirit Saoirse. When he stumbles upon a malicious plot by the English royalty, Saoirse gets captured by the perpetually-shirtless Edward Kelley while William is stabbed in the chest and thrown into the ocean to die.
Luckily William is a particularly good swimmer, as he manages to survive and round up a fleet of ships to chase Kelley and Saoirse to Japan. He soon finds himself embroiled in a vicious conflict between two samurai lords battling for control of the country, with invading yokai and demons complicating his efforts.
It’s an under-explored setting and interesting concept, but not one that’s well communicated to the player. Despite reading and re-reading the robust lore section, I had no idea why Saoirse mattered until halfway through the game. William’s involvement in the larger battle for the fate of Japan is similarly obtuse—characters come and go seemingly at random, with little to no explanation of their importance or position. My personal favorite was a ninja who showed up using a cat as a clock, a fact which never got fully explained. The game assumes a familiarity with Japanese history and mythos that western players just don’t have.
But by the end of my 45 hour journey, the world was a cohesive and interesting place. Were the game longer, I could happily spend another 45 hours in Team Ninja’s world. But that familiarity only came after consulting a series of Wikipedia articles and reading every bit of text the game had, which feels excessive for a character action game.
Nioh’s greater virtues lie in its mechanics. I’m not a fan of reviewing a game by comparing it to others, but It cribs so directly from heavy hitters like Dark Souls, Ninja Gaiden, Diablo, and even Gears of War that it’s virtually mandatory to bring those titles into the discussion.
Moment to moment gameplay is mostly reminiscent of Souls games, where players select a mission and are dropped into an unfamiliar area full of hostile demons/people and asked to fight and explore their way from point A to point B. You lose all of your Amrita (Nioh’s levelling currency) upon death, and must get back to it or use a very limited consumable to return your spoils. Attacks are tied to a ki meter (read: stamina) that leaves William helpless when emptied. Enemies hit hard, and can easily end your life in one or two well-timed combos.
But despite leaning on these genre mainstays, the game’s combat stands apart from the rest of the market. There are five main weapon types available, each with its own skill tree, combos, and quirks, and each weapon three stances that can be switched between at will. Low stance combos involve many quick hits that don’t do much damage, but conserve ki; high stance attacks are slow and powerful, but eat ki for breakfast.
Adding to the complexity is the ki pulse mechanic. After each combo, a ring of blue lights gather around William; pressing the R1 button at the perfect time will cause him to gather lost energy, adding a chunk of ki back to the gauge immediately, allowing for sustained offense. Elemental damage, Onmyo magic, and ninjutsu techniques provide yet more skill trees and combat options to the already-deep core mechanics.
Learning the pros and cons to stances and the interactions between your abilities is extremely technical and immensely satisfying. Combat is fast and frenzied, even more so than Bloodborne, but never to the point where you feel out of control or confused as a player. Enemies and bosses are just difficult enough to push you, but keep you on your toes enough to consider more effective approaches. It manages a delicate balance between technicality and accessibility that most games could only dream of reaching, with macro stat and weapons decisions providing satisfying results to each battle.
The only issue with combat is its lack of enemy diversity. There are only a handful of archetypes you encounter throughout the game, and outside of bosses, combat encounters stop feeling new around the halfway mark. A lot of this can be alleviated by trying different weapons and skills, but the onus is definitely on the player to explore systems and keep combat feeling fresh.
Underlying the combat is a robust loot and skill system straight out of Diablo. Item drops are generous, with most enemies feeling more like pinatas than demon warriors; very few items are unique or designed drops. There’s even a rarity system dictating item attributes, weight loads that affect your dodge speed/ki consumption, and a blacksmith allowing you to transmog or combine items—it’s a loot game through and through.
While not an inherently bad thing, the joy of getting new gear can quickly turn to agony when trying to deal with a bloated inventory. Nioh lets players lock certain items to prevent them from being sold or destroyed, but there’s no way to mark items as junk. Instead, you have to carefully consider each item you mark for disassembly, lest you accidentally dismantle that awesome fire sword you just picked up. Stats are similarly difficult to compare, with many attributes being both vague and too wordy at the same time. I was never quite sure what break or toughness meant despite reading the tooltips, let alone which I should favor over the other.
Skills are similarly daunting, though a little more understandable than their loot counterparts. Each weapon type has its own skill tree, and you earn points for that tree by increasing your weapon proficiency (which comes through weapon use) or by using rare consumable items. Skills vary from special attacks that damage an enemy’s ki to lengthening your combos with kicks and extra slashes. They’re all fairly useful and worth exploring, and the system allows you to do so with relative ease.
Pro tip: the skill screen can scroll, so make sure you hold down and scroll through everything that’s available. It may or may not have taken me ten hours to find that.
Sound confusing? It is. While I appreciated the depth and breadth offered by Nioh’s seemingly infinite abyss of stats and abilities, it can be difficult to tell what stats actually matter or are affecting your in-combat performance. A boss that seems impossible on a first pass can be made infinitely easier by reallocating some points or switching a few pieces of gear, and that’s not always apparent unless you really dig for the solution. The flexibility is nice, but the game doesn’t reinforce these concepts in a way that teaches them to you organically.
Sights and Sounds
Apart from combat, the music is a high points for the genre. The music is incredibly organic, to the point that I had difficulty noticing a music-playing enemy several times because I assumed he was part of the score. Instrumentation is expertly chosen, and tracks are surprisingly memorable for their orchestral sound. The OST has found its way into my normal playlist rotation at work, which is about as high of praise as I can give.
Nioh also impresses on a visual level. The environments feel true to a middle ages Japan, and small cultural touches throughout the landscape provide much-needed context into the Japanese way of life. While level designs aren’t particularly strong or memorable, the atmosphere is strong enough to leave a lasting impression.
The game also gives you the choice of movie, action, or balanced modes, which will optimize for visuals, frame rate, or a balance between the two. As a dedicated fighting game player, I loved the option to play at a constant 60 frames per second. While the visuals suffered slightly for it, I wasn’t bothered in the least thanks to the buttery smooth frame rate and rock solid art direction.
Nioh is both equal to the sum of its parts and yet somehow so much more. Combat is weaker than Team Ninja’s more bombastic outings, but creates an intensity and flow that can’t be found in most of its genre companions. The loot and stat systems are unwieldy, but I still giggled with glee when using my new dual fire swords to ignite an enemy slowed by the Onmyo magic I skilled into minutes earlier. The story is opaque, but engrossing.
Much like Nobunaga, Team Ninja reaches for the stars and ends up somewhere in the trees. The things it gets right are impressive, and the new twists to old formulas hit the mark more often than they miss. There’s a template here that I can’t wait to see expanded in the future. While it falls a little short of its potential, Nioh is absolutely worth your time and attention.
Did you play Nioh? Let us know what you think in the comments below!