Big Trouble in Old Japan
Even if one were to only look at the production of Nioh, its history is an interesting one. Beginning life as the unfinished script Oni from famed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, the project eventually became a video game that landed in the hands of Koei, years before it would merge with Tecmo. Throughout its lengthy development, the project was rewritten and shuffled off until only the setting, time period, and protagonist were kept intact. The game also changed from a traditional RPG to an action-oriented one. Finally landing in the hands of Team Ninja, better known for action and ribald volleyball titles, Nioh began to take shape as the game available today. Despite this extended development time and constant reworking, Nioh is a full-fledged experience that is a great, but flawed, start to what is hopefully a new franchise.
Nioh takes place in the year 1600. A European man named William Adams goes to Japan during the late Sengoku period to search for his Spirit Guardian Saoirse who had been stolen by a man named Edward Kelley. Kelley wishes to use Saoirse to discover Amrita, a mystical ore found in great quantities in Japan. Upon arriving, William befriends several individuals who embroil him in the growing conflict in Japan which, due to Amrita, has fallen into darkness after the arrival of demons and yokai. Along the way, William meets actual historical figures, deals with fantastical beasts, learns the ways of the samurai, and play a key role in the outcome of the conflict. The attention to detail regarding the historical figures, including William, a slightly altered historical figure himself, is commendable, but the story is mostly forgettable. It’s presented in a very stock manner, with cutscenes arriving only before bosses and after completing missions, each of them blandly directed and too fractured by the gameplay to flow smoothly. Many of the characters met have short backstories, but they add up to very little. Despite its rather prestigious origins, Nioh‘s plot can be mostly ignored.
What can’t be ignored is the game’s nearly perfect combat. Taken at face value, Nioh separates itself from its peers by virtue of exceeding them in the art of dispatching enemies. It almost feels as though the game were designed as an action game first with the RPG elements used to block off certain abilities and attacks. Like similar action RPGs, attacking, blocking, and dodging are all dictated by William’s ki meter, basically stamina, and its appropriate management, though in this game it feels more important than ever. In fact, the penalty for running out of ki from attacks leaves William exhausted and stunned until it refills, leaving him open to critical attacks. But Nioh‘s ki meter also has a means of mitigating ki loss. Whenever William attacks, the ki is not immediately lost. Instead, the normally green meter turns red based off of the strength and number of attacks used. Once the attacking stops, the red space begins to fill white. When the white space completely fills the red, a properly timed push of the R1 button will perform a Ki Pulse, refilling the lost stamina entirely. This extra layer of complexity can be used to extend combos beyond normal reach and makes the combat more involved in a welcoming way.
There is more than that to the depth of combat. Nioh has five distinct weapon types: Katanas, Dual Katanas, Axes, Spears, and Kusarigama. While not the greatest breadth of available options, each weapon has two attack buttons and three stances, meaning the different weapon types have six unique basic attacks before even accounting for special abilities and learned skills. Another welcome aspect is that enemies, at least the human ones, obey the same rules. When locked on to enemies, their health and ki become visible. This gives the opportunity to know how ready an enemy is to block, dodge, or parry an attack, and informs when the right time is to push an advantage. By comparison, when locked on to the yokai — demons that have crossed over from the spirit realm — their health and ki are still present, but the ki operates differently. It will not drain normally and can only be reduced by their own use of special abilities or being struck in their weak spot, which isn’t always obvious. Their presence is a welcome change of pace to combat but the game shines brightest when pitting William against human foes. It would not be remiss to say that the combat is easily among the best of any action RPG.
If only the rest of the game could hold itself to the gold standard set by the combat. Nioh certainly isn’t without its faults, though most of what’s there is still pretty good. While character creation isn’t a thing, William can be specialized in an involved manner. This is the area where Nioh borrows most heavily from Souls games. Amrita is dropped by dead enemies and when William dies a corpse is left behind along with his Amrita and the currently equipped Guardian Spirit. Dying again without managing to pick them up makes them disappear for good. Amrita is used to level up stats, each level providing minor boosts based on the stat upgraded. For example, gains in Body increases health and spear damage, while upgrading Strength increases axe damage while also allowing heavier armor to be equipped. Where this system differs are the skill trees, one for each weapon class and the two alternate powers, Ninjutsu and Onmyo magic. The weapon trees unlock various skills that give you an edge with that particular weapon, such as parrying or the ability to Ki Pulse while dodging or shifting stances. Ninjutsu and Onmyo unlock additional abilities that can be utilized by the player, such as the ability to throw shurikens using Ninjutsu or enchanting a weapon with elemental damage using Onmyo magic. The game is rather lenient with how these points are spent and an item allowing for respecialization is available, making the construction of an unplayable build practically voluntary.
Equipment plays a huge role and Nioh has no shortage of it. Nioh borrows as much from Diablo-esque clickfests as it does from the Souls titles, with every enemy having a chance to drop items and equipment in five degrees of rarity. Both weapons and armor can have a list of passive abilities granted, like increased damage in specific stances or increased running speed. Weapons have a level, which determines their relative power, and a trait called familiarity that increases the power of the weapon the more it is used. Forget Amrita, enemies seem to be made of equipment. It is not uncommon to end a mission with dozens, if not hundreds, of items, armors, and weapons littering the inventory. Much like its inspirations, much of the loot will be of inferior quality and if it isn’t it can be quickly swapped out. That said, a significant amount of playtime will be spent deep in these menus, deciding whether +6 Ki is better than +7 Fire damage. While annoying to have to spend so much time playing inventory manager in an action game, the game offers two outlets for dumping useless gear and the initial playthrough of the game scales the player fairly well to the challenge, never quite requiring the need for a grind.
That’s saved for New Game+, where the Blacksmith becomes a best friend. While available from quite early in the game, her full potential is only realized when weapons start receiving permanent upgrades, which are only available on beating the final boss of the story. Otherwise, she will always be able to construct random weapons, transfer select skills from weapons to new weapons, and level up weapons to keep them competitive should one be found that carries desirable traits. That being said, the game will more than likely provide items through normal play that are just better, so her services can be ignored for most of the first playthrough. There is quite a bit of depth to be had to the crafting, upgrading, and alteration of weapons that has a certain appeal, but the time and effort needed to make the most of it may not be welcome in an already lengthy game.
As William treks across Japan, he crosses through six different regions, each with several main missions and sub-missions. While each story mission is unique, the sub-missions are reused levels restructured in various ways. This is a double-edged sword, as it gives extra opportunities for more equipment and Amrita but gives the normally good level design a tired feel. Not helping the matter is the low variety of enemies. Since enemies use the same weapons as William, encounters often boil down to normal and yokai versions of each weapon class. A selection of unique yokai are also scattered throughout the game, but they get rolled out at a glacial pace and are used sparingly, leaving the same enemies and attack patterns to memorize throughout the game’s running time. This gives plenty of chances to hone skills and experiment with new playstyles, but gets quite repetitive as the game goes on.
Repetition ends up becoming the game’s biggest fault. The first half of the game is a revelation as the combat system is fresh and learning its nuances an absolute joy. The levels are intriguing to explore, whether searching for shortcuts or little Kodama spirits to boost the amount of healing items gained by resting at shrines. Meanwhile, sub-missions unlock new smithing texts and Guardian Spirits, animal ghosts that offer passive bonuses along with a Living Weapon that temporarily makes William impervious to damage, gets rid of ki restrictions, and increases damage. By the second half of the game the equipment is more than adequate and the combat has little new to offer, making the game almost too easy. Even the bosses, which are a mixed bag ranging from excellent to merely okay, rarely prove more difficult than the level that preceeded them. With a few exceptions, many of the bosses can be felled on the first try using the same basic tactics learned throughout the game. Nioh works at its best when it feels as though it is constantly teaching something new. For the rest of the time it remains a fun game, but the honeymoon only lasts so long. The design decisions for the game are equal parts informed and frustrating, checkering a great game with some minor sticking points.
One thing that is nice to see is Team Ninja’s decision to offer various graphical modes. Even on the base PS4, players can choose between high resolution or an increased frame rate, which is commendable in any sense. Otherwise, however, Nioh looks alright. Its armor and creature design feels both grounded and stylish, even if they end up overexposed by the end. The levels are mostly bland, but there are a few standouts that play with different visuals, such as a snow-laden village, a bustling warzone, and a temple overrun with Amrita. The music is minimal and unmemorable, and it never felt entirely needed. The game does make an interesting point of having characters speak the language of their nationality, which William can understand due to his innate ability to see Guardian Spirits. It’s a decision that helps keep the historical tone and the performances are quite good. If only it had been told in a more interesting fashion, but for those without a greater interest in Japanese history the struggle may end up being keeping all the characters straight.
For its rookie outing, Nioh shows a lot of promise and delivers on quite a bit of it. Its combat is unmatched and will carry it further than some of the more nitpicky complaints can bring it down. It’s a fun game to learn, offering great incentives to explore and pore over its many intricacies. It may end up being a bit too long for its own good, but others may find this offers the replayability necessary to get that next piece of an armor set. If this is to be the foundation for a new series, which it absolutely should be, then the hard work is over and an interesting world just needs to be built around it. If it is to stand alone, then it at least does so with one of the finest combat systems ever created.
Premier action RPG combat
Enemy and stage variety is lacking
Story is very forgetable