As a personal challenge to myself, I tried several times to write this review without ever mentioning the Dark Souls franchise. The through-lines are obvious, and every review in the world is taking its respective angle on how Nioh pays homage, subtractively enhances, or capitalizes on the popular series, and I vainly attempted to do otherwise. I think that these attempts were a helpful constraint to force me to think outside the box and gather thoughts on the game based on its own merits, but that being said, if you are reading this you know it's already too late. I mentioned Dark Souls in the first sentence of the review. And that will be far from the last mention of it. Nioh is a fantastic video game in its own right, despite existing in a sub-genre of action game still many ways in its infancy. It owes a lot to Dark Souls and the other From Software games of its ilk, but I think where it breaks-free from the equation is where it has its greatest moments, and exposes its greatest flaws.
Nioh is a third-person action-rpg from Japanese game developer Team Ninja, most well known as the developers of the modern Ninja Gaiden series. When initially announced I had assumed it to be another game of that style, very fast action, punishing bosses, and stylish combat. After checking out the early public alpha tests, I was pleasantly surprised to find a game that was actually more akin to From Software’s 2014 PS4-exclusive title Bloodborne than the stylish action that frustrated me to no end in the early 2000s. Combat is taken at very deliberate pace: attacks and abilities require a commitment to an animation that can be interrupted by enemies, and enemies hit hard. Really hard. It borrows a multitude of other mechanics as well: Amrita (your experience point equivalent) builds up as you defeat enemies, but if not cashed in can disappear upon repeated deaths. Levels are cleverly interconnected and progress can be made unlocking shortcuts. Different weapons have move-sets and special abilities unique to them to keep the combat interesting. Nioh also has a similar blocking and parry system as well, but supplants baseline abilities in favor of a skill tree. While a novel idea in context, it felt like I either had an excess of unspent skill points, or I was upgrading skills that replaced skills I had already trained. And not a great first follow up to the outstanding opening story opening.
Games like Dark Souls use the environment, found items, and cryptic NPC dialog to assemble a world in the player’s head and leave them intentionally curious. There is rarely a time in that process you aren’t asking yourself ‘what exactly is going on here?’ and there is rarely a big reveal or late-game payoff in the form of exposition or cut-scenes. It gives the story of the Souls games a myth-like inscrutability, and allows for conversations and interpretations in a way that I very much appreciated, especially in a time of video games that hold your hand and tell you exactly what's going on. Nioh succeeds in splitting the middle by giving you background regarding the main characters actions and frequent story interludes that give you a better idea of what’s going on outside of ‘I killed all the bad guys here, so I am going to where more bad guys are’. I applaud Nioh for making a straightforward yet varied story line, but at times it felt uninspired. I know I am showing my bias on my sleeve as someone who is much more interested in a game’s systems and mechanics than its story, but even taking a conscious effort to understand and enjoy the story, I still found it disappointing.
While the story itself was nothing to write home about, characters and the narrative framing does shine through. Not to continue to enforce the nerdy white-boy stereotype, but I have something of a piqued interest in Japanese culture and folklore, and Nioh cultivates that interest by rooting the story in a fictionalized version of the Sengoku period of Japan. As someone who spent much of his youth entranced in Japanese video games and the occasional anime, I picked up an affinity for some of Japan’s more interesting tall-tales, historical figures, and cultural touchstones. This affinity lead to some excitement when I found out that the story has ties to real people in world history, especially when those real people are Ninjas, Pirates, Samurai, and demon slayers. The parts of the story that had me looking at Wikipedia entries and college history textbooks to see if such and such character was real and what part they played in 17th century Japan were amazing, but in contrast with the goings-on of the story it gave it an overall unimpressive feeling.
Despite that disappointment, I knew going into Nioh that story line was not primarily why I was there. The combat and the systems, that’s what draws me into most games, and the same can be said here. Something that defines the moment to moment combat is Nioh is resource management. Dark Souls used a system of refilling stamina that would drain when attacking or running, and required skill and patience to not get caught void of it. It certainly was not the first game to include a stamina meter or other gate to consecutive actions, but managing it rapidly became one of the most important skills for players of the series’. How Nioh manages stamina is what I consider its single greatest strength in gameplay. Enemies in Dark Souls operate on the same systems as the players, but their stamina bars are often much larger, and additionally so aren’t exposed to the player. Nioh eschews this by not only giving the player attacks that specifically can damage your opponent’s Ki (the stamina equivalent in the world of Nioh) but also showing your opponent’s Ki meter, something that gives you another tool to exploit to your advantage in a game where challenge is paramount. This leads to having to manage both your Ki and your opponent’s, and also enables high-damage attacks and executions when your opponent’s Ki is weakened: abilities that not offer a satisfying payoff to using the Ki mechanic, but also shows off some of the style that faster action games are known for.
There is a driving force behind the action and systems of Nioh and other RPGs: Gear. You can’t just level up you need to get the loot, and that goes for just about any game. The loot system was a unique spin in Nioh, but for me it is one of the mechanics that totally fell flat. The feeling of deliberate design via items being painstakingly placed for the player to find was kind of lost on me in a world where armor and weapons drop like it was a Diablo game. Now, don’t get me wrong, I spent hundreds of hours over the better part of a decade playing Diablo II and I loved every minute of it. Loot is fun, exciting, satisfying, and keeps players coming back. But, in a game built on mechanics rooted in subtlety and patience, wading through countless menus full of equipment was overwhelming. I always had an excess of equipment, requiring what seemed like hours of tweaking and stat comparing over the course of the game. That in itself came to a personal surprise in me; I love doing deep-dives, I love numbers and optimization, but the differences were so minor it just felt like a constant chore with no real payoff. Fortunately the game does combat this by allowing you to break items down into component parts for crafting, but even the crafting system was flawed. Spending time early game crafting items was not worthwhile because dropped items quickly outclassed them, but when you reached the late game and crafting became useful, you need the highest quality crafting materials to get the best possible items, which your early game items would rarely break down into.
|Nioh uses a dark visual style rooted in Japanese history, and is more brooding than beautiful|
Fortunately for what it lacks in story and polish, it makes up for in feeling. The enemies feel unique, the combat is tense, and the boss fights (sans one of them) have all been phenomenal. Few games have ever gotten my blood rushing like bosses in Nioh, and I was immediately reminded of why I adore games of this style as early as the first boss. There is the mental progression that mirrors the gameplay progression of the bosses in games of this style that I have still never to this day found elsewhere. You find a new boss, often by accident at the end of a harrowing journey, and over and over they crush you to bits. There is a constant cycle of unease, progress, confidence, overconfidence, and frustration, but with practice and clever dissection you carry forward. Eventually you get to the run, it just clicks, you’ve learned this boss like the back of your hand, and you feel like a god as this enemy that bested you countless times is like putty in your hands. That feeling right there, that is why I loved Nioh, why I loved Dark Souls, and why practically any game in this style out there.
Nioh is not a masterpiece, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I think it might be the most approachable game of its style. I have enjoyed dozens of hours in Nioh, and I plan on at least a few more. Most importantly, I think it is a step-forward for establishing games like itself as its own sub-genre of action game, one that I think has mountains of unseen potential. I look forward to Team Ninja’s inevitable sequel announcement, and even more what the future holds for this genre as a whole.
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: February 9th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: PS4
Publisher: Koei Tecmo Co. Ltd.