Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Release Date: 7/11/2017
Platform(s): PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4
You know how it’s become a bit of a cliché to say that games are ‘Souls-like’? Or that they’re the ‘Dark Souls’ of a particular genre? Well, in Nioh’s case, it’s probably the best way to describe it – it’s like Dark Souls, except it’s set in Japan and you’re a Samurai. If that’s not an awesome selling point though, I don’t know what is.
Just calling it ‘like Dark Souls’ is an understatement though, because Nioh is a lot more than that. There’s no denying that it clearly wears its inspirations like a badge of honour, but it also has enough of its own ideas to help it stand out as a unique and very enjoyable release.
Nioh is set in the 1600s and puts you in the shoes of William Adams, a sailor who, after escaping from his prison cell in the London Tower, ends up venturing to Japan to take down an evil demonic force. It blends together a historical setting, samurai, fantasy, and utter monstrosities to put together a tale that doesn’t always take itself too seriously, but isn’t afraid to show its brutal side either.
You can expect to meet plenty of characters on your journey (some good, most bad), whilst most of the story progresses in-between missions with the levels themselves mostly focusing on the game’s action elements. It’s a decent little tale in all – I appreciated how everything is laid out to you and you’re not forced to try and discover every detail of lore yourself, like in the Dark Souls series…
Nioh doesn’t put you into a massive inter-connected world like the Dark Souls series does either, but rather sees you take on a selection of missions that are split across a variety of different environments. Some of these are open, large, and full of different routes to take, whilst others are a bit more compact and give William a fairly straightforward path.
It’s quite a change to what players might’ve been used to from this kind of game, but it actually works quite well. It allows players to take on more side missions where you can re-visit areas and complete all new objectives, whilst alternatively you can also tackle the ‘Twilight’ missions where you replay story segments again but under much more difficult circumstances. It also keeps environments from growing old, with no need to backtrack in order to make your way to different areas. On the flip-side, it’s a bit less impressive than knowing all of the areas of the world are cleverly linked, but hey, at least it’s a lot more convenient.
Other than that, the basic set up of each level will feel familiar to anyone who has played a Dark Souls game. You’ll work through different areas, kill enemies to collect Amrita (the equivalent of Souls), rest at Shrines to establish a checkpoint and level up (the equivalent of Bonfires), and then take down bulky bosses as you look to clear each area of any threat.
Whilst Nioh’s inspirations are made perfectly clear though, it had plenty of ideas of its own that actually makes it a bit more unique (and, at times, even better than the games you’d compare it to).
Take the combat mechanics for instance; it feels similar to that found in the Dark Souls series thanks to the patient and calculated approach you have to take, yet it’s also got Team Ninja’s fast-paced brutality on show too. It feels a bit more special, and also ensures that the patient approach that the game demands can also feel incredibly stylish too. You’ll burst in and out of combat, slice up some limbs, and be back at a safe distance in the same time it’d take to unleash a heavy attack in Dark Souls – impressive, right?
It’s not just the extra sense of style that feels more unique though, with Nioh’s combat also utilising three different stances that you can freely switch between during battle. Each stance offers something different: one favours strength, one favours speed, and one favours defensive manoeuvres, so picking and choosing when to use each one can be the difference between success or failure in an encounter with enemies. They all have their disadvantages though, so you’ll really have to think carefully about what you’re doing if you’re going to succeed. Nioh pushes players to put more tactical thought into their action and shows that it’s never just a case of slicing away and hoping for the best – you’ve got to think, too.
The way that the game handles stamina is different too, with William instead armed with a Ki meter that determines what actions he can and can’t do. As mentioned, Nioh is a lot more fast-paced and allows you to flick in and out of combat with flexibility regardless of what armour you might be equipped with, but you can’t do this without maintaining your Ki.
However, Nioh gives you a chance to quickly recover Ki thanks to the ‘Ki pulse’. As you fight enemies, you’ll notice blue balls of energy build around William. If you carefully time a button press as these orbs enter your body, you’ll recover a nice chunk of Ki and will find yourself revitalised when taking on your next foe. It’s such a small little detail to add to the game’s combat mechanics and does take some getting used to, yet it adds so much and ensures battles against foes never force you to wait for your Ki to recover if you want to keep attacking. It promotes attacking play in the game, which when paired with the more stylish combat makes for a very enjoyable experience.
Then there’s the countless weaponry and armour you’ll encounter throughout the game. Equipment is quite flexible in Nioh and there are a wide variety of stats to look out for, so it’s never just a case of just finding one sword and constantly upgrading it throughout the game (though I suppose that’s an option too). You’ll constantly come across new items, so those who really like to potch around with their set up will certainly find the depth on offer with the loot a lot more appealing.
Of course, Nioh couldn’t be a ‘Souls-like’ game unless it featured boss battles that aren’t only impressive to look at but are also incredibly tough to take down – thankfully, it delivers on that front. I really appreciated the style of bosses you face off against, with a good mixture of fantasy creatures and enemies that utilise the Japanese heritage of the game, though I’ll admit that they didn’t always have the same ‘wow factor’ that I felt when taking on some of the gargantuan bosses of Dark Souls. That’s not saying they’re bad though, because honestly, they’re all great little encounters.
Just expect to die. A lot. Nioh is a very unforgiving game, and with the window of opportunity to learn how to counter most bosses’ attacks a small one, you can expect most of the showdowns with them to become tough (and sometimes frustrating) affairs.
When you die you’ll lose any Amrita that you haven’t used yet, but if you’re fortunate enough to reach your point of death without dying again, you’ll be able to recover it. There were a few occasions where I’d die when rich in Amrita, so the opportunity to find it again is such a life saver and ensures that a lot of your hard work doesn’t go straight out of the window. Of course, if you die on your way to your point of death it’s gone forever – it’s during those moments where you’ll unleash a horde of swear words and (possibly) launch your game controller into the wall. Whilst Nioh is a bloody enjoyable game for the most part, its difficulty can cause a lot of frustration for players too.
One of my personal moments of utter aggression came quite early on during my battle with the game’s third boss – a vampiric monstrosity that kept unleashing hellish combos that wiped my health bar out. I’m a seasoned veteran of these kinds of games, but I lost a ton of time (and Amrita) trying to take her down. Of course, if you prefer to take the easy approach, much like Dark Souls you’re able to summon in other players to give you a helping hand when in a bit of a pinch. Hey, it’s not the way that I like to play the game, but there’ll be times when that extra blade might come in handy…
Nioh first made its way to the PlayStation 4 earlier in 2017, with the PC release coming as a bit of a surprise (to me, anyway). Fortunately, the port is a decent one; we’ve seen horror stories of PC ports often being terrible and almost unplayable, but in this case it plays just like it’s PlayStation 4 counterpart… for better and worse. Nioh doesn’t seem to allow you to be able to be able to bump up all of your graphic settings to have it running at a ridiculous setting with staggering frame rates, but instead has you focus on the same different modes that came on console (‘cinematic’ and ‘action’). You can mess around with them a bit, but you don’t have the freedom to make Nioh run as good as it could on a high spec PC.
Is this a bad thing? Not really. The game still looks great and the frame rate is constantly consistent; as I said, it’s a good port. PC gaming enthusiasts might be disappointed that they can’t make it run that much better than it does on an ‘inferior’ console though. Oh, the PC version does come with all of the DLC included though, so you’ve got a ton of extra content to enjoy. That’s always a big plus in my eyes, especially since the base game is so good to begin with.
Nioh has been out for quite some time now, but those who missed out on it the first time around or simply don’t own a PlayStation 4 will be glad to see that the PC release is a worthy option. The port is a good one, even if it doesn’t let you unleash the full power of your PC, whilst the gameplay itself is great. Just get ready to die over and over and over again…
Most importantly though, it’s more than just another Dark Souls-like title. There’s no hiding from the fact that it was clearly inspired by From Software’s much-loved series, but Team Ninja have enhanced the combat, offered a fantastic setting, and integrated plenty of their own unique features to ensure that Nioh stands tall as a great action-RPG release in its own right.