Review: Nioh
Nioh is more than just a Dark Souls clone. By taking inspiration from a number of action games, Nioh is able to craft its own identity.
Posted on 2017-06-09 by CiaoCiao

Ah, Japan. Land of kabuki and eggrolls. It's every nerd's Neverland. Dweebs and dorks of all ages dream of one day going to beautiful Nippon. In Team Ninja's Nioh, you take control of William Adams, one such weeaboo with great aspirations to become an honorable samurai. On one faithful day, Willy decides to kiss his mom and dad goodbye and sails off to the land of the rising sun in search for a sensei to train him in the art of bushido. However, when he arrives, he finds that Japan is exactly how it is depicted in InuYasha. Bandits, demons, and Nobunaga run amok, indiscriminately terrorizing all of the helpless villagers. William, who has the power of seeing the demons and being white, takes up the challenge to save Japan and to put an end to the demonic hordes.

The last few years have been pretty rough on Team Ninja. It seems like everything was going downhill for them after Ninja Gaiden II. To recount: Other M has been disowned by nearly every Metroid fan, Ninja Gaiden 3 was a disaster, and Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is considered one of the worst games ever made. As such, when Nioh was first shown off, many people (rightfully) labelled it as a poorman's Dark Souls and yet another misstep for Team Ninja. Things started to look up, however, when Team Ninja decided to release a series of demos for Nioh as a means of getting feedback from the players. What people found in the demo was that Nioh went well beyond being just another Lords of the Fallen riding off the coattails of From's success. The combat was mechanically deep and the brutal difficulty didn't just rival From's Dark Souls, but arguably surpassed it. The demos ignited the hype train for which many believed to be the true successor to Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden series. As a Ninja Gaiden fan, and just a fan of action games in general, I would love to say that Nioh both revived Team Ninja and has joined Ninja Gaiden in the action game hall of game—in fact, in many ways, Nioh is one of the best games Team Ninja has ever put out—but as one plays more and more of Nioh, its problems become abudantly clear.

On the surface, Nioh may appear to play similarly to Dark Souls, and in fact, a number of mechanics have been pulled right out of Souls: the most obvious of which are how leveling works. Like bonfires in Souls, William can activate shrines, which can be used for exchanging experience (called amrita) for leveling up. When you die, you leave behind a grave of your amrita (much like leaving behind a puddle of your blood in Souls). Upon dying, William respawns with zero amrita at the last shrine he touched. If you want to retain all that amrita you've earned, you'll need to go back to the last spot you died and retrieve your grave. The bonfire-souls system, iconic of From's games, is a fairly versatile idea, and I have absolutely no problem with other games using it. Admittedly, Nioh does scratch the edge of plagiarism from my point of view in that it uses many similar mechanics to Dark Souls only to regurgitate them in the same grimdark, character action game setting.

Despite all of these similarities, the more you delve into Nioh, the more it starts to feel like a wholly original product. To contrast, Dark Souls is far slower than Nioh: attacks in Souls generally have longer animations, feel more weighty, and are far more punishable—once you decide to execute a particular attack, you have 'committed' to that attack. Entering the wrong input at the wrong time is a matter of life or death in Dark Souls. Nioh, on the other hand, is much more forgiving with its attacks, you can break out of combos and dodge away much easier as the combat is way more fast-paced. Instead of parries and backstabs, the centerpieces of Souls, Nioh is centered around its stamina system. Nioh is all about managing William's stamina (referred to as Ki) and depleting your enemy's Ki. The stamina system alone makes Nioh play far differently than Souls. You can view your enemy's Ki gauge at all times, giving a new dimension to battles. There's countless ways to lower your opponent's stamina beyond just baiting out attacks: you can attack with skills focused on stamina depletion, you can hit a flying enemy in the air with ranged or thrown weapons, or you can hit a weak point to instantly make your enemy lose all their Ki. An enemy who is out of Ki is extremely vulnerable and usually stunned, allowing you to execute your best combo on them.

From the start of the game to the very end, Nioh's combat system lends itself to being easily and enjoyably explored. It is a highly versatile and mechanically rich system which allows for all sorts of combinations of attacks and items. To break it down: there are five weapon types, each reflective of a traditional build. The two-handed katana is the standard weapon for one-on-one duels, while the dual katanas are for trickier, combo-focused players. There are spears for crowd control, axes for those who want to win through brute strength, and the kusarigama for ninja scum. Nioh is extremely easygoing with allowing you to respec your character at any point in the story, giving you the option to try out all of the weapons comfortably.

Within each of these weapon types are three stances. High stance usually involves stronger yet stamina-intensive finishers, in your small stance you get your fast and weak tick damaging moves, and medium stance is the happy median between the two. Within each of these stances are two attack buttons: square for standard attacks and triangle for stronger attacks, and this doesn’t even include the number of special moves you pick up along the way, like grapples and counters. Basically, despite the relatively small amount of weapon types, each weapon can do quite a lot.

You can string together attacks from all of these weapon types and stances by means of Ki Pulsing, easily the most important feature in Nioh’s repertoire of mechanics. By pressing R1 at the right time, you can regain some Ki, allowing you to either continue a combo or to react to the battle more easily. Additionally, as you level up, you unlock skills where you can Ki Pulse by changing stances or weapons mid-combo. Ki Pulse adds a nice rhythmic flow to battles and is arguably the sole mechanic responsible for separating the good players from the bad.

Team Ninja went above and beyond coming up with a great combat system. Getting introduced to it and learning all the mechanics it has to offer is easily the highlight of the game, but Nioh is not able to hold itself up this high throughout its rather unnecessarily lengthy story. Most of Nioh's problems are likely the result of lack of a strong budget. If Team Ninja didn't mismanage their budget so poorly, Nioh could have excelled where it has failed.

Nioh's story is surprisingly long, almost seemingly neverending. This wouldn't be a problem, but the game gets tedious pretty quickly. The problem which becomes the most quickly evident is the lack of enemy types. Nearly every single level features bandits and oni. Once you've mastered how to deal with an oni, which should happen by the third level or so, they just become another inconvenience. Most of my deaths didn't even come from Nioh being a hard game, but just by me being so bored. After I've seen the hundredth bandit, I simply don't want to deal with them again, they stop being fun. One quickly loses the drive to play in a skillful manner, causing the player to fumble up in combat scenarios where they would otherwise not have any problems.

The level design only adds to the player's boredom. The levels lack the meticulous craftsmanship featured in From's Dark Souls series. There are no clever shortcuts and secret areas. The only real detours involve finding a lost kodama or a hot spring (the two main collectibles of the game), neither of which are ever difficult to find. There's very little interesting about the levels themselves, there are barely any puzzles and level-specific mechanics that would have greatly added variety. The one positive thing I can say is that I actually do enjoy the approach to do a classic linear level structure (each level even ends with a marvelous boss fight) opposed to From's open world direction. Team Ninja should have funneled their focus on building a small amount of levels, but each with their own unique qualities, instead of what we got: many bland levels that all feel the same. Additionally, instead of glugging out a bunch of levels, I would rather have half the total number of levels featured in Nioh if it meant 2 or 3 more unique enemy types.

Boss fights are easily the highlight of combat and the rest of the game. These are some of the best crafted bosses in this gaming generation yet. This is likely due in part because they help break up the monotony of fighting the same exact enemies time and again, but also because Nioh's combat really shines in one-on-one encounters. It's just a shame you have to slog through horrible level design and copy and pasted enemies to reach them.

Nioh has a lot of promise. As of right now, it's a good foundation for what could be an amazing game. If anything, Nioh has me really excited for the sequel. There's a lot of good ideas here and most of the issues can be fixed by increasing the budget or refocusing the designer's efforts. Add more enemies and weapon types, improve enemy and level design, and bam, you got yourself a contender for game of the generation. But as it is, we give Nioh a seven out of ten.