Are grey-haired, grizzled warriors the new thing these days? I mean I think it’s awesome, but Nioh’s protagonist is an extremely Geralt-faced swordsman. Nioh places you in control of William, a westerner trained in the ways of the samurai, as he slices his way through countless foes with lethal grace.
Nioh hasn’t yet been released, but it has had three limited trials, each improving on the last thanks to the feedback given from its participants in preparation for the full release on February 8th. While I missed out on the chance to try out the previous trials, I was able to check out the recent third and final test to see if the game was as difficult as everyone made it out to be. As an avid fan of the “SoulsBorne” series, I’d heard plenty of comparisons being made between it and Nioh, many of which were quite favourable. Having put a decent amount hours into the available gameplay, I’ve died more times than I care to count and can’t wait to finally get my hands on the full game!
Nioh provides gameplay that any Dark Souls fan will find comfortingly familiar, though it’s speed reminded me more of Bloodborne, From Software’s other suffering simulator. In Nioh, you guide William through the Sengoku Era, an unstable and violent time in Japan’s history. Handily, the intense inter-clan turmoil is perfect for a viciously difficult hack-and-slash adventure where pretty much everyone you meet wants to kill you.
In a slight departure from true historical Japan, you’ll not only be engaged by honourless brigands and bandits, but also be beset upon by vicious Yokai, terrible demons and inhuman beasts with a taste for human suffering. This combination of humanoid foes and bestial Yokai often require totally different tactics to engage. Facing a bandit will often end up being an evenly-matched duel of traded blows and careful parries, while killing a huge cyclopean Oni demands you dodge past their ungainly strikes, as a single hit will send you flying.
To raise the complexity of fighting these evil spirits, a Yokai can create a field of evil energy, where their stamina is vastly increased, while your ability to recover is weakened dramatically. To combat this, one could lure the creatures from these zones, or even completely negate the “Yokai Realm” with a well-timed Ki pulse.
In Nioh your stamina is referred to as Ki, and as with the Souls games, managing this bar is vital to your success. Emptying your Ki reserves leaves you vulnerable to being staggered or knocked down, which can let enemies perform extremely powerful killing blows. At the same time, striking a foe when they are low on stamina lets you exploit that very same weakness. Unlike most of your opponents, you can end a melee attack combo with the stylish and vitally important Ki pulse. This brings you back to a neutral stance, while also clearing any Yokai Realm you stand in AND regenerating a large chunk of the Ki you used in your last attack combo. Careful use of these Ki pulses lets you keep the pressure on your foes, and becomes incredibly important when you’re facing many Yokai. Though it only takes the simple press of a button when a glowing blue aura surrounds you, perfect timing is needed to maximise the effects of the pulse, which can be quite the struggle when you’re also trying to defend yourself against enemies.
Now as much as I love this mechanic, and the layer of strategy it adds, any RPG player knows the best part of any game with an equipment system is dressing up your character with the phattest loot and coolest weapons. The sheer variety of weapons and armour available even in the demo is frankly glorious, ranging from light shinobi armour, to heavy samurai plate armour. You also have two melee and two ranged weapons slots, which you can fill with a variety of era-appropriate equipment. These can range from elegant uchigatana swords and longbows, heavy hammers and spears, to more exotic items like the bizarre chain and sickle kusari-gama and even early matchlock rifles.
Probably the biggest standout in the already complex combat is the three melee stances; high, mid and low. The careful use of these stances is integral to defeating your foes, and feels extremely rewarding when it all clicks.
The heavy stance emphasizes strong, staggering strikes, but it’s solid and aggressive stance limits your blocking and dodging ability. Mid stance not only offers a flexible balance of speed and damage, but also excels at conserving Ki when blocking or parrying. Low stance emphasizes evasiveness and quick strikes, which can be great against larger foes, or even for dodging between multiple opponents.
There’s something extremely satisfying about the pacing of combat in this game, which I would wager comes from the influence of Team Ninja, the team behind the unforgivingly brutal Ninja Gaiden remake and the fast-paced Dead or Alive. Well-timed Ki pulses will help you keep up a relentless barrage of attacks, and switching between stances lends a flow to the combat that many similar games lack. Combining the frantic speed and aggression of Bloodborne with the ability to block and patiently whittle your foes down, this game seems to tread a careful balance between both ends of the SoulsBorne spectrum, choosing the parts from each that best support the gameplay in Nioh.
Whether the missions and gameplay are indicative of what we’ll see come February 8th I, of course, cannot say. But each updated demo that was released showed that criticisms and complaints had been heard and taken into consideration. It’s for this reason I’m extremely confident that the underlying technical aspects of the game will be at least as good as what has been shown so far.
When I get my hands on the full release I’ll be making sure to focus more on the aspects of the game that didn’t get a chance to be put through their paces in a single batch of demo missions. I’ll have a full review out for you lovely readers as soon as I’ve sunk my teeth into the real deal. Until then, I’m glad to say that Nioh’s demo has me even more excited than before to experience the adventures of William of Rivia, er, Geralt of Japan.