Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Koei Tecmo, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Released: Feburary 7, 2017
At first glance, it would be incredibly easy to dismiss Nioh as Team Ninja’s thinly veiled copycat to capitalize on the popularity of the “SoulsBorne” series. But after the forty or so hours I’ve now spent on Nioh, I think it’s an incredibly unfair comparison to make. Sure, it’s still a high-difficulty action-RPG where death is an infuriating, yet inevitable learning experience. But Team Ninja has clearly brought all their considerable talents to bear in making this game reach its full potential while also carving a niche all of its own. Within its opening missions, it becomes clear that Nioh isn’t looking to copy the success of its forebears, instead leveraging its own unique and complex systems, as well as a whole new bag of tricks to make sure it can stand tall beside the genre’s giants.
William, our white-haired Irish protagonist, has spent much of his adult life in service to the Queen of England as a privateer. Using the powers of his Guardian Spirit, Saoirse, to collect “Amrita”, mysterious glowing crystals which hold immense spiritual power, William has helped solidify England’s position as a world superpower. After discovering that the Crown had plans to twist the powers of Amrita into dark and dangerous new forms, he was locked in the Tower of England to rot. At his Spirit’s behest, William enacts a daring escape from his cell, only to cross paths with Edward Kelly, an immensely powerful alchemist who uses his powers to kidnap Saoirse and use her as a compass to find yet more Amrita for his nefarious plans. A vision directs William in chasing Edward to the mysterious islands of the “Far East”, a land teeming with spiritual energy and Amrita. Arriving in a time of great upheaval, William will need to fight his way across Japan to save his Guardian Spirit, and put an end to the dark machinations of the British Empire.
Nioh is a fantastic game, but I feel like I should point out right off the bat that its story is kinda “meh”. It’s not terrible, mind you, but it certainly doesn’t carry a lot of depth or anything to really invest you in its tale. In fact, a majority of the game’s backstory, along with a significant amount of information on NPC’s and enemies, is meekly tucked away within your lore menu, or “Amrita Memories”. Despite this, the game never directly mentions what the Amrita Memories are for, nor does it provide much incentive to read through all the information contained therein, going so far as to assume you’re already familiar with the history of our Irish protagonist, William. While you’re able to find out some of his backstory via your Amrita Memories quite easily, the simple lack of any initial character building makes it that much harder to empathize with William’s situation. It’s safe to say that if a game asks me to do some form of required reading just so I can better understand what happened in the first few cutscenes, and indeed why I should care, it’s going to have a hard time keeping me invested as the story progresses.
That being said, the voice acting in Nioh is incredibly solid, even if it is a hilarious to hear William rocking a reasonable Irish accent while almost every Japanese character speaks in their native tongue. But if you came into this game wanting a deep and immersive Witcher 3 level of story depth, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you came here to slice bad guys up with katanas and be punished endlessly for the slightest mistake on the other hand, then you’ve come to the right place.
Team Ninja have shown their skill in making high octane, hack-and-slash action games before, with the most notable being 2004’s Ninja Gaiden remake, which featured seemingly insurmountable odds, a controller snapping difficulty, and brutally fast-paced melee combat. Nioh certainly shows glimmers of its developer’s roots, but mixes in a heavy dollop of patience and thoughtful preparation that will be required to succeed in your blood-stained trek through Japan.
I covered several of the technical aspects of the game when I wrote about Nioh’s demo release, from the complexity of the 3 combat Stances, to the all-important Ki (stamina) management this game requires you to perform mid-fight. Everything I’d already started to love from the demo is still retained in the full release, and the punishing combat certainly doesn’t let up as you progress further into the game.
A staple part of this game is continually surprising you with new encounters, new threats and more dangerous enemies. Anyone familiar with this genre of game knows that you’ll often start a level with your foes placed clearly in sight and spaced apart, but soon they’ll be jumping from blind corners and ambushing you at the worst possible moment. It can be relatively simple to fight one or two sword-wielding bandits in an open field, but fighting that same bandit while his buddy drops down behind you unexpectedly is another matter entirely, especially when you’re desperately trying to avoid plummeting off a cliff. It’s an extremely well-executed way of keeping the combat feeling fresh and interesting, ensuring that even after I’d grown accustomed to combating many varied foes, I could still find myself dying to enemies I had once been supremely confident in facing.
The levels themselves tend to be split into visually distinct zones, each one providing its own unique challenge. You may trek through a dense fishing village at one point before it splits into open rice fields or disorienting mountainous terrain. Even if each location contains a similar variety of foes, the positioning of your opponents will often ensure that you’re at a disadvantage; sometimes by placing multiple enemies in close proximity to each other, or triggering sneak attacks from around corners and over ledges. There were only a few times throughout the game that the carefully crafted challenge seemed to surge suddenly and unfairly in difficulty, primarily during boss encounters. High-difficulty bosses in these sorts of games can become divisive, with many players enjoying the challenge, while others feel that they can rapidly drain the fun from the rest of the game. I personally enjoy a good boss fight, though some of the earlier bosses of Nioh come extremely close to feeling too strong too soon, requiring a level of skill the game had yet to ask of me. I can tell you from experience that it was a little disheartening when the third boss was able to kill me with minimal effort time and time again.
But as frustrating as these moments were, it was only during these very rare occasions that I ever felt the difficulty had been misjudged. If I wasn’t so stubborn I could have summoned a human ally, but that almost certainly would’ve made the fights “too easy”. First world problems I know, but I go into these games expecting a challenge, and don’t really want to dilute that experience unless it’s completely necessary. Having the ability to summon assistance is fantastic, but since the game doesn’t adjust the difficulty in these circumstances, the sudden lack of challenge can feel disappointing.
I felt okay summoning companions when I returned to previously completed levels to farm items and find secrets I’d missed, having already conquered the challenges of that particular stage. As with many of these semi-cooperative games, your temporary friend may well know of secrets that you’ve never even found, which you can then pass on to whomever you may help next. The lack of Dark Souls style player invasions is quite relieving, and leaves your player interactions purely cooperative, and only ever optional.
By the end of my playthrough, the story had coalesced into something that I wanted to finish, even if it took some time to get the ball rolling. I had mastered all the weapon types available, and amassed armour for every occasion. Despite myself, I had pushed my way through the much harder second half of the game, and faced a startling variety of terrifying foes. For anyone who is okay with their game pushing you to perfection before it lets you continue, and is willing to suffer countless deaths in search of that one success, Nioh is fantastic. William’s adventures in the Far East will take you to gorgeous locales and pit you against hideous beasts. But through every step of the game, I found myself relishing the challenge, and the immense satisfaction of overcoming insurmountable odds with patience and skill.
Final Score: 4.5/5
Final Recommendation: Pick it up! You won’t be disappointed.