January 4, 2020 at 4:45 PM #971
Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding
You can always die… It’s living that takes real courage.
We can’t start a review of Nioh without talking about Dark Souls. Ever since the success of Dark Souls in 2011 (and its numerous follow-up games), TONS of other game companies have seen the fan demand for challenging action games and tried to get in on the action.
Not many of those companies can boast that they already KNOW hard games like Team Ninja though, who were brought in to help develop Nioh in 2012 (the game has had QUITE a development history actually: Nioh’s been around since 2004!). Given the location of the story and the clear influence that Dark Souls has had on the game, many fans have dubbed this game "Japanese Dark Souls". But just because you’ve emulated a successful formula doesn’t mean your game will be good! After spending a TON of time with this title (seriously… I actually wrote a giant guide to the game…) let’s go through everything you can expect out of this game.
Lost in the Land of Spirits…
One of the first things that drew me to Nioh (a few years ago…) was its story. Specifically the fact that the story was coming from an unused Akira Kurosawa script titled "Oni" (for those wondering who Akira Kurosawa was, he directed the classic Japanese films "Yojimbo" and "Seven Samurai"… which made their way over to the US with Clint Eastwood). To be fair, the game’s story has been re-done quite a bit since then. Moving on…
In Nioh you will take on the roll of William Adams, an English Sailor who is accompanied by a guardian spirit named Saoirse. The game will explain what "Amrita" is: mysterious stones that can be used to gain power and are also responsible for Williams current predicament of being in a Tower of London prison (those in power in England are doing a little house-cleaning with the sailors/pirates they’ve used to obtain Amrita…). Saoirse will help William escape the dungeons by sensing his impending death, but this leads to William overhearing a plot to use Amrita to help the English conquer the world. While escaping, William runs into a mysterious alchemist named Kelley who ends up stealing Saoirse away from William (planning to use her to locate Amrita) and then leaves on a voyage to Japan to find Amrita with William following him to gain Saoirse back…
The main story hook itself is pretty plain: William loses his Guardian Spirit and travels a LONG way to gain her back. Simple. What really makes the story interesting is the game’s setting: the "Warring States" (Sengoku) period of Japan. William’s trip to Japan not only shows his struggle to locate Kelley and gain Saoirse back, but also places him in the middle of the war to unify Japan. This means you’ll meet people like Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo as the story intertwines William’s personal journey with some of Japan’s most interesting history.
All in all, the story of the "Western Samurai" is pretty interesting. We’re shown a lot of (fictionalized) Japanese History here and get to know several major and minor historical figures (William himself is based on a historical figures as well!). The story isn’t super in-depth, but did keep me hooked throughout up to a fantastic "epilogue chapter" that wrapped William’s journey up nice while leaving the chance for a sequel open. It may be a bit more "alternate history" than anything Akira Kurusawa may have imagined, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit.
Japanese Dark Souls?
By far the thing people are going to focus on, with a title like Nioh, is its game play. It is very obvious that Nioh’s biggest influence was the "Souls Series". The game is indeed quite hard, especially in the beginning chapters. The entire "Leveling System" and death mechanic is also pretty much borrowed from the Souls series, as killing enemies lets you acquire Amrita (souls) which you can use to level up, but dying makes you drop all of your souls. You can of course come back for them, like the Souls games, but dying without claiming them means losing them forever (which can be a major setback).
Nioh’s combat is where it starts to pull away from the "Souls clone" label though. Being a Team Ninja title, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but the combat in Nioh is just silky smooth. Stylish even. William can equip one of five weapon types (Katana, Dual Katanas, Spear, Axe and Kusarigama) and use them to kill even the strongest Yokai (Japanese Demon). As you use weapons and level up you’ll gain access to better skills which you can buy from a skill tree, becoming stronger and gaining new moves over time. The animations and flow of combat just feels fantastic, like you are playing a quick-paced action game. This is tempered with a Stamina System however (bringing the action closer to Bloodborne than Ninja Gaiden) but by timing "Ki Pulses" you can often recover large chunks of stamina to keep fighting far longer than any Souls game out there.
A large part of surviving in Nioh is paying attention to your surroundings (the developers will often get cheeky with enemy placement) and learning enemy attack patterns as well as your own capabilities. Combat has its own ebb and flow. Weapon mastery isn’t the only thing you can do in Nioh though, as the game also has a magic system (Onmyoji Magic) and a ninja system (Ninjutsu) you can level up in. You can often mix and match weapons and spells to find something that works for you and helps you survive. Soon studying enemy movements and attacking safely will be second nature.
Another thing that sets Nioh apart is, oddly enough, its Diablo-style loot system. Enemies don’t really "explode" in loot like Diablo (well… maybe bosses…), but you will still get a steady stream of armor, weapons and items as you take them down, all with different levels, styles and rarity. Most weapons and armor require certain stats to use, and William can only carry so much weight before it physically affects his movement (another thing borrowed from Souls), so gearing up properly is definitely a part of the game.
All in all, the combat in Nioh is definitely one of the highlights. Once you learn the game’s systems it just feels fantastic, and the game will constantly challenge you with new enemies and bosses along the way. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the fantastic boss battles throughout the title as well, most of which are challenging, varied, and just a joy to fight. Nioh’s game play is definitely a fantastic mix between its borrowed "Souls formula" and Team Ninja’s own action game play.
Land of the Rising Sun
I’ll be blunt: Nioh’s graphics are fantastic. This is honestly one good-looking game worthy of this generation. The locations you will explore are all brilliantly designed in both layout (shortcut paths abound!) and design. There’s a lot of fantastic vistas and variety in the game. You’ll end up exploring forests, hamlets, castles (several… those Japanese lords loved their castles), caves, mountains and even unnatural ice-covered terrain before everything is finished. The developers also put considerable effort into lighting and fog/mist effects as well, which go a long way towards giving the environments that mythical charm the story is trying to convey…
The game also just NAILS the enemy and character design. Human designs are pretty basic, but the developers did a good job giving each of the major players some distinguishing features. The real joy here is the monster design. The various yokais and demons you’ll fight are just a treat to see, as are the bosses (most of them, anyways). Just… so good. The enemy designs here are top-notch, rivaling and often surpassing anything you’ll see in comparable games.
Animations are another plus for the game as a whole. The animations are smooth and look great, but more importantly they lend the game some style and swagger points. The combat can be fast and fluid once you learn to string together combo’s, and the animations help a ton here. One of my favorite animations was sheathing a katana after using it, as William will flick the blade around to clean the blood off of it, splattering said blood over any nearby surface. Just… stylish as (you know what).
All that said, not EVERYTHING is perfect here. On action mode at least (more on that down below), enemies in the far distance looked jagged and somewhat off. Just not right. It’s not a deal-breaker since its only even noticeable on far-off enemies, but its definitely noticeable.
One thing that I didn’t mention in the game play section is that once you start a new game, you can choose between "Movie Mode" and "Action Mode", to make the game focus on 60 FPS (action) or a better resolution (1080p – movie). I choose action, but then again I don’t have a 4K TV or PlayStation PRO (both of which would make the game look even better, I’m sure). Still, even with my "lower end" equipment, this was a good looking game all around, with the developers attention to detail (armor sets, guardian spirits waiting for you, blood splatter) leading the way.
As you may expect, the soundtrack to the game is largely influenced by Japanese music and instruments. Many of the less dramatic / more calming tracks in the game reflect this actually, with Shamisen, Taiko and woodwind instruments delivering traditional-sounding and calming tunes (my favorite of them all has to be "Freed from this Mortal Coil", which is coincidentally the tune that starts to play whenever you die… a bit bittersweet).
The other half of the soundtrack is a full-blown orchestral affair. There are a LOT of fast paced battle songs that pump you up for boss fights (the game has a lot of boss fights) but the soundtrack has a good mix of these dramatic tunes and some good exploration themes. The main theme is downright iconic and stirs up my fighting spirit every time I hear it. I’m also quite fond of the themes for William and Saoirse.
The voice acting in the game is well done. Being a foreigner to Japan, you would think that William would have trouble communicating, and he does until some local guardian spirits grant him the ability to understand Japanese a few missions into the game (lucky William!). Still, there’s a lot of Japanese and English voice acting throughout the game and I found it all to be solid.
Death is no stranger…
One thing that surprised me about Nioh (once I was done with it) is how LONG it is. This is a meaty game. There’s a total of 20 main missions to play through, but for every main mission you play you’ll unlock side quests and training (dojo) missions, adding on 60 additional missions (for about 80 missions total). You’ll definitely want to do a vast majority of those missions too (especially the dojo missions) as you can unlock new Guardian Spirits and new skills by doing them. There’s a LOT of content here!
Every mission in the game is selected from a mission select screen, which makes is super easy to re-play missions so you’ll never be locked-out of anything. The game’s diablo-style loot system and leveling up system naturally encourage replaying missions of course, but you can also search for hidden kodomas (little green creatures that grant you passive bonuses) and hidden hot springs as well (the game’s two "collectible" items). Still, leveling up and trying to obtain matching armor sets (for set bonuses) are the main draw to re-playing missions here.
Once you beat the game, you unlock a new game mode (Way of the Strong) which acts as a "New Game +" mode by upping the difficulty and having you play through the game again (getting better item drops) as well as a new item rarity tier (Green – Divine Weapons). There are also "Twilight Missions" which rotate every twenty four hours and are basically just harder side-quest type missions with remixed enemies on previous maps.
Finally, there is a form of multi-player in Nioh, although its a bit awkward. You can summon visitors to your game with certain items for help, which can definitely get you through some tough spots. To join a game you can visit a shrine and filter what missions you want to be summoned to. The awkward part in all of this though is that you just can’t play a two-player game. Instead, in order to be summoned, you must have beaten the mission you are being summoned to (which means you can’t just join a friend and both play through a new mission together).
All in all, this game gives you a lot of bang for your buck. I will also note that there is DLC coming out two, with one expansion already out (The Dragon of the North DLC… which I still need to get to) and two more on the way.
To be COMPLETELY FAIR here: if you don’t like the "Dark Souls" type games, you ARE NOT going to like Nioh. The comparisons are numerous, but this is still a highly challenging game where two deaths in a row can wipe hours of progress. So if you’ve ever tried a Souls Game before and quit after 20 minutes or so, don’t even bother with Nioh.
For those up to the challenge though (which, given how popular the Souls series is, should be a lot of us), Nioh is a fantastic title. It borrows elements from many popular titles (Souls, Diablo, Ninja Gaiden) but combines them all with a fictionalized Japanese setting into its own experience. This is, quite honestly, the best "souls inspired" game I’ve personally seen since Dark Souls took off and if you’re a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to give Nioh a try. Have fun and keep playing!
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