Team Ninja definitely wear their influences on their sleeves in this latest tough-as-nails action RPG. Although it borrows heavily from a familiar franchise, does Nioh offer enough fresh gameplay to solidify its place in gaming history?
Before I begin, I should mention that I've been a massive fan of the Souls series ever since Demon's Souls and an equally huge follower of Team Ninja ever since Dead or Alive debuted. As far as I'm concerned, their reimagining of Ninja Gaiden remains one of the best reboots in gaming history. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Nioh was on the way. If anyone can take the Souls formula and make it more action-packed, it's Team Ninja.
Of course, Nioh does a lot to forge its own identity thus differentiating itself from FromSoftware's modern masterpieces. But, let's look at their similarities for now. Both Dark Souls and Nioh feature a system where you collect souls to level up that are lost upon death and can be collected again. It was blood echoes in Bloodborne and salt in Salt and Sanctuary but in Nioh, these points are known as Amrita. The general layout of the games is similar, too, in that stages are filled with enemies waiting to ambush you and enormous bosses that take a few attempts (and possibly some online help) to finally topple.
Although all of that and more feels very familiar, Nioh boasts a much faster pace when it comes to combat. Before you get used to hacking and slashing with style, you'll need to tinker around with the variety of weapon types and stances until you discover a combination that matches your preferred play style. There are swords, dual swords, spears, axes, and kusarigama (chain-sickles). Sure, there are only five types but when you factor in various moves and the fact that you can switch to three distinct stances with each; it's actually quite a satisfying array of weaponry. There are a few long range weapon types such as bows, rifles, and hand cannons, too. Anyway, Nioh's stamina meter is known as ki. Whereas you need to conserve stamina in the Souls series, ki can be recovered by tapping a button with perfect timing when you're done performing a combo. Basically, once you find a weapon type and stance that appeals to you and you train to master the ki system; you'll be an unstoppable force on the battlefield.
As you would imagine, the mixture of Souls gameplay with this relentless combat system makes for quite an addictive and rewarding gameplay dynamic. Thankfully, the campaign is extremely lengthy with tons of missions to master. That's right; Nioh is mission-based as opposed to being open-world. To be honest, I found this setup to be far less rewarding but I can understand that some gamers would prefer it. Either way you look at it, having contained stages definitely makes the world more unmemorable than exploring massive interconnected environments. Moving along, completing these stages will initially take you quite a long time as you adapt to the gameplay but they get substantially easier once things start to click. Don't get me wrong, Nioh remains an ultimately challenging experience from start to finish but it definitely gets much easier with practice (as most things do).
You play Nioh as William, an Irish warrior who finds himself in Japan. It's interesting playing as a defined character for a change and the story is quite comprehensive as well complete with an intriguing cast of characters. William may not be all too capable at the start but character progression is extremely multifaceted. The most surprising system in place is the fact that weapons and armour are acquired almost constantly and each piece is unique unlike the Souls series where pieces have defined stats. On one hand, this adds a layer of immersion as you amass a wealth of loot but on the other hand, sorting through all of this equipment can be a huge pain.
Besides finding equipment, you can craft it at the blacksmith. While you're there, you can enhance, disassemble, or change the look of equipment, buy items, and even get a haircut. Now, that's one handy Jack of all trades! Well, Jill of all trades. On top of all that, you can also learn Onmyo Magic and utilize ninja tools, customize move sets per weapon type, earn titles that grant boosts, and even join clans in order to gain certain advantages. Even though this seems like a lot, you really don't need to concern yourself with much of it if you don't want to. As long as you have it within yourself to master the core combat and equip the best gear, all of these bells and whistles don't really add up to much. In other words, your skills are far more impactful than anything a blacksmith can provide you with.
Although I dread discussing Nioh's less desirable aspects, here I go! Nioh is the kind of game that leaves an incredible first impression. This can last up to ten or twenty hours depending on how quickly you master its gameplay. However, once you reach that point; it all starts to get repetitive and monotonous. The largest contributing factor of this is the fact that the stage layouts are all very similar. Whether you're traversing an ice-covered village or rainy temple grounds, each stage basically involves the same tasks. I wish there was more variety because after beating about a dozen of them, I simply got so bored that I needed to take a break. Additionally, the variety of enemies is disappointingly slim as you'll see the same handful of demons countless times throughout the campaign.
That brings me to my next point: the enemies are incredibly dumb. For instance, you basically have to walk right in front of one in order for it to notice you. I fought countless foes right next to unalarmed demons who just happened to have their backs turned. Are they hard of hearing? Sometimes, you can stand a few feet away and carefully aim your bow in order to dispatch an adversary with a clean headshot. To make matters worse, enemies give up chasing you way too easily. To test this, I ran through an entire stage from start to finish without getting hit once. In other words, the combat may be satisfying but apparently it isn't even necessary. Some enemies don't climb ladders so you can drop down then climb back up without the worry of them ever bothering you again. Other foes seem to get stuck on corners or invisible walls. When that happens, you can hack and slash away without a care in the world. Speaking of which, most bosses can be beaten by simply attacking their backsides then dodging every once in a while.
Finally, I came across far too many frustrating glitches that regularly took me out of the experience. For starters, there are some visual bugs such as enemies poking through walls and having herky-jerky animations when they're in the distance. Those issues are minor and easily forgivable, though. A significant problem is when you perish due to some game flaw so I'll list a few things that happened to me. One boss is in an arena that you can fall off of. This is certainly fair but a few times when I was hacking away at it, my character did a downward thrust off the ledge and committed suicide in the process. Thanks, William. Another boss struck me with a heavy blow that made me fly into a corner. The camera got stuck and all I could see was the ceiling as the monstrosity beat me to death. The cinematographer should be fired. In one stage, I hid behind a wall to recover when a sniper was firing away. However, they somehow shot through the wall and took my life before I could take a sip of that sweet elixir. Take that, laws of physics!
Team Ninja's Nioh is a solid attempt at breathing new life into a formula that gamers just can't seem to get enough of. After all is said and done, Nioh may have its flaws but it remains an ambitious and ultimately satisfying experience for gamers who love a challenge.
- + Addictive and challenging Souls-style gameplay with enjoyable fast-paced combat
- + Huge campaign with many stages to master
- + Intricate character progression (and loot!)
- - Stage layouts make it eventually feel like a repetitive and tedious journey
- - Enemies and bosses lack intelligence
- - Occasional frustrating glitches