Not Just Shogun Souls
HIGH The feeling of one-shotting a boss.
LOW Lots of re-used environmental assets.
WTF How does something that small have a tongue that huge?
I want to start this review by saying that Nioh isn’t just a Dark Souls clone.
While there are some similarities, it’s more fitting to say that Nioh is a Ninja Gaiden game adapted to the subgenre that the Souls series has created. This work is decidedly faster than Bloodborne, the story isn’t as obfuscated, and the combat is significantly deeper than Fromsoft’s. It would be a massive disservice to Team Ninja to dismiss the amazing Nioh as ‘samurai’ Souls. This title doesn’t deserve to be pigeonholed in the shadow of its peers.
Of course, since the comparisons are going to be made regardless, let’s get them out of the way.
First, Nioh is as tough as nails. Even the slightest mistake against low-level enemies can take away half a health meter. Attacking at the wrong time, failing to block or dodge, or just falling victim to “the greed” of trying to get that last hit in all got me killed, more often than not. This lethality is most apparent during Nioh‘s boss fights, which are complex and exhilarating dances that can last upwards of ten minutes a time.
That might sound like a grueling experience which can lead to a string of expletives thrown at the TV… and it is. However, finally winning an extremely difficult fight offers a sense of satisfaction that is rare, and worth risking a busted screen. Even more enjoyable is taking down an imposing boss on the first attempt using all the tool and tricks available.
Second, the leveling system of Nioh and the Souls games are nearly identical. Experience from defeating enemies has to be used at a shrine. Die before getting to one, and it gets dropped where the player was felled and everything respawns. Die again before getting to the hero’s corpse and it’s all gone. These points can be used to bump up core stats, each level costs progressively more, and requires greater risk to gather up enough points to advance.
Where Nioh starts to stand on its own is its combat. Each style of weapon chosen — swords, axes, spears, and so on — has their own skill tree to level. The points used to upgrade these weapons skills are, for the most part, independent of what is used to level the hero himself. As such, not only was I advancing my own core stats with EXP, but expanding my move set with my preferred weapon of choice.
While I personally stuck with a single sword for most of the game, the other weapons were intriguing enough to make me want to branch out for repeated playthroughs. I was particularly fond of the Kusarigama — basically, a hook on a chain. More than any of the others this felt like one a master would use, relying on skill over brute force, and giving me another reason to replay.
Additionally, there are three distinct stances for combat which can changed on the fly. The quick, weak low stance is useful for getting behind enemies and popping off a few strikes. The guard-focused mid stance is used to fend off creatures that attack a lot. The heavy-hitting high stance lands powerful blows, but leaves one open to attack.
With this in mind, let me be as clear as I possibly can be here: mastering all three of stances is a must. Sticking with one and thinking that dodging as in a Souls game frequently got me killed. Nioh is designed with all three stances in mind, and will beat the hell out of any player who ignores this. Players who cut their teeth in the land of many bonfires must not only learn how each enemy attack is telegraphed, but also what stance counters it.
In fact, I would suggest that one reason Nioh is being lauded as “harder than Dark Souls” is because people are trying to play it as if it were a Souls game to begin with. Clearing away stamina-draining miasma in the middle of a combo is just as important as tumbling away from a big hit, and min-maxing stats isn’t nearly as helpful as guardian spirit compatibility, elemental defense, and managing status effects, each one as important to success as how hard one can hit or how many times one can roll.
While the story isn’t Nioh’s strongest point, it’s intriguing enough, especially considering how deep into historical fiction it goes. Very loosely based on the real-life Western samurai William Adams, Nioh follows this demon slayer as he travels Japan searching for the alchemist that stole his personal guardian spirit. Several historical figures from history make appearances, and the campaign enhances real-life events with supernatural flair.
If there’s one area where Nioh stumbles, it’s with reused assets. While I like the look of early 17th century Japan just fine, I quickly noticed the same house over and over again. The same statues also litter the backgrounds in multiple levels. I kept seeing the same environmental decals popping up repeatedly, all of which took away from the sense of wonder. Nioh‘s side missions are also little more than replaying a level I’d already finished, either in reverse or reworked by having several paths blocked off. It’s a lazy way of padding the content and one of the few poor things about it.
Ultimately, Nioh is an excellent title that’s different enough from Souls. While its lore isn’t as deep or rich, and the level design isn’t nearly as breathtaking, the gameplay more than makes up for it. With over fifty hours of content, there’s plenty for action fans to enjoy, and I’m sure that Nioh will be in many Game of the Year conversations this December.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Team Ninja and published by Koei Tecmo. It is currently available on PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains blood and gore, violence, samurai melodrama, rage-inducing boss fights, and demons with tongues longer than should be allowed. There are decapitations and dismemberment of limbs on both humans and demons, but it’s nowhere near as bad as you would find in R-rated horror movies. Make no mistake, this game is very much an M-rated title, but it’s not what I would consider gratuitous with gore.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game switches back and forth between English and Japanese frequently, but it’s all subtitled. Some of the collectibles do give a faint jingle when near to alert the player, but a diligent eye should still be able to spot them.
Remappable Controls: The game does not have remappable controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.