It’s fair to say that Koei Tecmo’s Nioh had quite a few turbulent years, being in development since 2004. The first we heard of it was four years before the Koei Tecmo merger, after which it was then reworked by Omega Force to resemble a Dynasty Warriors game, but none of these forms satisfied and Team Ninja eventually took over to rework it once more into an action RPG. Somehow, despite all the blood, sweat, tears, and indeed cash that were poured into Nioh’s development, the result is a genuine gem.
Taking inspiration from an unfinished script by the legendary director Akira Kurosawa, plus the real life exploits of the first Westerner to become a Samurai, Nioh tells the tale of William Adams as he chases after a mysterious man who kidnaps his Guardian Spirit before fleeing to Japan. There, William takes the name Anjin and a spot in the Sengoku Jidai shortly after Oda Nobunaga’s death.
Much like the sadly forgotten Onimusha franchise, the mixture of supernatural beings and history makes for a fascinating setting. Nioh takes it by the horns and runs with it, with each character having some kind of quirk about them. While we don’t see a great deal of the narrative outside of mission briefings, entries from the Yokai Lore, and cutscenes, there are other touches that flesh out how brutal this world is, such as hearing the last words of the deceased as you loot certain corpses.
Significantly more difficult games has been a current theme of late, with the likes of Lords of the Fallen trying to take the mantle that From Software have championed for years with the Souls games. The inspiration is certainly laid on thick, with methodical combat mixed with Shrines that act like bonfires, Amrita – Nioh’s “souls” – being dropped upon death for you to recover, the odd glitch here or there, and precise enemy placement all seemingly lifted from the template.
One thing they don’t take thankfully is the performance. Nioh is a pretty game that’s full of detail, if you want it to be. While I can only speak for those owning the standard PlayStation 4, the three performance options available in the options menu are a godsend in game design, allowing the player to judge whether they want to focus on graphical fidelity or performance. It’s something I want to see more console games do and Nioh does it particularly well.
The fast-paced combat also takes key footnotes from Team Ninja’s own reboot of the Ninja Gaiden games. Nothing is quite as satisfying as finishing off a foe by chopping various limbs off as the cadaver slumps to the ground. I’ll always be a champion for the slow-paced combat found within the Souls games, but there is a lot to merit the fresh approach Nioh takes.
A lot of this success is down to two elements: Ki and Stances. Ki is the energy used for attacking, dodging, and blocking, which can be replenished by a well timed press of the right shoulder button. Think of the reloading mechanic from any Gears of War title, with the right timing having the nice side effect of purging any puddles of dark energy that the Yokai have summoned, which stalls your Ki recharging. This alone adds a more tactical nature to the combat aside from standing in the right place and attacking at the right time.
Then there are the three stances which William can adopt and switch between on the fly. An offensive stance that deals more damage per hit at the cost of Ki and reaction times, a defensive stance that focuses on blocking at the small cost to attack power, and a stance that hits quickly and allows the recovery of Ki very quickly but does the least amount of damage. Each one is situational, but that situation can change rapidly in a fight, keeping the player on their toes.
Item drops are where the influence of Diablo can be seen most clearly, with equipment having rarities and unique perks specific to that weapon or armour. Armour is relatively simple to grasp the concept, but Weapons also have a familiarity trait which allows the user to trade weapons in for increased Amrita – the game’s experience. This is psychologically a better deal than any weapon degradation system, yet in essence it’s performing a similar service of encouraging the player to change weapons.
Aside from the five weapon classes William can equip and learn skills befitting a Samurai, as well as learn Ninjutsu techniques such as throwing Shruikens or laying caltrops, and Onmyo to add elemental magic to his arsenal. While my build was geared towards a single sword enchanted by magical abilities, there is a great deal of freedom to find your own path.
Another great addition is the idea of Titles – little achievements that reward the player with permanent buffs that can be selected from a small list. You’ll naturally accrue these as you play the game, seamlessly getting that little bit stronger or accumulating more Amrita per kill. It’s a nice nod to the player, encouraging them to keep going.
I mentioned Guardian Spirits before, but they’re more than just a plot element. Each one that William becomes possessed by can be equipped, granting certain buffs, initiating their own attack through the use of certain talismans, and even powering up William temporarily when the Living Weapon state is triggered. The Living Weapon is frankly overpowered if used correctly, but a necessary tool that admittedly looks very cool.
Nioh’s world structure is mission based, meaning you’re exploring areas until you kill a boss, or find a particular item. It’s a far cry from the inter-connected world of Dark Souls, but it does have the advantage of having sub-missions for more bite-sized chunks of gameplay, or Twilight missions which are harder versions of main story locations. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 in that sense, and I’m not entirely certain which I prefer, yet it does get brownie points for being different.
Main missions are essentially larger hubs where you must fight your way past humans and Yokai of various types in often labyrinthine levels. They culminate in a showdown with a powerful Yokai that is either capable of destroying your health bar in a single hit from certain attacks, or uses other techniques to set themselves up to kill you. Each one has certain themes and is well designed overall, even if they do take on some of the more frustrating elements of the Souls games.
In between missions, you can mitigate the randomness of the item drops slightly by accruing lots of gold and merging items together to upgrade older equipment, but it’s perhaps easier to just equip new weapons and armour as you go. In fact, upgrading things via the blacksmith is perhaps the most confusing part of Nioh, as it’s not very well explained as to what the purpose of each option is.
Online is also surprisingly more robust than one would assume. You can use items to summon visitors to assist you, or in the mission select you can elect to become a visitor and join others. Direct PVP isn’t really a big focus in Nioh – though it will be added after launch – instead opting to use Glory earned by killing AI controlled Revenants to determine the crème de la crème of players. It may turn off a few looking for epic duels, but with a greater focus on convenience, Nioh’s online offerings are well worth dipping into.
Do not dismiss Nioh as just another knockoff; it’s so much more than that. By taking some inspiration from others, Team Ninja do prove with a rich combat system and solid foundation that they have the ability to surprise and innovate. The vast majority of the game is a pleasure to play, despite the fact that death is around every corner. There’s a lot I’ve not even touched upon in this review, simply because it’s better experienced than told. For Koei Tecmo at least, all the effort was well worth it.
Version Tested: PS4