Nioh is an interesting new take on the action RPG that succesfully combines elements of games like Ninja Gaiden with those of Dark Souls. The result is a game that can easily stand on its own and has to potential to become one of the more prolific console-exclusive games of 2017.
Japanese developers have proven time and time again that they understand the action-adventure genre. Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden are both good examples of this. They also understood the potential of combining (western) RPG elements with action gameplay and that resulted in one of the more prominent game franchises in the action-RPG genre today: Dark Souls. Team Ninja, creators of the aforementioned Ninja Gaiden, decided to put proven principles to good use. After a long development process (work on the game started as far back as 2004), they created their own take on the action-RPG: Nioh.
In Nioh, the player takes the role of Irish sailor William, who flees from his native England to the mystical land of Zipangu (Japan) to escape imprisonment. Upon reaching his destination, he gets mixed up in the conflict between Japanese warlords who war over control of Japan. The characters and setting are based upon real history, with many familiar names and events making an appearance, all of it mixed with a healthy dose of fantasy and Japanese mythology.
You experience William’s journey in the form of separate missions, a departure from the Dark Souls games from which Nioh takes inspiration, and much more in line with Team Ninja’s own Ninja Gaiden. Each mission takes place in its own separate area, each with its own secrets and dangers, culminating in a unique boss fight. The variation in scenery is diverse and many beautiful environments are visited during the game. Areas are only reused during the many side missions, sometimes because such a mission takes place in the same area, other times there seems no logical explanation for the obvious similarity between two supposedly different locations. It is a fact that can easily be forgiven, seeing how rich many of the backdrops are, and how much of a pleasure it is to explore them.
Nioh most clearly shows its Dark Souls inspiration through its consequent philosophy of trial and error. Through repeated dying, you learn the tactics your foes use and hone your strategy to best them. Nioh has an equivalent to ‘souls’ in the form of ‘Amrita’, spiritual force that is harvested from the souls of the fallen either through defeating them or looting corpses of those who died prior to your arrival. Amrita can be used to increase your level and consequently your various stats, much like the aforementioned games it takes a cue from. Each stat boosts different aspects of your character and each different ‘build’ benefits from focusing on specific stats, but all of them are potentially useful for any character. As such there is considerable freedom while building your character, making it so that how you choose to upgrade your character is never wrong and mistakes are able to be corrected.
Besides the base statistics there are many other ways in which William can be upgraded: skill points allow you to buy new attacks and passive upgrades in various skill trees, new spirit companions allow for different passive upgrades and new special attacks, and weapons come in many varieties and have a degree of randomness to them similar to games like Diablo. This means every weapon you find is potentially unique and comes with its own set of bonus effects or stats. There are even item sets that reward you for wearing multiple pieces of the set, as well as a blacksmith that allows you to craft your own weapons and armor. The possibilities are plentiful.
One would be doing Nioh great injustice to just constantly compare it with Dark Souls however, as the game is so much more than a simple successor to that formula. In many respects, Nioh takes a lot of elements from Team Ninja’s own prior work, namely the Ninja Gaiden games. You find these influences in the form of the game’s visual presentation for instance, but much more profoundly in the depth of its combat system. There are five different weapons, each with their own distinct fighting style and expansive move lists. You can learn new attacks and even some new combos as you progress, making combat in Nioh a very rewarding experience – but also a tense one.
Many of the more intense battles in Team Ninja’s latest venture invoke memories of some of Ninja Gaiden’s more brutal moments, where relentless opponents tested your mettle through heated combat and left virtually no room for error. The fact that you have so many different options in battle in turn means your opponents have similar possibilities. The result is a game where battles can require skillful use of all the maneuvers in your arsenal, employing the right tactics at the right time. It is exactly this depth that makes the game so much fun and sets it apart from other games in its genre.
While the game is certainly one of the more difficult games of recent times, it certainly is fair and even pretty manageable once one understands the deep combat system. Some of the game’s optional missions – especially the high-level ‘Twilight Missions’ – see a vast increase in difficulty and require either a lot of patience or a high-level character, but most missions have well-balance difficulty levels and present a fair and excitable challenge.
Boss battles are surely one of the game’s highlights. Many bosses are incredibly well-designed and present their own unique challenge, keeping you on your toes each and every time. Some bosses are reused in later levels, but only during sidemissions, so it never really feels like creative poverty. That said, some side missions become somewhat repetitive after a while. They are completely optional so they can be avoided, but the loot and upgrades they reward you with are quite often worth completing them regardless.
It is commendable that Nioh tries to combine elements of many popular games within the action-RPG genre and even action-adventure games, but a bit of a shame that this renders its storytelling capabilities a bit weak. The general story is rather uninventive and not very deep to begin with, and is only told through cutscenes and dialogue boxes at the beginning and end of a mission. The player is otherwise ree to explore a level on their own during a mission, only occassionally reminded of the story through an NPC that shares some information. The result is a storytelling experience that has difficulty deciding what to focus on: a linear, clear story or a more open-ended one that is shaped by your own influence. The events that unravel suggest the former, but the gameplay is much more supportive of the latter. A missed opportunity even though fans of Japanese history and mythology will probably find plenty to like.
Another point of criticism is how multiplayer is implemented. Players can cooperate to complete missions, but players can only summon other players to help them clear a mission that already has been completed, making it impossible to complete the game together on your first playthrough. This choice was probably made to prevent the game from being beaten to0 easily by having players cooperate, but the game could very well do without. Players can perfectly well decide for themselves if they want to play the game together or alone. Players opting to have an easier time by playing together should be free to do so, while players who want to tackle the challenge alone can do so as well. The current implementation of multiplayer doesn’t prevent players from cooperating anyway, it just makes it more of a hassle. Dark Souls and Bloodborne did a similar thing and it was rather unnecessary there, but it feels even more of a shame here, as Nioh actually feels like a game that could be great fun to play together.
Nioh’s good qualities far outweigh its downsides and make it a high quality exclusive for PS4 players to enjoy. Whether you are a fan of the genre or just looking to try something new, Nioh provides a deep and enjoyable experience for people who like a challenge. It is one of the more overlooked games currently, but may very be well one of the most worthwile exclusive games out there, so it deserves more time in the spotlight. Nioh comes highly recommended.