After spending almost forty hours with the action/adventure title Nioh, I can say with all certainty that it is easily the first must-buy and early contender for game of the year. Team Ninja has taken what they learned from their time working on Ninja Gaiden and blended it with the Dark Souls formula to perfection.
The story of Nioh takes place in the Sengoku period of Japan before the country’s unification by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Due to the war and the bloodshed in the land, it has led to Yokai (ghosts and demons) to appear. Nioh tells the story of westerner William, who is imprisoned and left for dead in the Tower of London. While in his cell, a Guardian Spirit appears to him and guides him to his freedom. Soon after breaking out of his cell, a mysterious man captures his guardian spirit and flees before William can strike him down. William then sets out for Japan where a massive war for control of the country is taking place in pursuit of the man who kidnapped his guardian spirit.
Nioh does a great job of blending historical events with supernatural elements, and that blend brings out some of the most pleasing moments of the game. Nioh itself isn’t as difficult as the Souls games but more at the level of difficulty of Team Ninja’s own Ninja Gaiden. Throughout Nioh, William encounters historical figures, like Hanzo Hattori and Tokugawa IIeyas, as he helps them fight off the Yokai and unravel the reasons why the Yokai have appeared in such abundance, all while understanding the political climate of Japan at the time. It’s a well-told story that is presented in some exceptional cutscenes, mixing the in-game engine and unique Ukiyo-e art style, which I must say is quite stunning.
Nioh takes a lot of inspiration from titles like Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, but it manages to improve on the the mechanics laid out by the Souls games. At first glance, Nioh looks and handles just like the Souls games, but upon closer examination you will see just how different the game is. Nioh is a much more strategic title when it comes to combat, forcing you to study your opponent’s movements and attacks and forming a strategy of attack. One of the things that makes combat so fun in Nioh is the ability to change your fighting stance from a high stance, mid stance, and low stance.
Changing stances is literally the definition of life and death in Nioh. The high stance deal’s the most damage to an enemy and gives you the highest chance to break through an enemy’s defenses. It can also stun them, but it drains a lot of your ki (stamina). The mid stance will give you a good balance between power and speed and usually has a better chance of hitting multiple enemies at once. The low stance is the weakest of the three but allows you to land plenty of hits without spend too much ki while giving you plenty of time to dodge an enemy’s attack. This makes up the foundation of combat, and learning which stance to use against the various enemies you encounter is essential, keeping combat fresh.
Besides simply hacking and dodging attacks, you can utilize a plethora of different skills called Onmyo (magic) and Ninjutsu. Now I didn’t dabble too much into the Onmyo portion, because I focused my playthrough on a more melee character. I can say that magic users shouldn’t have a problem enjoying the game. Rather than using your ki, magic uses items like talismans, which only have a certain amount of uses, but you can buy more through the game’s item shop and Shrines. You can also use magic items to imbue your weapons with mystical properties like fire and poison for a short time. Magic can feel a bit overpowered at times, but the further into the game you get, the more you encounter enemies with some strong magic immunities.
Ninjutsu sort of works like Onmyo, but instead of casting magic spells, you use unique items specific to that skill. Ninjutsu comes with a fun bag of tricks, like laying down caltraps, shurikens, and bombs to toss at enemies. These can also be upgraded to cause different effects like poisoning your enemies and stunning them. Ninjutsu helped me get out of a lot of tight spots especially against multiple enemies.
Upgrading your Onmyo and Ninjutsu are just two options of skills you can upgrade. The others are your weapon skills. As you level up, you unlock Samurai points, which allow you to unlock new skills for your various weapons. These range from extra attacks to having the ability to countering enemy attacks. Although you can unlock a lot of skills for each weapon, some of them are locked behind training that you must complete first. Doing Nioh’s various side-quests unlocks training missions in the Dojo, which you can enter from Nioh’s overworld map. The Dojo is where you learn how to use various mechanics in the game, and it helps you learn how to execute a lot of the game’s harder skills.
Those familiar with the Souls franchise should feel right at home with Nioh’s mechanics. Leveling up works pretty much the same as it does in the Souls titles. Defeating enemies nets you Amrita, which you can use to level up your character one stat at a time, allowing you to level your character to your personal play style. There are plenty of ways to get Amrita, and I never felt like I had to go tackle the hardest enemies to get enough to level up. Shrines, which act as checkpoints in much the same way bonfires do in the Souls titles, allow you to offer up unused weapons and armor in exchange for Amrita.
Another way to increase stats is the Prestige system. This system works as its own in-game trophy system. By completing various tasks, you earn Prestige points which you can use to upgrade unique stats that aren’t affected by the Amrita leveling system. The tasks for Prestige points can be time consuming, but the rewards are worth it. Prestige tasks require you to kill a number of enemies using a specific weapon or killing a number of enemies using a finishing blow. There are plenty of these tasks, and they encourage you to experiment with different weapons and are a great incentive for completionists. The rewards for completing these tasks focus on smaller stats that you mostly see come from the equipment you collect throughout Nioh. These stats vary from increasing your damage against Yoki enemies, to increasing how much gold an enemy drops after being killed. The great thing about this system is that once you grab a specific boost, that boost will be replaced by a different stat for you to increase; its never the same stat.
One of my favorite aspects of Nioh is the loot system. Weapons and armor are plentiful and doped by enemies or found in treasure chests. Each piece of equipment has a rarity attached to it by the various colors represented in the equipments name. Pink is the rarest and white being the most common. The most important aspect about the equipment is that even if a piece of armor has a higher defensive stat, it doesn’t actually mean it’s better. A few aspects that you have to pay attention to are your attributes and the extra effects the equipment grants you. Equipment comes with various bonuses such as acquiring three percent more Amrita or adding ten percent fire resistance. Each equipment comes with different attribute bonuses but what you have to watch out for is if those effects actually get applied. I ran into some problems early on in my playthrough where I had something equipped, but I was taking more damage than I was with the weaker piece of armor I had equipped earlier. The reason for this is each piece of armor requires you to have leveled up a specific attribute stat like dexterity or strength. So if your attributes aren’t high enough, you won’t receive the benefits for that armor.
Building off of Nioh’s loot system is the blacksmith you can visit. The blacksmith gives you a plethora of options like allowing you to buy and sell weapons, armor, and materials. Enemies sometimes drop materials which you can use to craft new gear; the rarer the material, the higher chance you can craft a pink item. The other options include disassembling your unused weapons and armor in exchange for crafting materials along with Soul Merging, which allows you to take two pieces of equipment and merge them into a new more powerful piece of equipment. Soul Merging works best when you merge two of the same-named equipment together and sometimes you’ll even inherit abilities from the two. You can also glamour your weapons and armor. Don’t like how you’re new spear looks? You can glamour it to look like a different spear while keeping its stats. The best option the blacksmith provides is allowing you to completely change the equipments bonuses. If you don’t like that your chestpiece gives you a plus four fire resistance, you can swap it out for a randomly generated different stat. Of course all these options aren’t free, so make sure you have enough gold and Amrita on hand.
Nioh’s world is structured by missions which you select from an overworld map. Instead of having the entire province linked to one map, you can can go to different locations to complete quests. Each location is packed with things to see, collect, and loot. Story areas you’ve cleared will open up side quests, allowing you to revisit the locations with different enemies and different enemy placements with some paths blocked off that were previously open. You also unlock Twilight missions, which will send you into the same story missions but on a much higher difficulty where enemies are tougher and missions net you better rewards. There is plenty to do in Nioh, and I never found myself losing interest in any of the missions in the game because of the variety they provided. Some of the side quests in particular have you defending a location from hordes of enemies while others will have you hunting down specific enemies and items. There is plenty of content here to keep everyone invested for a long time.
On the graphical side of things, Nioh can be hit and miss. Some locations look absolutely gorgeous while others look a little bland. It’s not the prettiest game on the market, but it makes up for it with lightning-fast load times. Dying and coming back into the game only takes about two seconds. It’s an incredible achievement, considering how big some of the levels are. I would also like to point out the incredible attention to detail that Team Ninja put into the Yokai and the bosses. After facing some of the Yokai in Nioh, I looked them up only to discover they look exactly how a lot of them are perceived to look in Japanese lore; it was actually a little frightening. Those with a PlayStation Pro though have plenty of options to optimize Nioh to their liking with different graphical and performance modes.
The musical score also deserves mention as it provides a very haunting melody that just brings out the hopelessness and dread that you experience in each location. My only knock on the music is there just isn’t enough of it. A lot of the time I would trek through a level without a single musical note. The only other problem I had with Nioh was its item management. A lot of the time I would simply scroll through a lot of menus and my eyes started to hurt through all the scrolling I did. It’s not a game-breaking problem and most people won’t have much of an issue with it but scrolling through dozens and dozens of collected items gets tiresome and feels cumbersome.
Nioh’s development began in 2004. After having to scrap the game once and start development from scratch, it’s amazing to see Team Ninja deliver a near-perfect title. Everything that Nioh does is masterfully crafted and balanced exactly the way a video game should be. If you’re a fan of action/adventure games, Nioh is a must-own. Hell, if you are a fan of video games, I can’t recommend Nioh enough.