Nioh wears its Dark Souls inspiration on its sleeve, but it builds on that with deeper combat and captivating story of Sengoku-era Japan.
It’s hard to talk about Nioh without making comparisons to Dark Souls. Team Ninja’s latest outing wears its influences on its sleeve: methodical combat built around a stamina system and animation-heavy attacks; a focus on punishing difficulty and mastery over the game’s systems through trial, error, practice, and patience; and a dark fantasy story full of demons, death, and despair.
Plenty of other games tried to mimic the success of Dark Souls, of course – any game that revered is going to have imitators – but until now, none came close. Nioh doesn’t just live up to its inspiration; it improves upon it quite substantially.
History meets fantasy
If there’s one thing Koei Tecmo does better than any other publisher, it’s tell stories set in and around Japanese history, and Nioh might be their best endeavour yet. The game tells a fictionalised story of William Adams, a real-life sailor who travelled to Japan in 1600, became an advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu, and became one of the first non-Japanese samurai.
In the game, as in real life, William makes landfall in Kyūshū after a disastrous journey, where sickness claimed many lives and his was the only ship to complete the journey. Where the real-life Williams was then arrested on accusations of piracy and got to know Tokugawa by being his prisoner, Nioh’s protagonist instead finds a land overrun with demons, in addition to the conflict of the Sengoku era. A chance encounter with famed ninja Hattori Hanzō sets him on a path toward a similar end – being made samurai in the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu – but many oni, yōkai, ronin, bandits, and enemy soldiers stand in his way.
The whole “stop an evil demon invasion” plot isn’t exactly an original one, especially when it comes to video games, but Nioh’s melding of history with fiction makes it far more interesting. It’s not just a game with a period setting, but one that intertwines its fiction with historical people, places, and events. Most, if not all the characters you meet along your journey are based on real-life people (with some liberties taken in terms of when they were actually alive), and much of the story follows the politicking in the lead-up to the Battle of Sekigahara.
More importantly, the fantastical element ties in closely to the historical. The whole oni invasion thing is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the turbulence of that period, where war between the daimyō of the various provinces was almost constant. The narrative underneath Nioh’s plot is an unflinching look at the horrors of war, as you force your way through ravaged villages and castles where blood flows like water. Even the places like temples and shrines, that should be a reprieve from that, can’t escape the oni plague. What it lacks in subtlety, this metaphor makes up for in sheer impact.
Dark Souls arguably does environmental storytelling better, but in Nioh, that’s part of a grander narrative puzzle. The plot, historical context, thematic depth, and the beauty of Japan all combine to tell a captivating, thought-provoking, and unexpectedly poignant tale.
The way of the sword
The basic ideas in the way Nioh plays are all taken from Dark Souls. In combat, everything is managed by a stamina gauge called Ki. Every attack, block, and dodge requires Ki, so careful management of it is key (pun intended) to success. Get too aggressive with your attacks, and you won’t be able to dodge, leaving you open; block too much, and enemies will wear down your guard. If you run out of Ki completely, William doubles over to catch his breath, leaving you completely vulnerable for a couple of seconds. That’s bad, because enemies hit hard. Even regular enemies hit like trucks, so blocking, dodging, and reading enemy movements is critical.
That much is true of Dark Souls as well, but Nioh adds a few extra wrinkles that make combat quicker, deeper, and more exciting. You can switch between three stances on a whim: high stance has slower, stronger attacks, but lacks mobility and defence; middle stance has average attacks and dodge, but is great for blocking; and low stance favours flourishes of quick attacks and excels at dodging, but has a weak guard. Each stance serves a different purpose and is useful in different scenarios, so being able to make use of them all – and knowing when to switch – is vital to success.
Mastery of the “Ki Pulse” is also vital, because without it, your Ki simply won’t be able to keep up with the demands of the more challenging encounters. Attacking spends Ki, but you can also restore a portion of that spend with a well-timed press of R1 at the end of a combo. It effectually extends the length of your Ki gauge when you can do it consistently, freeing you up to attack more, dodge more, and block more. If that’s not enough incentive, it’s also used to remove “Yōkai fields” left by Oni, which reduces Ki regeneration and can be the deciding factor in most boss fights.
Finally, there’s the Living Weapon, because this wouldn’t be a Koei Tecmo game without flashy special moves. As you move through the game, you earn different Guardian Spirits that can be “equipped” (for want of a better word) to give passive stat bonuses, and when a special gauge is filled, you can summon your chosen spirit to aid in battle. Then, for a brief period of time, you’ll be invincible and gain a huge increase in damage dealt, and each spirit also has a unique special attack it can use in this state. Needless to say, it can turn the tide of a battle, and at the very least, it offers a break from the demands of regular combat.
Nioh manages to capture everything that makes Dark Souls’ combat interesting, and then build on that. The extra systems do make things more complex, and perhaps more confusing, but they ultimately make fights more captivating – which is always a good thing in a game as combat-heavy as this.
Leave your “git gud” meme by the door
Any game inspired by Dark Souls is going to try to mimic its difficulty, and Nioh is no different. Sadly, this is where I think an otherwise fantastic game falls short; Nioh is every bit as brutal and unforgiving as its inspiration, perhaps even more so, but where Dark Souls’ benefits from its difficulty, Nioh suffers for it.
Playing the game is a slow process that requires a lot of patience, as you die repeatedly and learn how to deal with each new threat through a process of trial, error, and practice. In Dark Souls that works well, in part because it’s the cornerstone of the experience; the story is told almost entirely through the process of playing the game, and overcoming the challenges presented is a big part of that. As I said before, Nioh comes with a much richer narrative, making it that much more frustrating when some boss stonewalls your progress. In Dark Souls, overcoming the challenge is the story, but here, it’s an obstacle that the story is locked behind.
That’s made more frustrating by the encounter design of the bosses themselves. For the most part, Nioh is tough but fair: progress is slow but constant, carelessness is heavily punished but patience reaps rewards. Bosses through all that out the window. They’re not mechanically complex for the most part, typically involving pattern recognition and awareness of animation and audio cues, but even the slightest mistake leads to a quick death. Weird hitboxes make attacks harder to dodge than they ought to be, relentless assaults leave little window for getting your own strikes in, and bosses typically don’t play by the same rules in terms of hit stun. Basically, each boss requires perfect play from start to finish, as you whittle away massive health bars, and even then, luck can be your saviour or your downfall.
That in itself wouldn’t be so much of an issue, if not for how much of an ordeal retrying can be. Death means respawning at the last shrine you visited, and these are typically not close to the boss room – so you need to fight your way back, through whatever hordes of oni stand between that shrine and the boss, taking it as slow and methodical as the game demands. When you’re trying to figure out a boss, death can come in a matter of seconds, and then you have to spend a few minutes dicking about before you can try again. Worse still, a lot of bosses depend on consumable items – to heal status ailments, for example – unless you’re playing to absolute perfection, and these typically aren’t too easy to come by.
Much of this is true of Dark Souls as well, and that series can also be frustrating, but never to the same degree. With a few exceptions, those bosses are more carefully designed, brutal as they are, and the feeling of victory when you overcome them is powerful. In contrast, Nioh’s bosses feel cheap, and defeating them – by cheesing the “Summon Visitor” system, usually – brings only relief. That’s great for people who enjoy that kind of challenge, but it’s not as well designed nor as inherent to the experience like it is in Dark Souls. I don’t think an Easy Mode would go amiss, because everything else about the game, its world, and the story it tells is so great that it deserves to be seen by more people.
If you’re able to, though, it’s well worth perservering through the challenge and frustration that Nioh puts forward, because there’s a brilliant game on the other side of it. Mastering the deep combat system is incredibly satisfying, but the real attraction is Team Ninja’s vision of a demon-infested Sengoku-era Japan, and the myriad of stories – both historical and fantastical – told within that.
Nioh is developed by Team Ninja and published by Koei Tecmo. It’s available now for PlayStation 4.
A PS4 press copy was supplied by Sony for this review.