DARK SOULS. Okay, now that incredibly obtuse comparison is out of the way we can talk about what this review’s about – Nioh. In all sincerity, though, I didn’t want to write a review littered with comparisons between Team Ninja’s efforts and those of From Software’s beloved Soulborne series. While it’s easy to see that there are some superficial similarities between the two, I want this review to discuss Nioh based on its own merits and flaws alone.
Based on the story of the actual historical Western Samurai William Adams, Nioh is a fictionalised re-telling of the Sengoku period in Japan during the 1600s and William’s involvement in what is easily the most historically turbulent time in Japan’s history – while also throwing in some dark supernatural overtones for good measure! Admittedly, I love the Sengoku period, and it’s also a popular reference point for a lot of media in the past. Examples of this are games such as the Samurai Warriors series, which feature key historical figures from the period such as Oda Nobunaga and Ieyasu Tokugawa. My favourite, however, is the anime Sengoku Basara, which also saw a game released back in 2010 featuring many different characters from the series. All the same, I have to say I love the depiction of the era Team Ninja has gone with for Nioh, so much it has firmly cemented itself as my second favourite depiction of the Sengoku era.
While I love the setting and atmosphere that Team Ninja crafted, I’m disappointed by the way the game positioned William as a character for much of the story. Being bounced around as somewhat of a mercenary/servant by the feudal lords of Japan as a yokai (demon) slayer, the game offers very limited moments of feeling immersed and connected with William’s journey. It’s almost too easy to forget that the main story is focused around William trying to track down his spirit guardian, Saoirse who’s kidnapped by the game’s antagonist, Edward Kelley. The plot of Nioh would have been served far better by reversing the plot focus, and cementing much more quickly the struggle amidst a backdrop of political turmoil to rescue William’s spirit guardian.
During the story, you travel across Japan assisting the various allies of your associate Hattori Hanzo. This not only serves to drip feed the narrative as the game progresses but also section the adventure off into main missions and sub missions – with sub missions often being a reworked portion of a main mission. With Kodama shrines acting as check/save points, as well, Nioh manages to provide an excellent balance between challenging gameplay, but also gives ample breathing room to reach “safe” areas so you’re not losing a significant amount of progress at any given time. Another great feature of Nioh’s design is that despite each level being self-contained, there is still a lot to explore in each main level as not to make each level feel static despite the fact they are.
Depending on how you play your games, Nioh also caters to all different sorts of players. Being more of an aggressively minded gamer, I opted to use a katana and axe as my two main weapons. Despite having to choose two primary weapons, however, you’re still able to access all the other weapons if you decide to change. As you fight your way past enemies, Nioh also implements a charge metre which allows you to use a special attack based on which spirit guardian you’ve chosen. These are all linked to different elements such as fire, water, lightning and more, with each being represented by an animal – from dog to bat, it’s like collecting your set of spirit guardian Pokémon! Despite this special ability, though, the combat is still very intense and requires a calculated and balanced touch to master, and will punish you for any mistakes you make just as quickly. Such a big part of the challenge is making sure that you manage your Ki (stamina), while also utilising situations where the enemies Ki is low to do execute-style attacks for bonus damage. This is especially critical in boss fights, as they’re the main focus of every level at the end, and require a fairly robust grasp of the game’s mechanics.
Combat is such a significant focus in Nioh, and there’s so many layers of decision to consider from battle to battle and the way you approach it. William can change between a low, normal and high stance depending on what sort of enemy you’re fighting, which proves exactly how much of a deft touch Team Ninja took with finishing this project. Many similar games are comfortable with a “one size fits all” mentality, so it’s nice to bear witness to such extra care and consideration. Not only that, but there are also unique skills for each weapon, with skill trees available for different weapon types, as well as Onmyo (magic) and Ninjitsu, depending on how you craft your character. It’s important to wrap your head around these systems as well, as the game ramps up the difficulty quickly and doesn’t give you too much time to get comfortable. As I’ve found, the co-op function of summoning other players into your game can be INCREDIBLY helpful should you ever need a bit of assistance.
One of the small design features that stood out to me was the addition of “titles”, which are an in-game feature as opposed to standard console achievements. By amassing titles for doing things such as killing “X” number of creatures, you receive prestige points which you exchange for in-game buffs. While I can’t say for certain this feature is unique to Nioh, it’s something I appreciate and feel adds to the notion of being rewarded for achieving titles as opposed to just randomly obtaining achievements. Granted, I also believe that this highlighted some of the game’s flaws such as inventory management and the looting process which I have received achievements for purely based on how much garbage loot I’ve “offered” to the gods through the Kodama shrines. While games such as Diablo have conditioned players to collect items like they’re going out of fashion, it’s quickly tiring to spend 5 minutes after every level sifting through your inventory and selling items for Amarita (the in-game currency).
In staying faithful to the aesthetic of the Sengoku period, the artwork, voice acting and soundtrack for Nioh are all fantastic and feel truly authentic to the era – providing a great platform for the game universe. Staying true to the quirky flair of Japanese media, Nioh is stacked with unique character representations and characters and offers no shortage of entertainment through cut scenes and in-game dialogue. Alongside the challenging gameplay, I feel that the structured artistic vision of Nioh is what makes the game truly stand out and offers a perfect experience to a portion of history which has repeatedly been re-imagined in different mediums and narrative directions. It’s also a nice touch that Team Ninja included graphical options for the game (both on PS4 and PS4 Pro), so you can choose between a better resolution (Movie Mode) or higher frame-rate (Action Mode) depending on the type of gameplay experience you prefer.
Without even having mentioned what has been a lengthy journey from inception back in 2004 of an entirely different style of game, Koei Tecmo have managed to weather the last 13 years and publish a game alongside Team Ninja that is quite exceptional regardless of a small number of flaws. By offering such a full experience from an audio-visual and gameplay standpoint, I can forgive Nioh for its somewhat lacklustre narrative execution. Despite my initial trepidations before going hands-on with Nioh, I’m glad to see a game can change so drastically over a decade plus of production and still deliver a high standard of entertainment. If you’ve been fence sitting or holding off on purchasing Nioh because of other games, do yourself a favour and place it higher on your priority list – you can always thank me later.