Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
If there’s one thing that’s immensely clear as soon as you fire up Nioh, it’s that Team Ninja are obviously big fans of From Software’s Souls series. A blatant clone of the industry juggernaut Dark Souls, Nioh wears its influence right there on its sleeve. However, unlike Lords of the Fallen, another decent, but hardly original release that aped From’s series, Nioh also features plenty of its own unique features that set it apart from its muse.
Set in a feudal Japan setting, the game revolves around Japanese mythology, and this brings with it a very different art style to the Souls‘ series western, Gothic theme. This change brings more than a different aesthetic style, however, it also affects the gameplay, specifically the speed. Team Ninja are perhaps best known for Dead of Alive, and the fast-paced, tough as nails Ninja Gaiden. The latter of these is a very clear influence on Nioh too, leading to a faster, smoother combat system, but one that still retains, in part, the slower, tactical pacing fans have come to love from the Souls series. The end result really is what people have taken to calling “Samurai Souls.”
You take on the role of William, who is, for some reason, an Irish dude who happens to be very good at using a wide range of weapons, including Japanese swords, axes, spears, bows, and much more. After a brief escape from the Tower of London in the game’s prologue/training mission, one that echoes Dark Souls’ own Undead Asylum unapologetically, you find yourself in a fictionalised version of Japan. Trying to track down William’s enemy, you’re quickly engulfed in a fight against bandits, thugs, and evil demons known as Yokai – beings that have arisen due to the heavy conflict taking place in the region.
As with any Dark Souls game, Nioh is unapologetically tough right from the start, and although Souls veterans will find the game much easier to deal with, those who are new to the genre of tough, third person combat RPGs will no doubt find themselves hitting a wall very early on. Welcome to the party pal! This is a game that makes your work for your enjoyment.
Having said that, after playing the game’s alpha I did find this retail release to be far easier than the pre-release version, and not as difficult as the Souls series. This may be a simple case of familiarity, as the game’s real opening level in the fishing village was the first level featured in the alpha, so I knew what was coming. Still, enemies feel easier, the stamina system feels more forgiving, and the whole game generally seems to be much easier. Even the first boss, which I found to be very tough in the alpha, dropped on my first attempt with little effort.
Once you complete the first mission you’re taken the the game’s hub menu, a world map that contains the various missions you can undertake. These include main story missions, as well as sub missions that place you in previously completed areas with different enemy layouts and goals. There are also tougher twilight missions that can yield better gear, although these aren’t always available.
At this map screen you can also visit a dojo to train, a blacksmith to buy, sell and craft new weapons (a system that’s fairly complex for this genre), and manage other features, such as your storage box where you can stockpile goodies such as healing supplies. As you progress the story, more locations open up, and this builds to quite a large game, and even though many missions retread old levels, the changes made offer up good challenges.
This obviously means that Nioh lacks the interconnected world fans love so much in the Souls games (especially the first Dark Souls), but don’t worry too much, as the various missions are large, and built in much the same way as the Souls games. For example, familiar features present themselves quickly, such as locations being complex areas that are linked with unlockable shortcuts to shrines, Nioh’s version of bonfires, and various hidden routes and areas to find. It really does feel very much like you’re playing a Japanese-themed Dark Souls and it’s pretty damn good. I did find the level design and art direction to be less interesting and well implemented than Dark Souls a lot of the time, sadly, but it does have some genuine highlights.
A major feature of Dark Souls is the soul system (or blood system in Bloodborne). Defeating enemies yields currency with which you have to level up or buy items. Die and you lose this with a single chance to get back to your death spot to retrieve all of your lost experience. Nioh is no different in terms of the basic idea, but it does do things a little differently too.
Amrita is the currency de jour here, and it’s used to level up your character. Die, and you’ll drop all your carrying. This time, however, you have a guardian spirit too. This spirit stays with you, and when your spirit gauge is full you can summon the spirit to imbue your weapons with power, forming a ‘Living Weapon’. This deals more damage and makes you invincible for the duration. If you die in the field, though, your spirit leaves you to look after your Amrita, so until you get to your death point, you’ll not be able to use the powerful weapon. You can call the spirit back, but by doing this you’ll lose all of your Amrita. It’s a trade off, and an interesting way to handle the now familiar death/reward system. You also earn gold which is used to buy items from the Blacksmith, so Amrita isn’t the only currency, unlike the souls of From’s title that are used to buy everything.
Of course, combat is all-important here, as as I said earlier, Nioh embraces the Souls‘ series approach, augmenting it with its own change-ups in terms of speed and flow. As with Souls, you can guard and lock on to enemies, so you can slowly figure them out, and timing is all important. Managing stamina is paramount too, as without it you’ll be left unable to attack or defend, and may even find yourself wide open to a powerful finisher. When actually attacking, dodging and rolling, though, you’re far more agile than any class in Souls games, and the types of weapons you have access to are often faster and more combo-friendly. Katanas, dual swords, polearms, even massive hammers are all wielded with more grace, and to add to that you have three stances – high, medium and low. High is for powerful, but slower attacks, low is the speedy, less powerful method, and medium sits somewhere in between the two. These stances affect all melee weapons, and drastically affect your tactics and moves. There’s also a large skill tree’s worth of upgrades and abilities that tie into various weapons types and stances. It makes for a surprisingly complex system, one that’s far more in-depth than the Souls series.
Indeed, there are so many extra mechanics at work here they make Nioh the more complex game of the two, and although I can’t say that Nioh is the better game overall (Dark Souls and Bloodborne are still the best example of the genre), it’s certainly not afraid to do things differently and play with the Souls formula, and that’s a very good thing.
Combat is, dare I say it, a little more enjoyable here, as it’s faster paced and a little more forgiving in terms of agility and evasion, but still relies on skill and timing. The emphasis is on form and speed, with defence often being fairly ineffectual, often draining your stamina far too much. In this regard, I’d say Nioh is actually closer to Bloodborne, and combat, whilst still very tactical, is more frantic. The Ki-pulse system is a variation on Bloodborne’s regeneration feature. Instead of attacking an enemy to regain lost health, though, here you have to carefully press R1 as you finish an attack to instantly regain some stamina. The better the timing (helped by a glowing blue pulse around your character), the more stamina you’ll get back. This can be a skill that can make a difference between life and death, and can keep you alive in many battles.
Boss fights in particular can really challenge your reactions, timing, and Ki-pulse mastery, and many enemies have tricky surprises up their sleeve, and can even change weapons and stances like you, which makes even the normal encounters unpredictable.
Another staple of From Software’s game is the asymmetrical multiplayer, and Nioh has its own take on this, too. When you die in the game, your grave site is left behind in other peoples games. When you encounter these sites you’ll see the name of the player, their level, what killed them, and the rarities of their equipment. The latter of these is the important part for you as a player, as if you choose to summon their spirit, or Revenant as the game calls them, and fight them, you could be rewarded with a random piece of their gear. So, if they have a rare sword, for example, you may get that sword when defeating their Revenant. Of course, defeating them may not be that easy, and some Revenants can be very tricky to beat. They’re not actually player controlled, and it’s a more capable AI than the normal enemies instead, but they can use any of the same weapons, skills, and tools a real player would, so this ups the challenge.
As good as this is, and it is a unique system that works well, I do miss the actual PvP element here, and it doesn’t really function as well as Souls‘ invasions, but it does give you the chance to grab decent gear. The graves also function much like Souls‘ messages, as seeing when killed a fellow player can often alert you to a trap or enemy lying in wait.
Nioh does have PvE too, and you can summon an ally at a shrine using a special item or by using the maps screen’s Torii gates once you complete the first mission. Once summoned, just like Dark Souls, your friendly warrior can help you clear the area and defeat the boss (or you can help others). It’s a godsend if you’re really struggling on a tough boss fight, and it works every bit as well as in From’s games. There’s also a password system, so you can make sure you only play with friends if you like.
There are various other elements that Nioh introduces that differ from Souls. For example, as you explore you can find cute little Kodama spirits that can be rescued. Once you do this, you can choose to receive various buffs from a shrine, such as higher percentage of enemies dropping healing items or weapons. You also earn titles are you perform certain acts, like using swords, attacking from behind and so on. Like Borderlands‘ Badass Rank system, these grant you points that can be used to level up very minor augments to your character, such as a 0.5% increase in damage resistance, or more gold being earns for kills. They’re small boosts, but over the course of the game, they can, if planned cleverly, be a useful bonus.
The inventory system of the game has been criticised by some, but I actually found it to be decent enough. It’s very similar in many ways to Diablo III and its ilk. You can equip your character with various weapons and armours, and when it comes to selling items you can tag individual items or mark all items of a certain rarity. The levelling skill trees could be better, and the whole interface can be a little clunky, but it’s serviceable and far from terrible.
All of these features sit atop a core game that’s Dark Souls through-and-through. Nioh is all about challenging combat and boss fights that’ll give you restless nights as you try to figure out how on Earth you’re going to beat them. When you do, you’ll feel that familiar sense of achievement you get when playing From’s games, and although Nioh doesn’t quite measure up to its inspiration, it’s a damn good attempt.