Nioh represents something that I've come to appreciate in gaming. The video game industry evolves by taking inspiration from others and working to improve on their ideas. Bayonetta works because it serves as an extension of the groundwork that Devil May Cry laid out. Final Fantasy thrives thanks to the efforts of Dragon Quest before it. It is this evolution that turns ideas into genres. This is what Nioh does with From Software's famous Soulsborne formula.
Nioh signals the return of the once-beloved Team Ninja, who formerly brought players to their knees with the highly lauded 3D Ninja Gaiden titles. It would be easy to write this off as little more than another studio desperately trying their hand at the new fad to regain relevance, but to assume as much would be a grave disservice to the work that Team Ninja have put into making this entry their own.
The Western Samurai
Japanese history and mythology mix together in Nioh to form the fictionalized tale of a Western sailor who finds himself mixed up in the fallout of the Japanese Warring States period, just after the death of Nobunaga Oda. Very loosely based on the true story of William Adams, the Western samurai who was among the first of the English to reach Japan in 1600, Nioh tells a tale that weaves real people and events with a dark story of demons and magic.
Irish-born sailor William enjoys the company of a spirit that allows him to locate a precious resource known as Amrita, which thrives under warfare and death. English alchemist Edward Kelley steals the spirit, sealing it away in a crystal, so that he can use it to hunt down Amrita for England by heading to Japan and fanning the flames of war. William chases after him and becomes locked in both the political upheaval in the wake of Oda's death and the demonic corruption that is spreading thanks to Kelley's work.
The way the narrative utilizes actual locations and events, portraying real battles and having you explore famous temples, gives the game a fascinating historical twist, but it's hardly the focus of the game. This is a bit of a blessing in disguise, as it can prove difficult to keep up with what's happening in the political side of the plot at times. So many historic Japanese figures are introduced and then left behind, making it difficult to remember who is who when brought up in passing. The real meat of the game, however, is in its gameplay.
Flow Like Water, Strike Like Viper
Nioh is a tightly designed game that's heavy on combat with a side of exploration. Every weapon swing feels deliberate and measurable. It's a trait I find appealing in action games, being able to see the beginning of an attack, where it connects, and when it ends, rather than focusing too much on flair of it all. It's also not a title lacking in variety. Katanas, Dual Katanas, Axes, Spears, and Kusarigama make up your melee weapons, and each goes out of its way to feel totally unique. Even if you choose to stick with just one type of weapon, you'll still have three different stances, each with its own move-set to master.
The combat can be customized even further thanks to each weapon-type featuring its own skill tree to work through. You can use skill points to gain the ability to parry attacks, to spin in circles with your axe, or to use your spear as a pole-vault and leap over the enemy to drop onto them from above, dragoon style. All of this comes together in a way that allows you to create a personalized playstyle out of a plethora of options. I spent much of the game focusing solely on low stance kusarigama, spinning its chained weight around like a deadly yo-yo, but when I began to try out spears I found myself learning a whole other way to play the game. Rather than overwhelming enemies with a flurry of attacks, I was maneuvering around and over them, poking at them from all directions.
The combat's complexities don't end there, either. Nioh makes use of a unique mechanic that allows you to recover much of the stamina that you use in combat by "recentering" yourself with proper timing after each set of attacks. This allows you to play more offensively than many similar games would allow, keeping the action fast and heated during normal battles and bosses alike, rather than always feeling slow and methodical. Another much appreciated detail is that enemies actually use a visible stamina bar of their own, and you can take advantage of this to wear them out before you go in for the kill. It makes stamina-draining kicks and cheap shots legitimate options in battle, providing you with yet another way to approach any situation. These are seemingly small details that add so much depth to the gameplay, and utilizing them properly can help make or break a tough fight.
Speaking of tough fights, this game has a couple, but don't let that scare you away. The early alpha and beta tests prior to release had me believing that this would be a title that gave its inspiration a run for its money in the difficulty department. In reality, while it keeps you on your toes and offers a fair challenge, it will rarely seek to actually test your limits. There are a couple of optional bosses that border on truly challenging, but, for the most part, you won't be tearing your hair out at this game.
Zipangu, The Land of Gold
Those who love the loot pinata approach to video game rewards will find plenty of enjoyment in taking down each of Nioh's enemies. The game utilizes a Diablo-style loot system that sees weapon and armor drops galore. These drops can be reforged to obtain better special effects on particularly good base gear, they can be fused together to increase the level of outdated gear, and they can be flat out broken down or forged from scratch if need be. Some of the special effects are worded a bit strangely, but you can see a description of any of them with the Options button. If you enjoy the idea of “fashion over function” as much as I do, then you'll be pleased to hear that you can also change the look of any weapons or armor to other pieces that you've collected, allowing you to look your best at all times.
I mentioned before that the focus here is combat with a side of exploration, and that exploration comes courtesy of the game's exceptional level design. Every main mission is a new, expansive stage to search for secrets and shortcuts. From flooded temples to ninja mansions to battlefields, you'll find so many locations to explore here, and every corner you take will deserve your respect, as anything could be waiting just around the bend.
Unfortunately, side missions get the short end of the stick here. There are some worthwhile maps to take on in your breaks during the story, despite being smaller than main mission areas, but there simply aren't enough of them compared to how many side missions are made available. You'll find yourself traversing the same locations you've been to more than a couple of times before. It's not a huge issue, as many won't be attempting every mission in the game, but it's worth bringing up. Don't make a game so long if you can't fill it all out.
Really though, Nioh's most noteworthy issues are borderline nitpicks when placed against the fantastic experience that awaits you through its campaign. Satisfying action, an interesting aesthetic and theme reminiscent of Onimusha, and fantastically customizable combat that allows you to be anything from a shuriken-tossing ninja with dual katanas to a magic-casting warrior with an electrically charged axe. The game even manages to be a paragon for the technical side of console game development, thanks to an option that lets you choose between having the performance favor resolution or framerate. In a time when this debate has become such a prominent part of the industry, having such an option is genius.
Nioh is not a copy-cat. It's the type of game that proves that this formula can be a genre all its own, rather than simply a series-specific idea. It embodies the side of game development that allows such great, surprising titles to exist, by improving on solid ideas and adding personal twists that help make this something of its own. Other developers have tried such an approach to this formula, but none have come close to nailing it the way Team Ninja has. In a year that has already become filled with fantastic entries in franchises big and small, Nioh manages to carve its own seat among titles like Resident Evil 7 and Horizon: Zero Dawn that we'll be looking back on fondly when the year comes to an end.
This review is based on a digital PS4 copy provided by the publisher. Nioh is available now in retail and digital stores for $59.99. The game is rated M-17+.