Much has been said of the similarities that Team Ninja’s Nioh apparently shares with From Software’s superlative Souls and Bloodborne games. The comparison is not without merit- while Nioh is definitively its own thing, it’s undeniable that it’s cut from the same cloth as the Dark Souls games. You have the same levelling mechanics, the game handles death in much the same way as the Souls games do, it caps usage of skills based on a similar stamina (called ‘Ki’ in this game) meter, and it rewards careful, patient exploration, and full foreknowledge of the levels you are traversing, not shying away from punishing the rash or impudent player.
Where Dark Souls and Nioh do differ, however, is in the flow of their moment to moment gameplay. Where Dark Souls is a slow, sedate, almost leisurely affair, encouraging defensive play, Nioh encourages a far more aggressive style of play- probably a remnant of Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden days, more than anything. They also differ in how they approach their stories and storytelling- where Dark Souls games are highly passive storytelling experiences, telling a lot of their stories via their environments and item descriptions, leading it to the players to piece things together, Nioh is comparatively far more cinematic- it tells a very definite story of real life sailor William Adams, who ends up involved in some decidedly not real escapades with demons, ghosts, and other supernatural elements.
The story in Nioh is actually not a very good one- which is just as well, because Nioh does not take itself seriously. While the beginning of the game is decidedly gridmark, Nioh soon reveals itself to not be taking itself too seriously, instead having fun with a colorful and eccentric cast of characters. Nioh is able to deliver some real narrative stakes and escalation, and it becomes easy to invest yourself in Adams’ story- but at the same time, there is often a distinct, almost Hideo Kojima like sense of fun and mischief to the proceedings.
"While Nioh is definitively its own thing, it’s undeniable that it’s cut from the same cloth as the Dark Souls games."
This story is told over multiple missions, which brings us to another major difference between Nioh and Dark Souls– rather than being a seamless, unbroken trek through a world falling into disrepair, Nioh instead follows Adams’ excursion through Japan over multiple chapters. Each chapter takes you to new, varied locales, squaring you off against multiple enemies, with a progressively growing sense of challenge and complexity to both, the enemies and the levels themselves.
It is impossible to overstate just how well designed these enemies and levels are. Levels are complex, made to lure players off the beaten path via the promise of treasure, and then overwhelm them with a new enemy that can absolutely catch the unprepared player off guard. Enemies themselves are extremely smart and unpredictable- squaring off against some of the more major ones can actually require lightning quick reflexes and equally quick thinking. They often do not demonstrate any predictability to their actions and strategies, meaning fighting some of Nioh‘s enemies can be as challenging as squaring off against another player would be.
Thankfully, Nioh tips the odds in the player’s favor a fair bit, too- this is a hard game, but not an unfair one. While enemy attacks may not be predictable, they are definitely telegraphed. Each attack has a wind up animation, each attack has heft and inertia to it, and after each attack, an enemy must pull back into an attacking stance- the smart and observant player will know when an enemy is about to attack, and know to dodge. They will know which way to dodge by the attack animation’s inertia and direction. They will know to move in and attack the enemy in those precious seconds of vulnerability that come right after they have landed a (missed) attack. This player will be able to string those attacks into combos.
"Enemies themselves are extremely smart and unpredictable- squaring off against some of the more major ones can actually require lightning quick reflexes and equally quick thinking."
Like players, enemies, too, are limited by their stamina (or Ki)- and you can always tell how low (or not) an enemy is on Ki simply by locking on to them. This opens up potential for new strategies, since you can now lure an enemy into performing a heavy, powerful, charged attack, dodge it, and then attack the enemy when they are out of Ki and immobile.
Of course, get too bold, too greedy, or just sloppy, and the game has no problem punishing you harshly. Nioh is a difficult game even at the best of times, and enemies can often take you out in a single hit. The skilled player will soon learn how to avoid that fate- and even if they fail, they will know how to avoid it the next time. The persistent player will learn every possible permutation of the hazards posed by the enemies and the levels, and prepare for them. Or, they can simply grind away and increase their level to overwhelm their enemies with their stats, if nothing else.
Those stats offer an almost dizzying array of options to the player- like Souls, you are directly in control of how your character grows, by choosing to invest your ‘Amrita’ (which is a sort of life force that is at the crux of this story, and this game’s equivalent of souls) into specific stats, gaining a level each time you do so. You have a lot of different possible permutations for potential builds.
But Nioh also throws other variables into the mix, such as choosing a specific guardian (that can accord you different bonuses), different bonuses and buffs, proficiency with specific weapon types (meaning you will always be better at using those specific kinds of weapons), actually having multiple different kinds of weapons, spread across ranged and melee weapons, both, and utilizing a Diablo/Mosnter Hunter-esque gear and loot system, where you are always encouraged to keep switching your weapons and armor up to maximize your attack and defense multipliers (though familiarity with specific gear always leads to bonuses for sticking with it, too).
"Nioh also offers you multiple different combat styles, all of which can be switched seamlessly in the heat of battle."
As if that wasn’t all enough, Nioh also offers you multiple different combat styles, all of which can be switched seamlessly in the heat of battle. These are called ‘stances,’ with the game offering you High, Medium, and Low stances, allowing for heavy offensive attacks, defensive parrying and relatively less aggressive attacks, and high evasion and light attacks respectively. While you are free to pick one and stick with it, the game implicitly encourages you to switch them on the fly- in fact, with many of the tougher enemies, you will find it easier if you can switch your stance multiple times in battle.
Nioh is basically a game, then, that has no problems punishing players- but it is never unfair. Players always have any and all tools they need to face a problem at their disposal- it’s up to them to make proper use of those tools. You will find explosives if you are about to come across enemies that are weaker to fire. You will find items that speed up stamina regeneration, or slow down usage, if you are about to come across demons that would interfere with your stamina gauge.
You will find items that can dish out massive damage to Yokai if you are about to run into one. Even the game’s levels are designed this way- you will run into multiple ‘Bloody Graves,’ which are like a PvE implementation of bloodstains and summons/invasions from Souls games. Simply approaching a grave can tell you the name of an (NPC) adventurer who fell in that spot, and the cause of their death- paying attention to this can prepare you for dangers that lie ahead. If the grave says ‘ambushed by bandit,’ you can be pretty sure there is a bandit hidden ahead, just out of sight, even if you can’t see them right now.
"Thoroughly addictive, extremely exhilarating, and most of all, a whole lot of fun, Nioh is probably the finest example of its genre, and perhaps one of the best games of this generation."
Actually activating that grave summons the slayed NPC to your game, where you get the chance to battle them once. If you beat them, you get their gear, which, again, can be extremely helpful in dealing with the tribulations that lie ahead.
It was, perhaps, this sense of fairness to the game, where even if it got difficult, victory never felt beyond my reach, and progress never grinded to a stop, that kept me so addicted to Nioh. Or maybe it was the thrill and rush of Nioh‘s combat, which, once it clicks for you, gives you a rush that is very rarely matched in other games. Maybe it was the game’s general story and atmosphere which, while delivering stakes and escalation, never forgot to have fun, and let me have fun with it. Maybe it was all of this at once, and some other things, too.
But I can tell you this now, I got into Nioh like I have rarely ever gotten into other games previously. Thoroughly addictive, extremely exhilarating, and most of all, a whole lot of fun, Nioh is probably the finest example of its genre, and perhaps one of the best games of this generation.
This game was reviewed on PS4.
Superlatively well designed levels and unpredictable enemies, thrilling combat scenarios and extremely exhilarating combat, a dizzying array of options, a story that knows not to take itself too seriously and has fun while still upping the stakes and allowing players to invest themselves in what's going on; very difficult, very punishing, but very fair.
If you want a serious, Souls like story, you're not going to find it here.