Video Games Review: Nioh carves out its own identity with interesting mechanics (PlayStation 4, 2017)

It’s almost impossible for Nioh to dodge comparisons to the Dark Souls franchise. From Software’s monstrously brutal action RPGs have become touchstones for hardcore gaming in the 21st century but, as Team Ninja prove with their latest title, there’s more than enough room for improvement. Instead of coming across as a desperate imitation, Nioh draws it’s strength from being inspired by and in some ways surpassing the Dark Souls franchise, giving us a title that evokes nostalgia for those games but also stands on its own as a worthy addition to Sony’s fantastic roster of exclusives coming out in 2017.

Most of this distinctive strength lies in Nioh‘s melee combat system and the intricate detail put into customising fights both in preparation and in real-time. The inclusion of three different stances which can be changed on a whim give each individual weapon a dynamic bank of possibilities, and each enemy seems designed to force you into this way of thinking as you are constantly deciding what approach is best for each once you study their movements and consider other factors, such as their position on the map and whether or not there are others enemies around. And while weapon design may not be as exciting or awesomely textured as say a game like Bloodborne, the layered action more than makes up for it.

What Nioh does somewhat lack is the atmosphere that was so richly executed in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and this is largely due to the messy narrative and process of selecting missions, side missions and training mission from an overworld map, as opposed to travelling through a wondrously interconnected world. Rather than subtle and muted, trusting the fans to be engaged enough to piece everything together, Nioh is relatively melodramatic but lighthearted as you take control of Englishman William Adams who is on his way across feudal Japan. Based on the real life figure who was ostensibly known as the very first Western samurai, your William is a brooding vessel of fantasy as he takes down opposing humans and yokai (not to be confused with the cutesy cartoon/Nintendo characters), a sweeping term for zombie-like monsters, beats and other various supernatural and undead creatures. The latter are especially difficult as they have the power to cover the ground with misty grey rings which make it hard to regenerate stamina, which in Nioh is conceptualised as “KI”.

KI is one of the most valuable mechanics in the game, and its regain system – in a way similar to Bloodborne‘s health regain – is an important skill to master. It’s explained quite simply in one of two prologues which has William doing some quick training at a dojo – whenever you attack there are noticeable flecks of blue energy that surround you and eventually appear to enter back into your body, this is the moment you press R1 and execute what they call a “KI Pulse”, it regains some of your exhausted KI and also makes the remaining meter regenerate faster. Herein lies the difficulty, because while you are engaged in Nioh‘s fast-paced combat, managing your stance as well as remembering to dodge at all the right times, you are also micro-managing your KI, keeping an eye on the bar because once you run out you are temporarily unable to attack or move. The plus side: your enemies also have a KI meter, so toying with them until they run out introduces another layer of strategy.

The above elements of battle make for a faster paced and more fluid form of melee, pushing away from Dark Souls and leaning more towards Bloodborne, or better yet the team’s storied Ninja Gaiden series. Magic comes into play much later in the game, but weapon-to-weapon remains Nioh‘s core throughout.

The other form of energy here is Amrita, which is the progression currency needed to build William and shape his various stats. It works very much how one would expect, with the yellow-ish aura won mainly from searching dead bodies or defeating enemies, slowly building until you feel the need to weigh the loss in energy with the buff in stats. And yes, getting killed means that you lose all your Amrita and have to pick it back up for your grave on your next run-through, a neat little package interestingly watching over by your chosen guardian spirit. Yep, guardian spirit – Nioh couldn’t resist giving you a well of supernatural allied creatures to further customise your character and play around with what they call “Living Weapon”, a special temporary mode that can be activated by pressing circle + triangle when a specific meter on your HUD is full; it’s pretty much the only way through some of the more difficult sections of any given map and requires a good sense of timing and frugality on the player’s behalf.

Another wild card is the weapon type you are using. There’s the standard character-build at the start in which you select your two primary weapon categories but throughout the game you are free to choose whatever you damn please. And whatever you damn please is always going change given how different the buffs are on each individual weapon, even two of the exact same type and damage stat can offer vastly different bonuses, a varied system which can be likened to the loot-frenzy of Borderlands, keeping you on your toes and making it all the more important that you pick up a dropped weapon even if it seems you already have it. This is of course in addition to various other items and pieces of armor.

These are the many tools that come together and require the player to constantly use their judgement through Nioh, throwing William into hostile environments that, once you get further into the game, are relentless and demanding. One minor mistake could have you zipping back to the closest shrine (the bonfires/lamps of Nioh) determined to learn and master the tasks at hand, the most difficult of which are, rightfully, the many boss fights.

Boss fights often represent a substantial leap in difficulty at the end of each map, dragging things back down to hellish levels of brimfire and frustration to juxtapose against the relatively whimsical settings you get to explore as the game progresses. Team Ninja have taken these fights deadly serious, requiring you to study movements and remain hyper-vigilant as you duck and dodge your way to a rewarding victory. Sometimes difficulty levels can spike dramatically when comparing a boss to the entire map that preceded it, feeling a bit imbalanced and catching you off-guard and wrapping you overwhelming brutality.

Ultimately, Nioh has its fair share of highs and lows. What it lacks in immersive design it more than certainly makes up for in mechanics and a dense, intricately layered action system that offers some of the most exciting moments you’re likely to find in any similar new-gen titles. Team Ninja have done well to carve out a distinctive personality for Nior, and while it may borrow from game’s which remain slightly superior, it offers interesting new ideas that push the genre forward.

Review Score: 8.5/10
Highlights: Exciting, intricate melee combat; vast character customisation and distinctive builds; bosses are challenging and fun
Lowlights: Melodramatic story; lack of atmosphere early on; difficulty spikes can be overly punishing
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: Out Now
Platforms: PlayStation 4

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.