Gaming’s all about innovation and new experiences, which is why so many games rip each other off and the most profitable model appears to be to iterate on what’s come before. I’m not just being cynical here; refining a formula and honing solid gameplay to a razor’s edge tends to result in good games that are worth playing. That’s what we see in Nioh, the latest from Team Ninja that takes the ideas put forth in Dark Souls and toys with them, resulting in an experience that’s immediately familiar while changing enough to stand on its own merits.
Nioh is the story of William Adams, a sailor from London who comes to Japan in pursuit of the villainous sorcerer Edward Kelley. Adams is the historical equivalent of the modern JRPG-loving gamer – he’s got a deep and sincere affection for Japanese culture. Well, okay, that comparison might be a stretch, but the point is that he’s a samurai from the West and he’s going to chop through plenty of bad guys and demons in search of Kelley. He might even solve some demon-related issues and get involved in some historical conflicts along the way…
In practice, Nioh is a Dark Souls clone. Cool, so we’re good to move on to the next game? …Yeah, okay, I guess we can talk about it in a little more detail. Nioh generally plays like Dark Souls, which means that it’s unforgiving; monsters do about three times as much damage as you’d expect them to in similar non-Souls games, so it only takes a couple solid hits to kill William. Death, as in Souls, results in the loss of your accumulated experience (called “amrita” here) and requires you to return to where you died to retrieve what you lost; dying twice will result in your amrita being lost entirely.
Death is thus strongly discouraged and a strong defense is vital to success. To keep your guard up you’ll have to pay attention to your stamina – referred to as “ki” in this setting.
That’s worth mentioning because the biggest way that Nioh differs from Souls is the extreme importance placed on ki management. While running out of stamina in a Souls game is dangerous, it’s life-threatening here; both William and his foes will drop their guard if they run out of ki, leaving them at the mercy of their opponent. To keep your ki up, you’ll need to perform ki pulses, which are effectively a button-press confirmation that you’re “done” with a combo. This is going to take Souls veterans a long time to get the hang of, since there’s no equivalent move in those games, but it’s crucial to success. You’ve got five different types of weapon to choose from, each with their own upgradable skill tree, as well as ninja techniques and onmyo magic to learn, so the game supports a variety of possible builds based on your gameplay style.
Nioh also differs from the Souls games by incorporating a Diablo-style random loot system that permeates every aspect of the game. Unlike more traditional Souls-style games, equipment can be generated with varying modifiers to William’s stats, and you’ll have to dig through the massive amounts of gear you pick up to find the best stuff for your build. There’s also several layers of customization for this gear, ranging from simple cosmetic transmogrification to combining desirable traits to create more powerful weaponry. Your view of this aspect of Nioh is going to be similar to how you feel about messing with garbage loot in games like Borderlands; you’ll do your best in this game if you’re willing to dedicate some time to inventory management, but that’s time spent away from slaying demons and can prove to be aggravating.
This is also a little aggravating because while Nioh is an impressive-looking game on the whole, it runs into an issue that another impressive-looking game encountered: much like Xenoblade Chronicles X, much of the relevant text in Nioh is really, really small. As in “you’re going to have difficulty reading this without binoculars” small. Trying to optimize my loadout proved to be a headache-inducing chore as I had to squint to check out the particulars of any given item, and I’m playing on a 60″ 4K TV. I would imagine the situation’s even worse for those on less extravagant screens, and that’s an issue.
Other than the text thing, Nioh does look and sound pretty good. There are plenty of classical Japanese monsters to battle and they all look appropriately threatening, while William can look equally imposing (or outright goofy) based on the gear you equip. Sound and voice acting are all exceptional as well. It’s a solid package, especially if you appreciate the historical Japanese setting.
One quick note: if you’re looking at this as a co-op game, you might want to think twice. While cooperative play is supported, there are a lot of “ifs”, including requiring at least one member of a duo to have cleared a given stage before the duo can coop there. This is a pain in the butt and seriously hurts Nioh’s appeal on this front, so it’s worth taking into consideration.
Loot, text and coop issues aside, Nioh is a solid Souls clone that’s worth a look for fans of that series and for students of Japanese history. It’s more difficult in some ways and a bit more lenient in others; in particular, once you’ve learned to manage Ki and strike when your foe is exhausted, you’ll find the game much more reasonable. The setting and plot are interesting enough to carry the game as well. It’s not the masterpiece that its forebears were, but Nioh is still an adventure worth having.