Team Ninja’s latest effort, Nioh, is an experience that manages to be rewarding and punishing all at the same time – which is unsurprising when you consider the same company are responsible for Ninja Gaiden.
Nioh has much in common with Gaiden; a fast-paced, story-driven action-adventure that thrives on its challenging combat, making players think tactically about their approach, item usage, and fighting style.
This emphasis on tactics can make all the difference in a life-or-death battle. Some foes may struggle against the range of spears, whilst some may be punished by the speed of dual swords. A mastery of two weapons and fighting styles is advised by the game from the outset.
There are only 5 kinds of melee weapon: sword, dual sword, kusarigama, spear and axe. Whilst there is little in terms of variety, each weapon has a large skill tree with myriad abilities that make each unique and entirely viable.
The reliance on using items effectively is a double-edged sword. Whilst it provides an alternative solution to issues, the rarity of certain items can lead to dull farming or reluctance to use them, even when essential.
Nioh will inevitably be compared to FromSoftware’s critically acclaimed Souls series, and for good reason. Those familiar with Dark Souls or Bloodborne will feel right at home.
The importance of evasion, learning enemy attack patterns, and patience are key – critical elements shared by Souls. But Nioh has enough substance of its own to stand out and not be a clone of the former.
Its online co-op mode is much the same. Players can use ochokos – small cups that are offered by the host. These work the same way as Humanity. However, it doesn’t feature the same invasion system that Souls players are familiar with.
Rather than being invaded by hostile phantoms when human, players can find Bloody Graves throughout missions. Bloody Graves are the death sites of other players and sometimes NPCs from which you can summon an AI enemy which fights with the same weapons and style as the actual player who died. They vary in difficulty depending on the dead user’s skill.
Summoning and killing the phantoms of Bloody Graves is an interesting mechanic, and the glory points you receive can later be used to acquire rare items, but overall it creates a lack of the controller-gripping tension that Souls offers.
These battles also become entirely predictable. The AI can only replicate a player character to a certain degree, so once you learn a strategy that works well for one phantom, it will work well for them all. For example, sword wielders can spam a pulse attack which depletes enemy stamina and then perform a special attack for massive damage.
Don’t expect to be hand held and given access to all the information you need. After giving you the basics to survive, Nioh initially becomes confusing – especially for the uninitiated.
There are plenty of stats and abilities to explore but to do so you’ll need to put the time and effort in to discover them on your own, or look for guides on the internet. Spirit, onmyo, and ninjutsu skill paths should not be ignored early on although it is easy to do so.
Nioh is diverse in its range of enemies. From gelatinous umibozu to towering fiends, there is plenty waiting out there to brutally murder you again and again. But certain enemies appear all too often, and once their attack patterns are sussed and strategies solidified, they become lacklustre encounters – which becomes problematic in such a long game.
Personally, I feel that the game struggles when it comes to its bosses. Often the bread and butter of a game like this, these challenging fights certainly provide difficulty, but occasionally due to poor design. Especially the Ogress – the boss of the beta – who can jump seemingly thousands of feet through the air, tracking you relentlessly, before plummeting down to earth and taking all of your hit points with her.
Or maybe Hino-enma, who loves to spam a single move which paralyses you if it connects, allowing her to swoop in for an easy kill. Unless you’re carrying anti-paralytic needles with you, which instantly cure the status effect. If you don’t have any, or have wasted them in previous failed attempts, you’re going to be in for some pain.
An area where Nioh excels is its setting. Taking place in a reimagined 1600 Japan, at the end of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the country is embroiled in a fierce war, featuring genuine characters from history such as Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo.
A manifestation of the horrors of this conflict are the Yokai – twisted, terrifying demons. Each one faced in Nioh is derived from actual Japanese folklore. The knowledge and attention to detail from Team Ninja is staggering. It’s not just a game, but a learning experience centred on Japanese culture and history.
Overall, Nioh is an excellently layered game which offers depth and challenge, which is something which many modern titles cannot boast. It does, however, suffer from several issues regarding its difficulty and perhaps even replayability – though this shouldn’t be an issue as it promises a runthrough time of 40-70 hours.
Nioh has flaws, but they aren’t fatal (unlike everything else in the game), and they don’t take away from the fact that it’s an exigent adventure that every masochist should own.