Announced at the 2005 edition of E3 as an exclusive for the PlayStation 3, Team Ninja’s Nioh has come a long way before reaching the Bluray players of our shiny PlayStation 4. Originally created by its mother company Tecmo Koei, Nioh was supposed to be a “simple” JRPG, with very classical elements, telling the adventures of William, an Englishmen based on a real historical figure (William Adams), who traveled to Japan and learned the local martial arts way to become the first ever Western Samurai. Sadly, as is seemingly tradition with Japanese games, things went wrong and the project was transferred to the hands of another studio called Omega Force, known for turning everything into a Muso genre title (Warriors, Orochi, Samurai and Dynasty series). After a few years of development, Nioh, unable to satisfy the demands of Tecmo Koei, was transferred over to its ultimate development team, and the process started from scratch with the makers of Ninja Gaiden (and Dead or Alive): Team Ninja.
It was up for this studio to completely transform Nioh and, heavily influenced by Hidetaka Miyazaki, the developers sought to create a experience similar in style to the Souls games, but closer to Japanese settings and lore. Were Tecmo Koei and Sony Interactive Entertainment (for the West mainly) right to put their baby in the expert hands of this action game studio? Or would the obsession with creating another Dark Souls cause the game to lose its core values? Let’s see in this review.
The first thing you’ll notice upon booting the game and discovering its artistic direction is the feeling that Nioh has passed through several studios before landing in the hands of Tomonobu Itagaki (Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden’s creator). There are visible remnants of work done by Omega Force, especially on all the historical aspects of the game. Nioh takes place in a feudal Japan invaded by demons, yet this doesn’t seem to prevent the local warlords to still wage war against each othters. These generals are the same historical figures that can be found in all the best Muso games in the world, character design included (visually speaking, it’s very close to a Warriors Orochi title). So, you won’t see the bootylicious bimbos of other Team Ninja productions, but Nioh’s character design manages to be great without being raunchy, whether it’s the main hero or the heroines, monsters and bosses.
The age of the Spanish Armada is the setting in which William fights against forces of evil, and he stalls the march of the Japanese towards world domination, while also striving to save his imprisoned love one. While this premise is certainly more concrete than the riddles of Dark Souls, with cinematics at the beginning and end of each chapter, Nioh’s narration can present as much of a conundrum as a From Software game can. The mission briefing is often a single page to read, with no real indication of your goals, and although easy to follow, the tribulations of William in the different regions of Japan are very conventional, with this duo of demons and civil war. In any case, the overall mood of game is expertly crafted, with a true feel of Japanese folklore, whether in the depiction of Onis (the traditional name for Japanese evil spirits) or in the settings and surroundings. The soundtrack also demonstrates talent, both in terms of music and sound effects. The music was composed by Yugo Kanno, mostly know for his work on Rain but also a hell lot of Anime composition such as JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Psycho-Pass and more. For those of you who prefer original voice acting, you’ll be glad to know that Japanese voices are in the game, along top English dubbing, and numerous other languages in terms of subtitles and localized menu.
Now let’s jump in the heart of what matters in a game like Nioh: the gameplay. While Tecmo Koei as a whole had influenced the artistic direction, we will obviously find a lot of features from Dark Souls (or more specifically Bloodborne), but embellished with a whole lot of elements unequivocally belonging to Team Ninja original work. So let’s start by mentioning what Nioh really took as an inspiration from the Soulsborne games, to directly answer to the questions that most of you From Software fans have.
The first core mechanics that can be found in this hack-and-slasher is the experience system, which is managed via camp fires. If William dies, he loses all of his hard-earned experience (called amrita) and he’ll find himself in front of the last altar he visited. His sou- I mean amrita remains where he died, and your task is then is to recover your precious experience without dying, otherwise you will disappear forever in a limbo of ragequit and the frustration of having done all this for nothing. That’s because yes, the other basic principle of Dark Souls we find here is that of creating one hell of challenge for players. While the game is by no means impossible or even unreasonably hard, it did get me to the point of almost rage quitting at several times. Hell, the slightest mob can send you to an instant death the moment they feel a glimpse of confidence, and sometimes an honest error or a well-placed trap can claim your life, but that’s another story. The bottom line is that Nioh, like the Soulsborne games, believes in the mantra of ‘tough but fair’. Don’t get too cocky, take stock of your surroundings, be as cautious as possible, and you’ll be golden – for the most part.
The fighting mechanics against various bosses, both in terms of size and design, also echoes Dark Souls, and here it will often be necessary to go through a series of trials and errors to find a beast’s weaknesses, whether it’s in his evasion speed, the elements that damage the boss, or what particular item can help you. On this front, the sensations in combat are closer to a Bloodborne than to a Dark Souls: dodging is much more practical than parrying, as the latter consumes more of your stamina (or ki) gauge, which can be bad when an enemy is countering you. Much like with Bloodborne, there are no shields, and so your best bet is to dodge and swing. The game is nevertheless more accessible than a Dark Souls title is for amateurs for amateurs, since it offers a real tutorial where we learn more about the many subtleties of the gameplay.
True to the Team Ninja pedigree, the fighting mechanics feel great (if not better than Dark Souls or even Bloodborne). The most striking aspect is probably the posture mechanic, which is comparable to a “stance” mechanic in a fighting game. Essentially you choose between three postures: Medium is your standard mode, high allows you to strike harder but makes you more open to attacks, and low allows you to be more focused on defense but will do less damage. Another big subtlety that reminds me of a bunch of Naruto games is the ability to recharge your ki faster by pressing R1 precisely when you’re done doing a combo, as your body start absorbing blue orbs around the arena. This mechanic is important to learn, as monsters will often create vortexes that sap your ki, forcing you to execute the move to stop having your ki drained. The numerous and very demanding fights are already more exhilarating with the mechanics, and Nioh even inherited a feature straight from Ninja Gaiden: bloody dismemberment. Finally, the last added feature is the living weapon mechanic, which is a sort of elemental powered attack where you are immune to damage and weapons deal extra damage, on top of being able to trigger a special attack where you spirit guardian (a magical creature) comes and does some serious damage.
Level design wise, don’t expect the Metroidvania world of Dark Souls, but rather expect arenas divided into different stages, which are more linear, yet still offer many shortcuts to unlock near shrines. It starts from a view of the map of Japan, where you choose your mission, main or secondary one, and teleport straight to the action- definitely a far cry from the massive linked levels of Yharnam. While there’s still a lot of exploration to do in Nioh, the overall level design is not as complex as I would’ve expected from a JRPG, even if really great to look at. the game is a visual marvel, whether you play it on a regular PS4 or PS4 PRO (with 4K HDR resolution), locked at a constant framerate of 60fps with no slowdown in the time of my reviewing, the only issues I’ve faced are rare sluggish loading times on enemy animations from a range.
On the front of gear and loot management, Nioh also stands out very strongly from its influence, as it’s closer to a Diablo than anything else, with insane amount of drops on a constant basis. Gear plays a big part as well, as heavy load can harm your attack speed and will require William to spend more Ki to attack or do any sort of action.
When it comes to multiplayer, there’s only a coop mode for the moment, with a PVP planned later on as downloadable add-on. In any case, I briefly managed to play a quick multiplayer session, where you basically join yokai realm missions with other Williams that are harder and more rewarding. The other function is called Random Encounter where you make yourself available to anyone who is calling for help at a shrine. Add to this a really long game lifespan, thanks to its multiple challenge levels and replayability based on missions, you’ll have a lot to do, especially if you’re aiming for a Platinum trophy (crazy you).
Nioh was reviewed using a PlayStation 4 digital code of the game provided by PlayStation Middle East. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published
• A properly challenging game
• Intense combat mechanics
• Rich JRPG with many Dark Souls comparisons
• Big fan of the artistic and musical direction
• While easier than Dark Souls, it require a lot of patience
• Level design is a bit simple