It isn’t often that a new IP releases in the gaming industry, especially one made by a veteran studio like Team Ninja. Responsible for Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden, this iconic studio has admittedly played a minor role in recent years. That changes starting today.
Nioh is an ambitious new action RPG by Team Ninja that has benefited from the experience of its development team, taken heavy influence from FromSoftware’s Souls series, and brought along creative ideas of its own. This combination has resulted in one of the generation’s most interesting and challenging games. But is it any good? You bet your katana it is.
A Samurai Tale
Set in the year 1600, Nioh stars a Western samurai by the name William. Capable of incredible acrobatics and equipped with proficiency in a number of dangerous weapons, he and his skill set play a crucial role in a Japanese multi-clan war featuring both human and the supernatural.
Unlike many games of its kind, Nioh is direct in its storytelling. Interactions with a variety of characters, including those of historical significance and more notably its most dangerous foes, are told through in-game cutscenes. Fully voice acted, there’s a surprising amount of dialog in the game which helps to provide context to the chaos and destruction. It can be difficult to remain invested in the plot due to its slower pacing, but key moments are worth working toward.
The lengthy campaign might never leave the shores of Japan, but it manages to diversify its setting to a reasonable degree. Most areas are dark in tone just like the story, instilling the notion that the world is in serious danger and it’s up to you to save it. Unfortunately, the presentation of these areas is largely underwhelming, with visual quality at times bordering on last-generation standards.
This is made up for partially by the cleanliness of the presentation, more specifically when it comes to user interface design. This plays an important role in the high quality of life of the user experience, which can be challenged by the sheer quantity of items and skills available.
My Weapon of Choice
Just like the samurai that it represents, Nioh is a master of combat. Movement and interaction through the game world is refined to near perfection, encouraging encounters rather than persuading you to avoid them. Defensive moves include a dodge and parry, both of which are dependable.
Although formulaic in some regards, Nioh features an ability called the Ki Pulse which requires incredible timing mid-combat to pull off, offering replenished stamina for your efforts. As much as it can be overbearing to manage, using it frequently plays a critical part in your success or failure. With it, the combat system comes together into something that is as exciting to play as Ninja Gaiden, but with the play value benefits of an action RPG.
There are several weapons that can be utilized, ranging from dual swords to axes and even kusarigama (Japanese chain sickle). Each of these weapon types have very distinct move sets that bring with them traditional strengths and weaknesses. For example, axes deal massive damage, but with long animations that leave William vulnerable. Though, the inclusion of a multi-stance system (high stance, medium stance, low stance) allows each weapon to serve multiple roles, such as how the speed and agility oriented dual swords can be used in high stance to deliver harder, albeit slower paced blows.
Finding which weapon type suits your playstyle early on is critical, as progression is centered around specialization. As you level up you can place points into stats, profoundly impacting on your potency in battle. Due to this, frequent encounters and careful investment in stats are recommended. In addition, there are multiple skill trees with a large number of options to select from, likely making your playthrough very different from other players.
On that note, Nioh is a game rich with content, going above and beyond what Ninja Gaiden has ever offered. Part-way through the journey you’re introduced to the world map, from which you can engage in a series of missions that advertise their difficulty and reward. From there you can prioritize story progression, improve your technique and level up while completing optional content, and/or go on a search for more powerful items. This sense of choice helps greatly in sparking interest at times when the game challenges your will to push forward.
With little instruction and the odds stacked against you, Nioh serves as a trial for even the most dedicated gamers. Its dozens of hours of missions test your mind and body, as you rely on the muscle memory and dexterity of your hands to progress, and the calmness of the mind to remain sane.
Although these challenges many times come in the form of dealing with a series of punishing enemies, more often than not it’s the game’s large cast of formidable bosses that test your limit. In terms of presentation, these bosses are the highlight of the show, but you’ll likely be so occupied with survival that you won’t have time to admire the spectacle until it’s over. But you won't forget.
Nioh is an incredibly challenging game, going beyond industry standard set by the Souls series. With this, there’s an incredible sense of reward when you’re successful in your conquest. However, you will spend more time than not learning valuable lessons the hard way, or grinding to move odds closer to your favor. Although the fun combat system aids in making this repetitive routine of failure more enjoyable, it is common to feel overwhelmed.
This difficulty is brought significantly when online co-op is at play. Having a friend to distract enemies, or beat them to a pulp on your behalf, is one of the quickest—and most enjoyable—ways to topple an obstacle. For many, multiplayer is the hero that will save the day.
Without co-op, Nioh’s difficulty is one of divisiveness. Most players will find the game fun, but only a small number will have the determination required to get anywhere near the end of the more than 40 hour adventure on their own. With co-op, it becomes an unforgettably gratifying adventure.
Although inspired by greatness, Nioh is a superb game in its own right. Its test of precision and timing strays from the accessibility of most modern games, reminding us all what the thrill of overcoming obstacle feels like. While not everyone will agree with its hard mode approach to design, its combat system is well-crafted enough to win everyone over. This samurai tale might not be so simple, but it's a legendary one that won't soon be forgotten.