Picture, if you will, a stylized floating magical spirit cat adorned in a scarf and an eye patch, which floats out of the ground and says to you in Japanese (a language you understand despite being raised in 16th century England): “Allow me to possess you!” The aforementioned cat then proceeds to fly into your body and begin giving you the lowdown on an Edo-period Japan torn apart by warring factions of spirits, demons, and samurai.
I love this cat.
Credit Source: gamersheroes.com
Welcome to Nioh, the first new IP to be generated by celebrated Japanese developer Team Ninja in over a decade. Known in the past for heavily stylized and beautifully fluid action games such as the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series, the publisher has gracefully returned to form with Nioh and brought all of their technical prowess, notoriously challenging gameplay, and unabashedly weird Japanese personality to what is so far the pinnacle of their work. The game is a beautiful piece that’s half inspired by real-life historical figures from Japan’s Edo period and half from the often under-utilized pantheon of Japanese mythology. The setting incorporates demons known as Yokai into a period where Japan was torn apart by civil war, as a burgeoning colonial world was just beginning to meet its shores.
The result is a wild ride of acid trip level proportions, a story that you don’t so much follow as absorb. This is reinforced by the episodic nature of the storyline, with you picking and choosing missions to play as they open up. Often this broken out structure becomes a relief, since all of your focus and attention will be required to master the incredibly deep combat system that Team Ninja has made the foundation of the game – and make no mistake, you’ll need to master it if you have any hopes of progressing. Not surviving – for you will not survive – but progressing. The game displays its Dark Souls-inspired difficulty with pride, even gloating in trailers that “Death is an entry to life”.
This is a necessary warning to the casual gamer: approach with caution. Nioh is a title that is rich in gameplay value, but even for a seasoned action-adventure gamer, you will have difficulty. This is no Shadow of Mordor or Arkham Knight with a clear, graspable combat system rigged with prompts and levelled out abilities. Your enemies will come at you quickly and unpredictably (for the most part), and every enemy you encounter has the potential to kill you if you’re careless.
Nioh has been painted as a spiritual successor to Id Software’s Dark Souls series, which spawned the category of “masocore” (best word ever), this simply laying out in the open that these games are designed for the hardcore masochist gaming audience. You will die frequently and at times laughably easily. However, every enemy is beatable if you study your opponents carefully and do a good job of minimizing your own mistakes. Ultimately, the victory is exponentially more rewarding knowing the difficulty of the level you faced.
Past the mental game of studying enemy attacks and perfecting your timing, the game offers an incredibly robust and diverse depth of combat abilities to master in defeating your opponents. There are five weapon categories (swords, spears, dual swords, battle axes, kusarigama) in addition to two tangential skill trees for Ninjutsu powers and Omyo Magic abilities. Each of these categories has a deep skill tree and leveling system associated with it, whether they be new combos, passive abilities, or some combination of the two which affect your “stance”. The stance system is an innovative approach to combat that’s unique to Nioh. Every weapon you use, you have the ability to switch between a low, mid, or high stance, for faster and weaker, balanced, or strong and slow attacks respectively. This adds an engaging and highly tactical perspective to combat, with different situations demanding a deep knowledge of each weapon’s strengths and weaknesses in any given stance and scenario.
On top of that, the crafting elements in the Ninjutsu skill tree allow for a player to develop necessary boons and advantages over their enemies, creating scrolls for things like self-healing (vital) and silent walking, or projectile weapons such as the classic shuriken or kunai. Finally, Omyo magic works to enhance the player’s abilities either through passive boosts to your individual stats or resistances, or through imbuing your weapons with various elemental effects for greater damage against various opponents. If all else fails you can trigger the Living Weapon ability, a power unique to the particular Guardian Spirit you’ve chosen, to become temporarily invulnerable and highly damaging in order to get out of a tough spot.
Mastering Nioh’s combat requires mastering the usage of “Ki”, which is, for all intents and purposes, your stamina. Ki is consumed when sprinting, dodging, attacking, or blocking, to various degrees. You can jump start your Ki recovery after an attack by performing a “Ki Pulse”, with a perfect one restoring your Ki much more quickly. It takes practice not just at the beginning of the game, but for every new weapon and stance you learn. However, the Ki system is arguably the most important and nuanced gameplay structure in this game, because enemies are bound by Ki limitations as well. This makes combat a highly strategic and disciplined practice, with the true mastery being in controlling your own Ki usage and exploiting your enemies’ mistakes regarding it. Wasting any movement is not an option. It’s actually, dare I say… very Zen.
I have little actual complaints that could be leveled at Nioh. In fact, the only one I could actually make is that occasionally the game gets so caught up in its own stylistic beauty that it makes it even more difficult to play. Examples of this can be seen when swinging a kusarigama and the wind trails from the weapon actually make it impossible to see your opponent, or when the animation for a boss’ attack move is so over the top that the screen is temporarily overcome with flame and dodging becomes a guessing game. However, this is a small gripe in the overall context of what are incredibly well done and locked-in gameplay mechanics and animation.
Nioh is truly and unabashedly its own thing, which is an encouraging turn for Team Ninja. Historically, the studio has reveled in making its games more difficult than the average gamer was prepared for, particularly with 2004’s Ninja Gaiden. However, alongside the rise of combat systems such as those of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed or Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series, where the player is a perpetually countering, parrying, taking-on-hundreds-of-foes-at-once badass, the demand for those games seemed to fade. Then came Dark Souls, which taught an entire generation of gamers that, in the words of Eurythmics, “some of them want to be abused”. Team Ninja has struggled to find its footing in this rapidly changing landscape, so the beauty, skill, and passion that’s so evidently ingrained in every piece of this game is wonderful to see. After sinking roughly 15-20 hours in this week so far, I still have very far to go in the game, with most reviews clocking the game in at around 100+ hours at the least. However, I look forward to struggling, dying, and persevering through to the end… just like a Samurai should.
A new IP in the Japanese Action-Adventure category, Nioh builds on the wonderful foundations of the genre and adds its own personal flair to the improvements.