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Nioh has big shoes to fill in the eyes of Dark Souls fans and naysayers alike. Is Team Ninja’s history with difficult games enough to help them break the cycle of bad clones?
The Last Samurai
In Nioh you take on the role of William Adams, a real-life English sailor who, after reaching Japan and spending some time in prison, ended up befriending and becoming a key adviser to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The game’s incarnation of William follows a slightly adjusted trajectory, however. While escaping an English prison with some help from his waifu guardian spirit Saoirse, she suddenly gets snatched up by main antagonist and Hot Topic runway model Edward Kelley. William then proceeds to chase Kelley across the sea to the Land of the Rising Sun, where the rest of the story unfurls.
And what a forgetful and mundane story it is. It revolves around the use of magical crystals found scattered across the east called “amrita” and how they are being honed by various countries to turn the tides of war. As for William himself, he ends up being an Irish Master Chief with a Geralt of Rivia ponytail and a stone-face that would make Adam Jensen smirk in disbelief. He’s about as generic as a good guy gets, but man does he kick ass and look cool doing it. They do explain his sudden proficiency with Japanese weaponry and techniques a bit by flashing back to his samurai training via the tutorial “Master Missions”, but it ultimately feels a bit ham-fisted.
Edward Kelley is also a painfully one-dimensional villain, occasionally popping in to do his best Joker grin and remind you he’s doing bad things, before slinking off into the darkness like an extra from that Nick Cage Ghost Rider movie. There are also a plethora of other minor characters scattered throughout, but they don’t do much more than vomit exposition at you, sell you things, or spar with you. I think it’s safe to say you probably won’t be sticking around very long for the plot.
While Nioh drags it’s feet on interesting and intriguing characters and story, it sweats, breaths, and bleeds style. What the protagonist lacks in personality or substance, he makes up for by being one stylish, scary, calculated mofo. The armor and weapon models are also meticulously crafted, and the combat animation for all characters, human and yokai alike, look fantastically fluid. It is surprising how much you can learn about your enemy by studying their movements and body language, as it informs their fighting style so well.
Some human enemies for example carry themselves with an obvious aura of tension and uncertainty, telling you that they are likely inexperienced in combat, and should be relatively easy to defeat. Their attacks are desperate, and they often tire themselves out easily, allowing you to step in and teach them your favorite mud-pie recipe. And I must say, kicking a fatigued foe to the ground and giving them the old people’s elbow with the butt of my axe is so satisfying it’s almost primal.
On the flip-side, the demons or “Yokai” are often erratic in nature, and sometimes change tactics when channeling the “Yokai Realm”, suddenly becoming much more aggressive. Luckily, it’s quite easy to catch on when this is happening, as they either emit glowing grey smoke from their body, or create a large circle of it along the ground. Despite being generally more difficult than the human enemies, once you get the hang of fighting certain Yokai, you’ll be able to exploit their weaknesses and breeze through a mob of them in no time.
And you’ll have to, because there are unfortunately not a huge variety of enemies to fight. On occasion they toss in maybe one new enemy type because it suits the location or mission, but that’s about it. I’d say recycling in general is this game’s biggest problem mechanically. Revisiting old areas, fighting beefed up versions of old bosses, getting the same pickaxe 15 times in a row, it all just feels like padding to disguise a much shorter game. I sometimes enjoy repetition in games, but not in the way that Nioh approaches it.
Go ninja, go!
Although I could (and did) write a novel on how this game is and isn’t similar to Dark Souls to varying degrees, Nioh is very insistent on carving it’s own path and doing new things with the formula. It’s because of this that it stands out in my mind as more than “just another souls-like”, because it definitely isn’t. If anything, it’s a turning point for a genre that I am ecstatic to see is finally getting it’s footing.
You play from a third-person perspective like your standard fare of action games these days. However, like uncle Souls, the gameplay is closely dependent on managing your stamina or “ki” in this case. Running, attacking, blocking, brushing your teeth, everything except walking uses up your ki. What this means is if you spam buttons during an attack and run out, William will over-exert himself and be left panting like a tuckered-out border collie, totally open to attacks.
This is where the “ki pulse” comes into play. When you are in the heat of combat, you might notice your weapons flick off little glowing droplets of energy with each swing. That is your ki being used up. After finishing an attack or combo, your ki will start being pulled back to the center of your body, and this is where the genius comes in. If you press L1 while this is happening and before doing any other moves, you recover some of that lost ki. The closer to the center of your body you let it get, the more ki you get back, and what’s more is if you time it just right, you’ll do what’s called the “ki pulse”.
Successfully pulling off this move has lots of key benefits, and I’d argue is the backbone of mastering the combat. Not only do you get max ki back by doing one, you also dispel any yokai realm in your vicinity, and some of your other skills such as on-command damage buffs or special attacks depend on it heavily.
The versatility that three stances across two equipable melee weapons affords you is extremely impressive.
If the ki system is how you float like a butterfly, the stances are how you sting like a bee. At almost any time, you can change between one of three fighting stances. Low stance lets you unleash insanely-fast Dragonball Z style flurry attacks, but each hit is quite weak. High stance however lets you lean into each attack with full force, doing the most damage per hit, but also taking the most ki to execute. Mid stance is just what it sounds like, and is what I’d consider the “default” stance.
The versatility that three stances across two equipable melee weapons affords you is extremely impressive. I myself use a combination of Axes and Kusarigama (the chain weapon), and I’ve yet to run into a situation were they haven’t solved my problems effectively. At the very least I’m able to supplement any lack of fighting skill with a combination of ranged weapons, bombs, traps, shurikens, weapon buffs, and metric ton of onmyo magic that is so vast I wouldn’t even know where to start.
Last but not least are the guardian spirits. These are mystical beings that watch over you, give you passive benefits, and let you unleash explosive moments of invincibility and power with the Living Weapon ability. The further you play in the game, the more spirits you acquire, and I’ve found that a lion’s share of them are tied to completing side-missions. Each one has a different elemental power such as fire, water, or electricity, and is represented by a different animal.
These spirits are very useful in combat, but not quite as much outside it, at least for my current character’s build. I changed spirits several times to try out all their passive bonuses, but never found myself using anything but the Wolf and Tiger spirits. This is perhaps due to my heavy focus on raw damage output, as those two spirits have the highest damage bonus stat of any spirit I currently possess.
Wax on, wax off
Nioh is a game with a lot to prove, and what it does get right it excels in, even occasionally surpasses it’s inspiration. The gameplay is tight, engaging, and incredibly rewarding, and for some that will be more than enough to remain invested. But the flat story and bland characters sadly prevent the world from being anything close to memorable.