Dark Souls. It’s almost impossible to talk about Nioh without bringing up Dark Souls. But despite being unashamedly influenced by From Software’s epic, trendsetting series, the latest hack and slash RPG from Team Ninja brings enough of a fresh coat of paint to the established formula to let it stand on its own.
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided by publisher)
The player takes on the role of William, a British adventurer schooled in the ways of Japanese samurai arts who embarks on a quest to the land of the rising sun in an attempt to stop an evil sorcerer taking advantage of mystical spirits to assist a warlord. It’s a tried and tested formula and, interestingly, one loosely derived from an unfilmed screenplay by acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurusawa, originally titled Oni.
Nioh has a somewhat storied history. Originally put into development in 2004 based on the aforementioned script, production was halted when the team ran into a number of roadblocks with the games mechanics. Fast forward nearly ten years and the surge of popularity for the Dark Souls series saw the developers dust off Oni, retitle it Nioh and put it back in production with an eye on releasing it exclusively for Sony’s Playstation 4; and what a treat it is!
All the usual Souls-like tropes are there, from the punishing difficulty to losing any acrued experience (here referred to as Amrita) when you die, short cuts and bonfire like checkpoints. But it’s where Nioh takes preconceptions and changes things up that it begins to really shine.
While there is a sense of slow progression, much like the Souls series, there is also an increased sense of speed. The focus here is on speedy swordplay and quick responses to enemy attacks rather than purely learning patterns and how to read telegraphed moves. William is generally quite nimble, dodging and ducking rather than rolling for evasions. Combat is given a fresh air with a stance system that can be switched up at any time between high, medium and low moves. These give the player a range of attack options which sacrifice speed for power and vice versa depending on which stance has been selected; certain enemies are best handled with the swift but less powerful low stance, for example, while slower-moving bosses may be better taken down with a powerful but slow high attack. The tried and trusted stamina system (here called Ki) is even given a fresh coat of paint in the form of a Focus button. As you make attacks, your Ki goes down, but a ring of lights encircles and draws into William. A well timed tap of the R1 button as the circle hits him will result in more rapid regeneration of your Ki, allowing combat to become far more free flowing than even Bloodborne, a Souls game which was focussed heavily in more aggressive combat.
Outside of wailing on bad guys, Nioh also presents some interesting additions to the formula. Skill progression comes in the form of Samurai skills which can be bought with Samurai skill points in a typical RPG tech tree system. These unlock more special moves which can be assigned to button combinations or can be used to increase proficiency with specific weapon types. Ninja skills on the other hand can be used to give the player an edge in combat, releasing confusing smoke bombs or shuriken. It adds depth to the system and encourages experimentation with different weapon and skill combinations. On top of that there are Guardian Spirits and little green fellas called Kodama’s to discover. The latter are more common, found hiding in levels, but both can be set to your character at shrines, Nioh’s answer to bonfires. Kodama’s provide blessings which can aid in item discovery or combat bonuses, while Guardian Spirits provide both passive benefits such as increased Ki recovery speed on top of powerful Living Weapon boosts. On fully charging your living weapon gauge, tapping Circle and Triangle imbues your weapon with your Guardian Spirit allowing you to perform devastating attacks for a period of time.
Ponytail and bangs. The true mark of a warrior.
Nioh also shuns the traditional Souls style semi-open world in favour of an overworld map with distinct locations to visit. Completing a given mission returns you to here where you can visit shops and blacksmiths to power up your weapons and buy more gear, progress to a new story mission or even revisit older areas for side quest challenges. Again, this lends a much looser, arcade style feel to the proceedings, as does the way the game handles loot. Instead of a more arcane system with unique item drops, Nioh takes a Diablo like approach to loot. Armour and weapons are plentiful and you’ll find yourself frequently swapping gear out to take advantage of slight increases in attack and defense stats. It does mean that finding new gear is less of an event like in the game’s more medieval cousins, where a new ring or sword would not only bring interesting and obscure ways to play but would also contain in-world lore that would help progress the story.
But the main question on many a Souls veteran’s lips is likely to be – how hard is it? Will I be able to “git gud” at it? The honest answer is – it’s a challenge, for sure. But the speed of the game and the mechanics make it feel more accessible than any of From Software’s games, or even the much maligned Lords of the Fallen. It’s hard – but it never seems unfair. Enemy placement is tricksy – but never cheap. Bosses feel tough – but beatable. If you have been put off by similar games in the past, you should give Nioh a go – you may find that this one is much less of a hardcore chore.
Visually, Nioh performs very well. The graphics are bright and vivid, even in darker locales and feel far more inviting than most grimdark fantasy action RPG’s. Style wise it’s very clearly a Team Ninja game, but there are visual and audio flourishes that will bring to mind the likes of Onimusha, Okami and Tenchu. From a techical side, there are a number of performance options ranging from an unlocked frame rate, to a locked 30fps or a lower resolution with a more tightly locked 60fps. In general I found performance to be excellent and witnessed very few if any frame drops; a good experience all round.
A more accessible yet still challenging take on the tried and tested Souls-like Action RPG, Nioh adds enough nuance and depth to the formula to make it feel fresh and provide a new challenge for players coming out of the back of last year’s Dark Souls 3. With a compelling story, bright visuals and new and interesting locales to visit, Nioh is a must have for Action RPG fans.