Nioh - Review

It has been quite some time since the developers from Team Ninja crafted a main console released game that is not connected to either Dead or Alive or Ninja Gaiden.
Yet along comes Nioh, an entirely new IP that though it shares quite some visual similarities in style with the aforementioned Ninja Gaiden franchise, is an entirely new game complete with an own gameplay style, characters and story.
Taking quite a few lessons from From Software's popular Dark Souls games and Bloodborne, Nioh promises a similarily challenging experience against numerous bosses and enemies in deadly terrains where managing your stamina and knowing to time your strikes correctly is key to success and survival.
Yet does Nioh deliver enough in terms of novelty to establish an own personality, or is it just a Dark Souls ripoff?...


Even though Nioh and the Dark Souls games share a lot in terms of gameplay, the major differences between the two otherwise quite different games already start with Nioh's distinctly more present focus on storytelling. Despite the fact that Nioh still is not really a game that can be considered overly story driven, there is a main story with characters and a clear narrative to be followed upon.
Nioh is set in 1600 within a ficitionalized dark fantasy version of the Sengoku period in Japan. There you step into the shoes of William, a blonde-haired Irishman who arrives in Japan in pursuit of an enemy. It doesn't take long when an evil mysterious sorcerer though takes away a guardian spirit of William's that has been accompanying him since birth. Now it's up to Nioh to retrieve it and help various other characters and Japanese villages to get rid of a spreading threat by Yokai demons.

Nioh's story is a nice and entertaining backdrop for the game's gameplay focus.

Without overly comparing Nioh to Dark Souls (although it's somewhat inevitable), Nioh's healthy focus on narration and a story-related drive behind your actions is what elevates the game far above any of the From Software games. Though none of Nioh's characters are very fleshed out though and the story is remarkably straightforward, it gives way to many creative characters to feast your eyes on. With so many creative designs, it's thus actually a bit disappointing that Nioh's story so frequently and suddenly introduces characters, that it's hard to really get to know them without the necessary time for them to breath and develop.

Characters though tend to feel a bit underdeveloped throughout.


Core Gameplay Mechanics & World - "Same Same...but Different"

Nioh's gameplay can be easily described by saying that it feels like "Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden had a baby".
With that said, Nioh obviously takes a whole lot of inspiration from From Software's Dark Souls games, but nevertheless changes key aspects of the gameplay up to such an extent, that it can easily be said that Nioh overall becomes a much fairer and more enjoyable experience in the longrun - both for newcomers and longtime Dark Souls fans.
To start things off, Nioh is of course no full-on frantic hack and slash game ala Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta but instead a more focussed action RPG which favors precise timing of your strikes, management of your stamina meter as well as spending your level up points wisely and choosing the right weapon for the right situation. But above these gameplay aspects which at first appear pretty been-there-done-that especially for Dark Souls veterans, Nioh manages to establish new layers of gameplay complexity that not only give players more options in combat, but even manage to make the combat in Dark Souls feel even somewhat bare bones in comparison.

Nioh takes what Dark Souls started and builds on top of it.

Case in point, above the basic light and heavy weapon attacks, Nioh introduces different stances for each weapon - low, mid and high stance. With that said, players have the choice to fight with a light guarding stance whose attacks don't cause much damage, but are quicker and use less stamina, while the high weapon stance is slower, uses more stamina but also causes much more damage - and also there's a middle stance that represents a balance of the two. Switching between the three different stances in combination with Nioh's many different weapon types is key to succeed against every of the various enemies and hard bosses in Nioh. Though of course players are free to stick to their preferred weapon or stance of choice, Nioh does a great job of emphasizing experimentation and adaptation to each new situation in the game. Therefore, a seemingly impossible to defeat enemy can suddenly be turned into a knock-over with a simple change of stance (and or weapon) that takes advantage of the enemy's weaknesses.

Tough enemies can instantly become knock-overs with the right stance used.

On top of that, in addition to stamina regenerating by itself after a few seconds, Nioh's sense for precise timing is also apparent in what is called Ki Pulse (with Nioh's term for "stamina" being "Ki"). Ki Pulse gives players the opportunity to regain a specific amount of Ki/stamina instantly after each strike when pressing the recharge button at the exact moment after the strike. Though the instantly regained amount of Ki doesn't fill up your entire stamina meter right away, the instantly regained portion can oftentimes be crucial of being able to evade an enemy's devastating attack or achieve that final necessary blow. Nioh does a great job of making Ki Pulse feel like a not necessary but very useful fighting technique that feels incredibly useful when mastered.

Managing your Ki is the "key" to success...*badum tss*

In relation to Nioh's story oriented experience, different from Dark Souls' huge interconnected open world, Nioh delivers much smaller open worlds or rather "levels" that are divided up into specific missions that are to be selected from an overview menu. Despite a good handful of secret locations with loot to find, each mission is actually quite straightforward with little chances to get lost and with defeating the endboss always being the main goal of the mission. In that sense, Nioh's experience is much more streamlined, clear and enjoyable with far less confusion involved. This is only further underlined by the fact that the game always shows a recommended level for each mission, so that the player never runs into the danger of being stuck in a mission he can't complete (there is no ability to just quit an active mission - there are certain rare items though that enable you to do that).

The mission structure helps to make things less confusing and more streamlined.

Enemies & Bosses - "A Whole lot to Conquer"

Challenging and relentless enemies and especially bosses are a huge part of Nioh's key identity, and the game delivers that in spades. Aside from each mission being deliberately filled to the brim with enemies who oftentimes just straightup ambush you when you feel safe, Nioh has a very colorful and varied selection of memorable bosses to encounter. With around 30+ bosses that you will have to defeat throughout your journey, each boss does great in delivering new challenges that put different skills of yours to the test. From bosses like a giant thunder controlling tiger that tests your endurance, other bosses like a vampire queen will test your agility and skill with fast and ranged weapons. In short, each boss demands new tactics to defeat them including a potential use of a different more suiting weapon, stance, etc.

Each of the 30+ bosses in Nioh feel unique, challenging and actually fun to fight.

On top of the bosses being gorgeously designed and sporting that certain Ninja Gaiden-esque visual style, the bosses in Nioh actually do seem incredibly tough and some even impossible at first but never to such a relentless and partially just unfair degree as in the Dark Souls games (though of course that's debatable). Without putting any shame on the Dark Souls games, Nioh just balances difficulty and motivation to keep trying it again quite a bit better than the Souls games. In that way, Nioh is a perfect gateway for newcomers for this kind of game genre, with Nioh always feeling very challenging but never unfair.
However, all pure skill put to the side, much like Dark Souls, Nioh also includes a fair share of grinding to level up your character and make fights against certain enemies a fair situation to begin with. Though it is absolutely possible to defeat each boss even with the weakest weapons in the game, the game more or less of course expects the player to also tackle the games lesser enemies to collect Amrita (basically XP points) to level up. Thus, players who rush through each mission ignoring to face lesser enemies and who only focus on getting to the endboss as fast as possible, will quickly notice that they will have a much much harder time with them than if they would spend enough time with the plenty other enemies in the mission who aren't only there to gain loot and XP but also to practice your combat skills.

The boss designs in Nioh are gorgeous.

Loot & Customization - "Spared no expense"

Customization is another aspect where Nioh absolutely exceeds in terms of how many options the game gives the player.
Aside from the ability to level up different stats of your character and shape him to your liking and preferred playstyle, Nioh also boasts a very high frequence in which loot is dropped. Much like in Diablo, managing your equipment and getting better gear to take on even bigger foes is half the fun of this action RPG.
Going even further is the Blacksmith in Nioh whose service grants you not only the ability to buy and sell gear, but also to forge your own gear through certain materials and even mix two weapons to create a balanced cross between the two. The sheer amount of possibilities to shape your character exactly to your liking ist really vast and incredibly detailed in Nioh. Yet the best part about all of this, is that the game never forces any of its additional features onto the player but simply offers them to him. With that said, you can absolutely beat every Boss in Nioh without forging your own weapon or without even using any of the plenty magic spells in the game.
Though players who take advantage of each feature in Nioh will of course get the most fleshed out experience of the game. The great thing is that Nioh never flatout punishes the player for not using certain features of its gameplay. Each player can not only make his character but his entire journey throughout the game a very personal experience.

Nioh's vast amount of customization options are great and never feel enforced.


Nioh is also one of the very few games that even on consoles offers certain graphical options that influence one's experience. Thus, the game offers three different modes, which either focus on keeping a high framerate, a high resolution or a balance of the two. Though of course a high framerate is most probably the best way to enjoy a game where precise movement and timing is key, it's nice that for once gamers are given options in that regard.
Other than that, Nioh features a distinct Ninja Gaiden-esque artistic style that has become a trademark of Team Ninja at this point. Complete with very creative monster and character designs as well as beautiful women with unrealistically smooth skin, you could actually believe that Nioh is set in the same universe as the Ninja Gaiden games. While the boss designs definitely mark the visual highlights in the game, the environments are servicably designed but oftentimes feel like they lack the necessary awe-inspiring environmental detail that for example Bloodborne achieved.


Soundwise, the biggest noticable aspect is that Nioh sticks remarkably true to its Japanese setting, meaning that most characters in the game actually speak Japanese with William being oftentimes the only one who speaks any English whatsoever. With that said, players should get used to reading a whole lot of subtitles during the game, which shouldn't be too distracting though. Voice work is solidly done.
Regarding the sound design there is not too much to mention, while the music tracks in the game are nice enough with delivering a historic Japanese fantasy atmosphere but are sometimes reused too often where the looping track can start to get a bit annoying (at least for me).

Higher framerate, higher resolution, or a balance? Nioh gives you the option.

The Verdict

All in all, Nioh is a big success for Team Ninja. Not only did the developers behind Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive manage to establish an amazing and creative brand new IP in a newly tapped genre, but they also managed to avoid becoming a ripoff of the flagship Dark Souls games by further innovating on what has already been made the standard.
Shoving aside the very cryptic storylines of FromSoftware's games, Nioh's mission based experienced is held together by a straightforward storyline that despite its underdeveloped characters manages to still be a servicably entertaining backdrop to the game's main star - the gameplay.
Taking quite a few lessons from the Dark Souls games, Nioh expertly avoids becoming a ripoff of it. This is achieved by Nioh giving players even more options to customize their character on top of delivering much more open and complex combat gameplay that puts further focus on how players can manage and influence their stamina during fights. Additionally, the three different fighting stances for each weapon further influence the players stamina usage as well as agility.
This is put to amazing good use during Nioh's 30+ boss battles of which each demands new tactics and puts new skills of yours to the test, making Nioh a very lengthy but also very fulfilling game.

Nioh is a very creative, inviting, challenging but also immensely rewarding experience that is not only a great change of pace for die hard Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden fans but also a great starting point for newcomers to this sort of action RPG genre.

 Final Verdict: 9 out of 10 

Status: Amazing!

Big thanks goes out to Sony Computer Entertainment and Toll PR
for providing a review copy of the game.

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