I have been counting down the days for the Onimusha series to return. I miss everything about that franchise, especially the setting and time period it took place in. This is why Nioh immediately jumped out to me as something I knew I had to experience. While certainly not an Onimusha game, it does borrow elements from it and other samurai style games that have existed in the past. Mix that up with some parts of the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games, and you’ve got a recipe for one killer of a game. Read on for our full review.
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Team Ninja
Available On: PlayStation 4
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Pro
Release Date: February 7, 2017
Copy Purchased for the sake of this review
Nioh is set in the early 1600’s, and while it does have some roots in actual historical facts and settings, it is also heavily fictionalized. During the Sengoku Period, Japan was in the middle of a civil war before the Tokugawa Shogunate was able to unify all of the political powers and begin ruling feudal Japan. This is the state of the world in which you’ll be traveling and exploring. The main character, William, is actually based on a real-life sailor by the same name (William Adams) that was the first navigator from England to reach Japan, settled there, and became the first ever Western Samurai. Some of the story elements that take place throughout Nioh are also inspired by his life and actual events that happened to him before his death.
Of course, this being a video game, things are not always true to life and you can definitely expect some wacky and crazy elements to be brought forth within the story that are not based on the actual historical facts it was inspired from. William is off in search of an evil man, Edward Kelley, and this search leads him to Japan. There, he forms an alliance with Tokugawa Ieyasu and his ninja companion Hattori Masanari, that will help William find and defeat his enemy, while also defeating the Yokai and evil spirits that are running rampant in Japan. It’s fairly straightforward, and the characters that are introduced throughout the game are kind of just thrown in there, so don’t expect anything amazing from a lore or story perspective. Nioh really is about the combat and experience you get from playing the game.
That being said, what makes Nioh such a surprisingly great game is the way the combat system just operates. Drawing similarities in game design and combat mechanics from the Souls series, Nioh handles it in much the same way. Going up against the various enemies you’ll be encountering throughout the levels requires patience, persistence, and learning to read the tells of each individual attack the enemies and bosses will be throwing at you. If you can master that, you’ll be in a great spot for being able to defeat anything the game hurls at you. Especially with the tells that every attack brings with it, because you’ll be able to anticipate and react accordingly to a simple melee swing, a charge, an overhead attack, or whatever else it might be.
The stamina meter is also something you’ll instantly become familiar with if you want to truly survive and master the combat. You can only do a certain amount of attacks and dodges before running out of Ki (the word they use for stamina) and having to wait for it to recharge. This becomes a delicate dance of ensuring you never deplete the Ki bar completely, or else you’ll be left one hundred percent vulnerable for a few seconds while it charges back up. During this time of defenselessness, death will almost assuredly come knocking on your door. However, enemies and bosses also have to adhere to this mechanic. So you can and should take advantage of this as often as possible. If you notice an opponent slumping over and not moving, it is the perfect time to run up and unleash a flurry of attacks as quick as you can. Time it right and you can defeat them before they even have a chance to recover.
One of the nicest things about the Ki system is that you can never run out of it if you perform everything properly. After each successful attack that you land, there’s a small window of opportunity where you can perform an action that will boost it back up and restore a decent amount of Ki so that you never have to stop attacking. Granted, there will be times when you physically have to stop attacking and get away in order to let it recharge completely back up, but this system allows for a much more aggressive and active style of play when compared to similar types of games. You should be able to land a few extra attacks when doing everything correctly, or have enough Ki to dodge away and save your life at the very last second before an enemy would have otherwise killed you.
Another feature of the combat system is the different stances that each weapon brings with it. It’s quite impressive how deep and intricate the combat in Nioh actually is, and the more you spend with it to learn everything about it, the more you’ll get from the game and be able to pull off things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. The different stances for the weapons are a great example of this. Each weapon has three stances, high, mid, and low. While in the low stance, you’ll be able to attack much more quickly, but the attacks that you’re doing aren’t very effective against the various types of enemies. While in the high stance, you attack much more slowly, but each attack hits extremely hard when they connect. This is effectively the strongest attack each weapon can put out, but because it is so slow, you’ll only be able to attack once, maybe twice, before having to dodge or run away. While in the mid stance, you’ll find a nice balance between the other two stances, and this is where I spent a majority of the game. I did switch to the low stance and high stance when it made sense, but more often than not, you can sit comfortable in the mid stance and destroy the opposition in every level.
Loot is all over the place when you’re going through each stage. Defeating enemies has a chance to drop weapons and gear, breaking open boxes, and just randomly finding it lying out in the open. It’s a much more open system than other similar games, being compared to something like Diablo or Borderlands in that respect, which is almost always about the loot. There are a variety of different weapons you can equip and master throughout Nioh, as well as different armor pieces and accessories. Inventory management becomes something you’ll want to regularly keep up on, as items you aren’t using can be broken down into raw materials that will allow you to come up with better gear for your play style. You can also sell gear you don’t want to break down that can fetch a hefty amount of gold, or you can even turn them into one of the Shrines in the world in order to gain more experience.
Much like in Dark Souls, the gear you equip affects the way in which you are able to play, move around, attack, and dodge. If you keep putting on heavy armor pieces, your character will eventually begin to slow down in terms of movement, and it’ll require more Ki to perform actions. However, if you were to equip light armor pieces, you’ll find that William is much more agile and able to dash around the battlefield with ease, and it’ll take less Ki to perform attacks and dodge away. Finding a nice balance between light and heavy armor pieces is definitely the way to go, but you’ll be paying attention to the stat bonuses each piece of gear offers above anything else.
The world just begs for exploration and rewards those that do so justly. Unlike in games where it borrows heavily from, everything is not an interconnected series of passageways and areas that flow together seamlessly. There are individual stages that William will be traveling to in order to battle enemies, partake in side quests, and defeat the ultimate boss in each area. You’ll spend a majority of the time playing Nioh engaged in combat or preparing for combat, as enemies are absolutely everywhere in each stage. Almost to the point where I felt overwhelmed at points, but not so much that it wasn’t doable with a little patience and strategy. After completing an area, you’ll be sent back to a central location, and undertaking a side mission can and often will send you back to areas that you have already previously visited.
This particular aspect of Nioh really started to feel repetitive after a while. Some of the side missions are absolutely worth doing as well, since the rewards are fairly good. But after spending 20 or so hours playing through the main campaign and doing side quests, I started to really only focus on ones that felt interesting to me or where the rewards were too good to pass up instead of trying to complete every single one. This was simply to avoid burnout and having the game become dull in terms of the different locations and settings. At the end of the day, I was able to complete my journey with William through Japan in around 45 hours. Focusing on completing every side mission, if that is something you’re interested in, can easily extend that play time by 15 or more hours depending on your skill level and play style.
Boss fights are some of the greatest strengths that the game has to offer. Each one feels unique and extremely challenging, and you’ll definitely spend a significant amount of time just watching the boss, learning their attacks and watching for the tells we mentioned earlier. Don’t be afraid to die and try again, as these are absolutely the hardest encounters within Nioh, and death is definitely not a bad thing. Eventually, you’ll start to understand when you should be attacking, when you should be dodging, when guard makes sense and when it doesn’t, and even when you should summon a friend through the co-op mechanic to assist in defeating these powerful foes. The boss designs and individual fights were impressive, to say the least, and it was definitely the strongest point of the game for me.
Oh, and before I forget, one of the neat aspects that Team Ninja included with Nioh can be seen right when you start the game. It has a couple different settings that you can adjust based on the hardware you are playing on, and which type of display you have. Whether you’re playing on a PlayStation 4 standard or a PlayStation 4 Pro absolutely matters, as there are distinct modes that take advantage of the Pro, and ones that can tune the settings down a bit to get a better performance out of standard PlayStation 4 consoles. We ended up running through the entirety of the game in Action Mode on a PlayStation 4 Pro, and had a great experience with a stable framerate of 60fps and consistent 1080p resolution. Expect to see this type of stuff in more and more games, especially first party Sony games, in the future.
Nioh is a clear depiction of Team Ninja being near their absolute best. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so good about a Team Ninja release, and I’m excited to see what they do next after playing through and experiencing Nioh. While it isn’t fair to say that this is better or worse than the Dark Souls or Bloodborne games, I can confidently say that fans of those games will absolutely find something to enjoy within Nioh. Its brutal difficulty yet fast-paced gameplay strike a nice balance that feels very rewarding. If you like what you’ve heard so far about it and have seen in the many videos released about it, give Nioh a chance, especially if you are a fan of FromSoftware’s work. You won’t regret it.