Developer: Team Ninja
Publishers: Koei Tecmo, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release date: February 7, 2017
From Software touched a chord with gamers in 2009 with the release of Demon’s Souls. For those complaining games had gotten too easy reveled in the challenging gameplay where death came frequently and at cost. Fall, and you needed to get back to your corpse to recover your souls, or all was lost. A spiritual successor arrived in 2011 with Dark Souls, which then spawned two sequels in 2014 and 2016. Another spiritual successor in Bloodborne arrived on the PS4 in 2015. Now, in 2017, Team Ninja delivers their own version of From Software’s dark fantasy RPGs. Mixing in elements of Capcom’s Onimusha franchise, where historical Japanese figures mixed in with demonic entities, along with the challenging combat of the Souls series, complete with needing to return to your corpse where you fell and limited save points, Team Ninja delivers yet another game that should please those looking for a good challenge, along with the opportunity to engage in some jolly cooperation in slaying demons, monsters, and human enemies. The result is Nioh, and it’s an incredible beginning to what could become the next great dark fantasy RPG franchise.
The great thing is that Team Ninja wasn’t just satisfied with making Nioh a copy and paste Souls imitator. There is plenty in common, however. There is the challenging combat, where you need to keep an eye on stamina as much as you need to watch your health bar. You level up by acquiring souls, this time called amrita. Should you fall in combat, you need to return to the spot of your death to recover your amrita or else lose it. Save points are few, this time in the form of shrines. Each mission ends with a major boss fight, but any enemy can prove to be deadly if you’re not careful. Weapons and armor have their own stats and perks. You can build your character however you like, adjusting to your preferred playstyle. And you can call in aid from other players if you feel the need to do so.
But Nioh diverges to be its own thing in many areas. For starters, you don’t create your character. You play as William, based on the real life western samurai William Adams who arrived in Japan in 1600 and became a key advisor to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. William has been sent by Queen Elizabeth I to Japan to find amrita to aid in the war against Spain. Before doing so, he needs to escape the Tower of London, where he has been imprisoned by the alchemist Edward Kelley. Kelley steals William’s guardian spirit, Saoirse, and heads to Japan, seeking the power of amrita for his own ends. William follows on a quest for revenge, and in so doing finds himself aligned with many figures from Japanese history, including Hanzo Hattori and Ginchiyo Tachibana. Players can choose a Guardian Spirit- a powerful ally to call on in battle once a meter is filled- to aid William from three starters: Kato, a fire-wolf, Isonade, a shark, and Daiba-washi, a hawk. Each Guardian Spirit carries a elemental based power. Kato uses fire, Isonade water, and Daiba-washi uses wind. Others become available as you progress through the game, and you can switch your Guardian Spirit at shrines, though some will require your Spirit stat to be at a minimum level.
Aside from which Guardian Spirit accompanies William, players at the beginning choose which two melee weapons he will start out with. The weapons are mostly standard fare- swords, dual swords, spears, axes- with the unique addition of the kusarigama, a sickle like weapon attached to a chain the can be used from a bit more distance than a sword. Ranged weapons include bows, rifles, and hand cannons. Ranged weapons don’t allow you to carry unlimited ammo though. Bows have a max of 13 arrows, rifles 7 bullets, and hand cannons 5 shots. Two types of ammo can be carried for ranged weapons. Hamaya arrows, for example, pack a greater punch over a longer distance than your standard arrows. Explosive shells cause greater damage than your standard bullets. Ammo can be toggled using Square or Triangle, though if you use one type up the game will automatically switch to the next type. Two ranged weapons can be equipped at a time, and you use the Up/Down direction button to toggle between them. The Left/Right direction button switches your melee weapons. Each weapon carries its own stats and perks. For example, you may have one weapon that ha a high attack number but little else, while one with a lower attack number may have added life or increase rate drops from yokai (the name given to the game’s demons).
This all plays into the strategy of what to equip and what to keep, as you’ll be picking up plenty of loot from fallen enemies and treasure chests over the course of your journey. The loot system is very Diablo-esque, and gains you not only weapons but pieces of armor and items as well. Armor sets can be matched at will, though using a complete set of a certain type increases the stats for the overall outfit. Even with the same type of armor, stats and perks can vary, and knowing your surroundings and what enemies you face in an area plays a factor in how you equip yourself. For example, in one level taking you along ramshackle docks you may want armor and charms the help protect against water damage (falling in water, however, is always deadly, regardless of outfit, so watch your step!). In another area populated by spiders you may want to equip armor and items to guard against poison. As with all things, you’ll need to pay attention as to how you level up. Strength and Stamina aid in carrying extra weight and using heavier weapons. Dexterity increases your use of Ninja skills like shurikens (throwing stars) and kunai (throwing knives). Magic is self explanatory. The higher that stat, the more charms or talismans you can create and use. You can tailor all of this to fit your own playstyle, making each player’s William unique in that regard.
Once you complete the second mission in the game, you’ll gain access to a map screen. From here you can choose to move on to main missions or tackle sub missions. Twilight missions also open up, featuring stronger enemies. you can access a shrine to level up or make offerings for amrita. There is also a blacksmith that becomes available, where you can buy or sell items/armor/weapons/ammo, have items forged or reshaped, and even have your hair style redone. The dojo contains training missions, which are useful in completing as they open more skills for you to learn. These missions may require you to be a certain levels before tackling, so be aware of how you level up. Also, once you choose to go into a dojo mission, it must be completed before moving on to something else. Other missions you can choose to back out of if you hold an himorogi fragment or branch (one sacrifices all of your amrita to return to the starting point, the other brings all acquired amrita along). It’s here through the map screen that you can aid others or help a friend out through the Torii Gate. The catch is you need to have completed a mission to help others in it (so two people can’t learn a new mission together, one must have completed it first). You can choose a random encounter or travel the yokai realm with a companion. Friends can input a password to ensure they’ll be paired up, otherwise you’re playing with strangers. For those returning to an area through the Torii Gate there is less risk, as even if you die you keep all amrita and items. Later in the game you receive honor points which can be traded for items in the Hidden Tearoom. You can also move extra inventory to a Storehouse, so you’re not carrying a lot of extra to sort through. Anything you store in the Storehouse can be retrieved later if you wish, be it for use, sale, or offering for amrita.
For those in mission, you’ll need an ochoko cup to call for aid, even when using a password with a friend. The cup must be offered at a shrine, though you don’t need to remain there after you make the offering (though it’s often the wiser strategy not to get too far from your helper). Your helper will remain with you until either of you die or he mission is completed. On rare occasions I lost the online connection, but this was not a frequent occurrence. Helpers acquire all loot that the summoner does, along with all amrita. Those looking to farm amrita to level up can make nice use of the Torii Gate (also a nice way to help others if you yourself received help), since there is no risk, as you keep everything even if you die. It’s a nice way of building up a supply of elixirs and other useful items, as you can only carry so much at a given time. Items highlighted in green are replenished when praying at a shrine. Elixirs are replenished from your storehouse (you can carry up to eight, and you will not have less than four), as is ammo and some other items. Still others you may need to purchase to replenish, either from the blacksmith or the hidden tearoom.
You’ll also gain titles as you move through the game, like Master Swordsman or Yokai Hunter. These titles are in two classes, and gaining prestige points by meeting certain requirements can earn you extra perks, like greater ki (that which fuels your stamina) or higher rate drops. Speaking of ki, you’ll need to get somewhat proficient in regaining it during battle. Ki can be recharged by moving out of combat or by hitting R1 when you see bluish sparks while fighting. Time things right and you initiate a ki pulse that can stagger your enemy. Be wary of being staggered yourself. If your stamina line goes red, you’ll be unable to move, which can leave you fatally vulnerable. Best you can do if staggered is mash on X and hope you can dodge before an enemy strikes.
Nioh is a large game, with plenty to learn. For some it may seem a bit overwhelming at times, but focusing on a certain thing helps relieve that. There are 19 main missions overall (including an epilogue, which can only be played solo and is accessible after the credits roll). In addition, there are plenty of sub missions, twilight missions, and dojo missions to occupy your time with. There are seven regions in the game, beginning at the Tower of London and moving across Japan. My initial playthrough went over 105 hours, though more skilled players may clear the main story missions in around 60 hours or so. In addition to missions there are Kodama, little green sprites who occupy shrines, to be found in each mission level (except for the opening mission and the epilogue). These Kodama are varied and can offer different blessings, such as increased defense or increased amrita to be dropped from enemies. They’re often in out of the way places, and at times can be tricky to find, but they offer an incentive to explore.
Nioh is a beautiful looking game, with varied environments, moving from rainy forests to caverns to a misty battlefield. The voice acting is done well. English speaking characters speak in English, while Japanese characters speak in Japanese (a good reason to leave the subtitles on, unless you’re fluent in both languages). The musical score provides a suitable backdrop to the proceedings, and the story held my interest throughout. There were even emotional moments in spots, and it having a recognizable story to follow (rather than one that needs to be uncovered) is something else that sets it apart from the From Software titles. For the most part, controls are responsive and the action runs smoothly. On occasion the camera can act up, especially in close quarters combat, and I’ve had a couple of cheap deaths due to this. For the most part, though, the game plays fair, and if you die, it’s your own fault. Each death generally contains a lesson, whether it’s being more aware of your surroundings or paying more attention to enemy attack patterns.
In all, Nioh is a brilliant debut for a new IP from Team Ninja, offering challenging gameplay and deep customization. There is the occasional bad camera angle and it can be daunting to learn everything the game has to offer, but for those looking for a Souls/Bloodborne fix would do well to check this game out. The ending is satisfying, giving a nice conclusion while leaving an opening for a sequel. Even if you opt not to play the epilogue, the game still ends well (though playing the epilogue adds to things). The co-op works well in how it’s designed, though it’s understandable some would wish to run a level initially with a friend. That turns out to be more of a minor quibble, and didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the game. The game has an addictive quality to it, and it’s well worth replaying, as New Game + opens once you complete the epilogue. Plus, for those who enjoy a clash of history and demons in feudal Japan, this is the next best thing to a revival of Onimusha. And that’s a great thing, indeed.