Feel free to watch my review above or to read it the old fashioned way. I like to cater to all tastes.
I’ll start by saying that if you’re masochistic enough to have enjoyed the Dark Souls games then you’ll love this game too, as the similarities in gameplay and design do appear to go far beyond coincidence. The most common question I heard being flung about online, when this game released, was “Is it a Dark Souls clone?” So let’s tackle that question first. No it isn’t. Clearly Team Ninja were heavily inspired by the Dark Souls games when making Nioh. There’s no denying that. The basic combat system, the user interface and even the levels design, with short cuts which can be opened linking a mesh of save points, and most importantly the difficulty level, all feels immediately familiar to Dark Souls players. What makes Nioh stand apart is that those similarities aren’t where the game ends. The Dark Souls games involve mastering fairly simple gameplay mechanics, albeit to an insanely high standard, where even the slightest miss-timed attack or block could result in instant death. Nioh takes those simple mechanics and builds on them, adding extra layers of depth and complexity but still demands the same skill and precision that Dark Souls demanded, particularly the bosses.
Nioh has the same weak/ quick attack and heavy/ slow attack controls, block and dodge along with a similar range of weapons to those available in Dark Souls, from fast and weak to slow and powerful with a gradient in between, ensuring there’s a weapon for every play style. Added to this, is the stance system which goes from low stance, quick low power attacks, to high stance, powerful slow attacks. This changes the way that individual weapons work. Love swinging that heaving axe but facing a quick opponent? No problem, by switching to low stance even the axe can be swung lightning fast, but there is a payoff in terms of damage done. This system allows much more fluidity in combat, as switching stance can be done mid combo whereas switching weapons can’t, allowing you to use a quick attack to land that first hit, but then follow up with some more powerful attacks once your opponent is staggered. It might seem like a simple addition but in terms of tactics it adds layers to the gameplay, allowing the player to adapt much more fluidly to enemy types and incoming attacks. The whole system feels intricate and masterfully balanced in terms of advantages versus payoff as no one stance feels overpowered. Middle stance is obviously a good balance of speed and power and will do against most enemies in the early game, but to truly master and excel later in the game the stances are invaluable and will give you the edge in many a battle.
Stances aren’t the only mechanic added to the mix by Team Ninja. There is also the guardian spirit/ living weapon ability which allows you to choose between guardian spirits each offering different passive bonuses to stats but which can also be powered up during combat to unleash a brief period of vulnerability and an offensive surge. These guardian spirits also have elemental associations which make choosing which to equip a tactical decision as to which best fits the bill, based on the element weaknesses of any enemies you’re likely to encounter and your character’s build which could be best supported by a certain spirit’s stat boost. If you’re lucky, the two might even align.
In the place of bonfires, Nioh uses shrines but even these have been given added function. throughout the levels little tree spirits are hidden and by collecting them you can unlock access to blessings which grant certain bonuses in that area. These can be switched at shrines and mainly affect drop rates of certain items so if you’re hurting for healing supplies then you can activate the healer blessing increasing medicine drop rate and since healing items don’t regenerate but need to be collected and stored, as in Bloodborne, you may find this quite handy as the game progresses. Collecting the little tree spirits is also quite a fun diversion from the sometimes brutal slog through the levels and also gives you a reason to go back and replay previously completed levels.
Levelling up is much the same in Nioh as it is in Dark Souls. Instead of souls, William collects amrita, a yellow type of crystal with mystical properties. This is used to level him up at shrines. Just as in Dark Souls, whenever you die any amrita collected is dropped along with your guardian spirit. To get it back you have to return to the place you died and pick it up. If you die again before reaching it then the dropped amrita is lost and the guardian spirit is recalled to you through the shrine. You can also, straight after dying, recall your guardian spirit back to you through the shrine, without returning to the place you died, but if you do that then any amrita that was dropped is lost. There is also an expansive crafting and item upgrading system, whereby you can collect materials and recipes and have a blacksmith forge weapons, armour and other useful stuff. You can also level up and enhance your collected weapons and armour, so you don’t have to discard that favourite weapon just because it’s not 20 level too low. By sacrificing another weapon of the right level, you can level your original weapon up to match, which is certainly handy.
The storyline is a mix of historical fact and fiction and Japanese mythology and is set in Japan in the 1600s. Japan has been overtaken by a demon horde. What? You didn’t read about that in the history books? Onimusha is clearly fact and this proves it, right? Hmm perhaps not but a lot of the main characters in the game did, in fact, exist. Main character William was actually a real sailor who reached Japan in 1600s on the only surviving ship of a merchant envoy, the rest having perished on the way. According to history, he settled in Japan and became one of only a few western samurai. The plot in the game is a little less grounded and the William in Nioh bears an uncanny resemblance to Geralt from The Witcher games leading to some to nickname the game “Geralt goes to Japan”. I can also confirm that William looks just as good with his shirt off. One must get their priorities right when playing games…
If you haven’t picked up the fact already then the gameplay is extremely challenging but just like in dark souls the controls are pretty much flawless, so when you do die it’s because you made a mistake. If you like games that you can breeze through on a weekend and enjoy the storyline then this really isn’t the game for you. Twitch streamers, who have complete all the Darks Souls games, have been getting stuck on certain bosses for hours and these are the pros, so don’t go into Nioh expecting an easier ride yourself. There is no easy setting, only an exceptionally hard setting introduced as twilight missions – crazy hard versions – of missions for the real hardcore players out there. If you enjoy being challenged and frustrated in equal measures then this is the game for you, but if you like to set a game to easy and fly through just for the storyline then you might want look at The Witcher 3 instead, as Nioh has no easy rides and that’s why I both love and hate it with passion.