I won't sugar coat it. I didn't make it far in Nioh. I put a deadline on myself to write this review, but after torturing through boss fights that took upwards of 20 tries and individual stages that soaked up entire afternoons, I have to bookend myself somewhere.
If I have to play this game for another 30 to 40 hours to legitimately write a full review, then William isn't the only one who is going to need a seppuku sword. Consider this my thoughts after taking out a chunk of what it has to offer, and my opinions are set to evolve if I ever get back to it.
Not that I hated Nioh. Far from it. Team Ninja appears to be ready to right its sinking ship after releasing a really solid action game like this. I'll get to the obvious Dark Souls comparisons and the tweaks that both push it ahead and set it back a few steps, but Nioh has really led me on a personal journey that shows how much my tastes in games have changed over the last few years.
If anything, this is what I would call the "right game at the wrong time."
It's got the yokai, but not the watches
Nioh has a few really solid original ideas going for it, the most rewarding of which has to be its setting. Feudal Japan and the historical wars of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu make for a perfect setup to explore the dark sides of Japanese mythology that happen behind the scenes.
Are you a fan of the anime classic Ninja Scroll? Well, this game is right up your alley. Fiery demons, samurai battles, ninjas who wield magic and influence behind the scenes of political struggle, unique super-powers from expertly designed enemies, and, of course, all of the spiritual and yokai legends a nerd of the supernatural could ask for. Oni, kappa, shibainu, manekineko… forgive me for geeking out here, but Team Ninja absolutely nails this presentation.
This is especially true for the games spirits. Cutscenes often unfold with very Earthen colors, but you'll never miss one of the ghosts or spirits that pop in from the background or from behind a character. Their shiny aura brings a spark to the storytelling in this game, and thank goodness for that because the dialogue certainly doesn't.
For all the highs of the setup, Nioh's doesn't quite meet that potential. You play as William, a wayward English pirate who is based on the first white man to ever become a samurai. Locked away in the tower of London, you witness talk of a conspiracy from members in the underbelly of the British naval fleet. The Queen wants to expand the power of alchemy to overpower the Spanish in their quest for global dominance, and the magic energy can only be found in the spirits of the Japanese dead.
The English have contacts in Japan and pump funds into the civil wars there to keep the civilians dying and the contacts employed to harvest their souls.
And then… blah. William loses his fairy spirit, he winds up in Japan to chase the people he witnessed in England, and he has a lot of secret meetings all over the country. It never really gets off the ground, at least within the segments I played. I'm well aware that the story gets better, but plenty of indications I've read say it does, which is somewhat disheartening.
At any rate, I can declare that the story doesn't demand the same level of attention that the combat does.
The souls are dark, but it's a different shade
And here is where we find the meat of Nioh's offerings. I'll get the Dark Souls comparisons the of the way because they simply have to be made. Everything from character progression to the button layout to how William changes weapons to the bonfires, which are now altars, and even the menu UI is all based entirely on the FromSoftware series.
This is where I make the obligatory reminder that FromSoftware used to lift ideas straight from Team Ninja back when it was on top of the action world. Now that the tables have turned, Team Ninja obviously has no problem returning the favor.
Bloodborne might actually be a much more accurate comparison, though, because Nioh strides much closer to that game's offensive approach than the watch-and-wait defense of Dark Souls. William moves with far greater speed than any Dark Souls character has ever done, and his slashes hit with the lightning precision more comparable to Ninja Gaiden.
If anything, Nioh is a nice middle ground between the two franchises, providing both Ninja Gaiden's combat heavy attacks and Dark Soul's unmistakable thrill of waiting for just the right moment to burst with an all out attack.
And it's challenging. Brutally challenging. Enemies don't give an inch in this game, and you'll find yourself memorizing attack patterns, recognizing indicating animations so you know what attacks to prepare for. You'll see openings in their defense, weaknesses in their range and patterns, and then once you realize it all… you'll still have to figure out a way around it.
That flying bat lady at the second main mission… yeah, I'll hate her forever!
But you get the idea. It's Dark Souls in how it expects you to learn, improve, and progress through the grinding bosses. And yet, it isn't quite Dark Souls either.
There's a lot to balance and consider here
You might notice that this section of the review is much longer. That's because Nioh has just as many if not more differences from Dark Souls than it does similarities.
Loot, for one thing, is very important in Nioh, so much so that it gets to the point of being a hindrance. Williams pockets are deep in that he might wrap up a mission with over 30 newly acquired weapons and pieces of armor, each more useless than the one before it. Each piece of equipment comes with randomly generated abilities to the point where Diablo starts to crawl into the comparisons. Boosts in gold, boosts in damage from hitting an enemy from behind, boosts in elemental damage.
If you love digging through mounds of treasure to find the perfect weapon, then Nioh is definitely your personal heaven. And you can even keep and improve upon the weapons that you like best, so your favorites never go out of style! All of the fodder weapons can be melted down and used to power up William or the items the player actually wants to use.
Of course, this leads to the obvious problem of clutter and menu management, which is downright cumbersome in Nioh. Clearing out your menu is annoying, but not as annoying as accidentally shipping off a favorite sword of yours. No indication whatsoever, there. It also doesn't do a very good job of telling you if your equipment is optimized, meaning that these boss fights you might be struggling against could be challenging because you're equipped with a weapon that's simply not good enough or doing you more harm than good.
Loot is fine, but there needs to be more indications to help players sort through it all.
Nioh is also a segmented game, and it loses that open-world inter-connectivity found in Dark Souls. Sometimes this becomes bothersome as William soon finds himself running through repetitive, featureless caves, but is also means his path is clear in front of him. Those who don't want to dawdle can actually just run straight to the end in some cases.
Of course, you'll miss out on the hidden Kodama spirits that give William important power boosts, and skipping out on enemies doesn't help with reputation. This is a whole other level of the game in which seemingly meaningless tasks can grant William "titles," and each title allows him to minimally increase certain stats. .5% extra damage, +1 Luck. It's slow progress, but my guess is it provides enough customization to have William start doubling damage and gold intake by the end of the game.
And there are the three stances William can take: high attacks for power, mid attacks for countering, and low attacks for speed. Certain enemy stances will leave openings for William to exploit.
There is the issue of magic and summoning beasts through Living Weapons. William is always possessed by a spirit that can power his weapons when a meter fills in the top corner.
There are extra missions which boost your experience, items, and reputation. Of course, these are challenging in their own right and become a useful distraction if the main task at hand is a little too much.
There are Ki abilities to think about. A press of the R1 button can boost William's Ki, which allows him to boost his next attacks and destroy enemy safe zones that restore their power. Do you take the split second to tap that button and get the power boost? You might want to, but that split second is all the enemy needs to turn the flow of battle.
As you might notice, there is a lot of consider when fighting in Nioh, so much so that it almost feels like overload. This is why I still give Demon's Souls and the first Dark Souls an edge over it because as challenging as those games are, they are really focused. Your mistakes feel like your own skill level is at fault, not because your items are improperly equipped or you failed to see through the multiple levels of combat.
Nioh's combat is deep to the point where it almost starts to feel like it works against the game. There's plenty here for those who love to stir around and experiment, but I think those days are behind me.
I've got nothing left to prove
Nioh opened my eyes and helped me admit something that I've been slowly realizing recently. I'm not a young man with a ton of pride (or free time for that matter) anymore, and I don't feel the drive prove my skills or the need to push myself through challenging games like I did a decade ago. I haven't even touched Dark Souls 3, and recently, if a game frustrates me or just doesn't work for me, I walk away and play something that makes me happy.
Likewise, I would rather just sink time into something relaxing like Stardew Valley, Terra Battle, or a classic 16-bit JRPG.
The thrill of overcoming challenges provided in a game like Nioh simply isn't worth the frustration to me anymore, and I have Team Ninja to thank for finally helping me admit this. It's the ebb and flow of one's life and one's interests, and while I think Nioh is a really solid game that everyone should at least try, it's not the kind of game I want to be playing these days.
I think anyone who does want these challenges should definitely pick up Nioh. I'd go so far as to call it the most demanding action game in years. Nothing I've played recently comes close.
Disclaimer: We bought Nioh with personal funds for the PlayStation 4 and played 13 hours of the campaign before writing this review.