When writing reviews, it’s always tempting to compare the game you’re talking about with others that have come before it to give a better picture of what to expect to readers. However, that can quickly put you into a position where you aren’t judging a game on its own particular merits, so it’s a practice I typically try to avoid—except for today.
Team Ninja’s latest handiwork, Nioh, is a game inspired by From Software’s Souls series. Heavily inspired, to be fair. From early previews talking about the change in direction for the resurrected Nioh project, to three hands-on betas that gave players a direct sampling of what was to come, it was easy to see that familiarity in terms of more strategic combat, world progression, and boss battles.
In fact, Nioh’s kick-off will instantly feel familiar to Souls veterans. A ruggedly handsome Irish rogue named William Adams sits in an English prison, where breaking out of his captivity and escaping to freedom serves as your introduction to basic gameplay elements. Before long, William runs into the man that will be your main antagonist—Edward Kelley—who kidnaps William’s guardian spirit Saoirse while summoning up a first boss to test your skills.
The true Nioh starts once William reaches the shores of Japan, a land as foreign to him as he is to it. After meeting up with the legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo, William sets off on a dual-purpose quest: hunting down Kelley and Saoirse while helping his new friend defeat the demonic Yokai that are terrorizing the countryside. Unsurprisingly, those two things end up becoming interlinked, leading players on a trip that crosses Japan and introduces William to a variety of historical Japanese warriors. In fact, William himself was a real person in the country’s history, though it goes without saying that his story—along with everyone else’s—has been exaggerated just a bit.
Nioh had much more story than I was expecting it to, and this is where the Koei side of the game shows through. Personally, I loved it, because I’m a sucker for the company’s historical offerings, but it might be hard to follow all of the names, faces, and locations that keep popping up for those not as up on Japanese history. Even so, there are some legitimately entertaining exchanges of dialog in Nioh‘s cutscenes, supported by a colorful cast of characters that are interesting all of the way through—with the exception of William himself. To be fair, I came to like him more than I had first expected to, and he does have some moments of brilliance when being the foreigner who doesn’t have time for Japanese political and social etiquette (I’ve been there a few times myself, Will). Still, he’s sadly under-developed given the potential he had story-wise, so while he made me soften on my feelings that I’d rather have seen a Souls-style character creator, he didn’t completely change my mind on wanting that for a potential sequel.
Where William never let me down is in his skills at demon-slaying. While the game definitely builds on that more deliberate, thought-out, every-swing-matters fighting style that From Software helped popularize, Nioh is also a faster, more offense-oriented experience that feels appropriate given the heritage of Team Ninja. The first reason for that is the game’s three stances—High, Mid, and Low—which change up things like the speed of attacks, the damage you can deal, the way you swing your weapons, and how easily you can evade what your foes throw at you. These stances are relevant for every weapon type in the game, and they legitimately give you more tactical options for dealing with particular situations, when they could have easily been more of a just-pick-the-one-you-like-and-stick-with-it gimmick.
The other major element that helps push you to take the initiative is the Ki Pulse. Ki is Nioh’s stamina, which gets eaten up whenever you make major actions like swinging weapons, blocking, running, or dodging, until you calm down long enough for the Ki bar to refill. Here, you can tap a separate button after attacking to regain some of the Ki you just spent—and that little action causes a huge mental shift in how you approach encounters versus the more traditional attack-back off-attack-back off nature of Souls games.
I don’t want to say Nioh’s combat system is better—because it’s different, not better—but it’s one of the pieces of the game that made me glad Team Ninja wasn’t simply content at making a wholesale Dark Souls clone. Fighting enemies throughout the game is mostly a joy, from the English guards you initially encounter in the prison, to the walking undead that have taken over the first Japanese village you come across, to the hulking Yokai monstrosities that appear more and more often the closer you get to reaching your end goal. (I say “mostly” because there are a few enemy types in the game that are cheap little bitches.) Then, of course, there are the boss battles, which serve up those familiar feelings of utter despair at first, only to be followed by an amazing sense of accomplishment when each falls to your blade. There’s some really great boss design on display here, with a few particular fights being especially fantastic (not to mention gutsy). Throw in a whole assortment of weapons to choose from, deep skill trees that open up an array of new techniques, Ninjitsu (projectiles, poisons, and so on) and Onmyo spells (healing, status effects, and more), and Guardian Spirits—selectable familiars that give you passive boosts while also letting you charge up the ability to temporarily become super powerful—and there’s a ton of depth that may help attract players who wouldn’t normally be down for this type of game.
Nioh’s depth can be somewhat off-putting if you aren’t ready for it, however. The first tutorial missions don’t open up until after you should be putting those techniques to practice—but make sure to go back and clear them out whenever they show up, trust me—and Team Ninja doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the game’s more intricate details. Even for the Souls faithful, there can be a lot to swallow here because Nioh is filled to the brim with information. Your Status screen alone has five pages of numbers and data and percentages, and the game has two crazy-long lists of additional achievements that offer up points to spend on unlocking a completely new set of passive bonuses separate from the skill trees. You can also spend a ridiculous amount of time deciding what weapon or armor to wield next, because Nioh throws a lot of loot at you, and every piece has its own page of numbers and data and percentages. It really is a lot to take in at first, but as I got deeper into the game, I came to appreciate the stats overload that Nioh is so proud of. If you just want to kill monsters and look cool, for the most part you can just equip the items with the highest attack or defense numbers and call it a day. If you’re ready to dig deep into how much low stance guard break percentage or Yokai equipment drop rate your current gear will give you, then obsessing over minute numeric differences can become almost addictive.
One other element to that design complexity in Nioh is its graphical options. Right at the start of the game (and changeable at any time), you can pick from three visual modes on a standard PS4: one which prioritizes higher framerate, one which prioritizes higher resolution graphics, and one that tries to find a balance between the two. Then, if you’re playing on a PS4 Pro, standard HDTV owners can choose between 1080p visuals with higher anti-aliasing, or 1080p visuals with a solid 60fps. Playing on a 4K HDTV? You can have 2160p resolution at 30fps, or 1080p resolution at 60fps. These are the kinds of options one would normally expect only from PC gaming, but I appreciated Team Ninja’s efforts here. To me, framerate is king, but for you, maybe the game’s overall appearance is the bigger deal. I played on both a PS4 and PS4 Pro via a 1080p HDTV, and while I did notice the resolution bump when playing on the Pro, I never really felt like I was getting the “worse” experience running through most of the game on my launch PS4.
Another area that Nioh takes a different path from Dark Souls is in the overall world structure. Here, every area is its own singular space, experienced as “missions” that are initiated and completed separate from one another. After finishing your first mission on Japanese shores, you gain access to a map of the country, where you can pick the next campaign mission, re-attempt the one you just completed, challenge a sidequest or two, or head to the main base, which offers services such as a shrine for levelling up, a blacksmith for buying/selling items and making new gear, the practice dojo, and more. Nioh’s regions are usually dotted with more side missions than there are story ones, and one interesting twist on that is, at times, they’ll take you to locations or let you experience events that you won’t even see in the course of the campaign. I liked that, because it made that extra content feel more important, and less like thrown-together filler to pad out the playtime. Other times, you’ll also be able to attempt Twilight Missions, which take you back to previously-visited areas that are now bathed in a blood-red sky and filled with far harder Yokai than they were before. I had knocked out about a fourth of the side missions when I beat the game around the 67-hour mark, so you can use that extra content to either provide for a much longer trip to the game’s ending, or as a reason to go back once the credits have rolled.
The various stages you’ll explore across those missions is the one place where I found myself a little disappointed with Nioh. After the first few locations, the game throws you into two cramped, boring, visually unappealing areas in a row, and they’re both just terrible—feeling more like what you’d expect from a more generic ninja game and not what Nioh is setting itself up to be. At that point, I was getting worried that was going to be the norm for the game’s world design, and that thought was utterly depressing. Thankfully, the further into the adventure you get, the better crafted stages are, leading to certain locations that are a delight to explore thanks to their complexity, beauty, and secrets to be found. And yet, as good in concept and layout as many of the world sections ended up being, there was still just something missing. If there’s any one place where I’d directly compare Nioh with Dark Souls, it’s here, because I think From Software really has a knack for making worlds that are artistically beautiful while also feeling threatening in atmosphere. If we get a Nioh 2, I’d like to see Team Ninja think a little more about that artistry, play with a bigger variety of the landscapes and locales that a country like Japan has to offer, and try setting stages at more differing times of day.
There’s one other part of Nioh that I don’t want to speak too much on, and that’s its multiplayer. Part of the reason is that, given most of my time came in the days leading up to launch, the servers were either not even running yet or barely filled with other players. And, also, because I don’t really come at these kinds of games for the multiplayer, because the more dynamic “suddenly getting invaded” moments or the sharing of hints via scribbled messages. One thing I did think was cool was that, much like the Souls games, you can see markers where other players died. Instead of giving you a hint to what killed them, however, Nioh’s version calls that player’s vengeful spirit into your game. Defeating them earns you equipment and items, and there’s even a built-in faction-based meta game, where you can earn rewards if your faction claimed the most glory (through killing those spirits) during the course of that week.
If you want to actually play together with friends or strangers, you can, but things work a little different than you may be expecting. There’s an item you can use to call in other players if you’re needing help with a particular mission, or you can go out into the online world to help others, but in both cases, the helper needs to have completed the mission before they can join the helpee. Then, there’s a separate “companion” mode where two players have one shot at completing missions while using a shared life bar. It’s definitely an interesting idea that I’m looking forward to giving a proper go now that there are some people to team up with, but it’s something more for players who have finished the game and want some extra challenge, and not for those hoping to co-op the campaign with a friend.
I went into Nioh hugely excited at the idea of a Samurai Souls, and in a lot of ways, I did indeed get that. However, as much as you can compare what we’ve been given here with From Software’s efforts, Nioh quickly moves past those similarities and comes into its own. By the end, I wasn’t loving this game because I love Dark Souls, I was loving it because I was loving Nioh. When the final cinematic played, it really hit home how much the game had grown on me, and how special the result of 13 crazy years of development had turned out when it so easily could have just been a more run-of-the-mill action adventure that came and went. Hopefully, Nioh will have the same kind of success that the Souls series has had, because I’d love to see where Team Ninja can take these ideas now that the groundwork has been placed.
You’ll go into Team Ninja’s latest project thinking it’s Dark Souls with samurais and ninjas, but come out knowing it to be its own unique experience. Nioh is an enthralling adventure, filled with great combat, characters, monsters, and locations, and only really stumbles when it tries to be a little too much like other games out there.
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Koei Tecmo, Team Ninja
M - Mature
|Nioh is available on PS4. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by Koei Tecmo, Team Ninja for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.