As someone known for having a taste for challenging games, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed series like Ninja Gaiden and the entirely of the Souls collection.
So when it was revealed that Team Ninja would take a stab at the formula that has become a venerable franchise in its own right, my expectations soared.
However, when I got my hands on the Alpha build of Nioh, everything felt off. The controls felt sluggish and I just wasn’t able to do what I wanted. The enemies seemed to spawn out of nowhere and ambush me at every turn, and the emphasis on loot meant I was getting one or two shotted without the proper equipment.
At that point, I wrote the game off as a failed experiment and assumed that I would never play it again. Luckily, after a few conversations with those who actually liked the alpha, they convinced me to try it once more.
Lo and behold, the beta came around and basically every complaint I had was addressed in some way. I then went on to play the final chance beta as well, beating every boss, including the twilight missions.
It felt as though by listening to the feedback of the fans, Team Ninja was on the brink of making one exceptional game, and after a lengthy playtime with the final product, I can say with utmost confidence that this may very well be Team Ninja’s finest work yet.
Before I get into what I love about Nioh, I will mention what I dislike so I can just get it out of the way.
The story presented in Nioh is as barebones as it gets, and loses focus immediately after setting up the premise of chasing after a man by the name of “Kelley” to get back something precious he stole.
From that point, I was introduced to a myriad of characters, many of them historical figures, but they went away as quickly as they appeared, and I never felt invested in the story even for a brief moment. In the end, it was all just one reason or another to travel to a new region and to fight someone else, but it felt like a missed opportunity given the concept of a foreigner blazing a trail in a new culture on the brink of a revolution seemed promising at first. Team Ninja has never really been adept at telling a compelling story, and it remains true still.
As for the meat of what Nioh is all about, look no further than the combat.
With access to five uniquely different weapons, I was given the option of changing my stances on the fly. The High stance offered lower ranged, more damaging attacks at a higher Ki cost that came out slower, while the low stance was ideal for short ranged, quick attacks that were excellent for locking down nimble foes. The mid stance was somewhere in between the two, and when I understood the application of the stances in the various situations, switching between them during an encounter became second nature.
Each weapon also had its own skill tree, which I could invest points into to learn new powerful techniques such as parries, flashy finishers and much more. As I tested out every weapon, I learned quickly what each one was best suited for, and found myself using the Dual Blades and the Katana the most.
The Dual Blades I would use normally against multiple foes using sweeping AoE attacks, and the Katana was wielded during dueling situations where I was up against one enemy where I could make good use of its strong parry options to get the upper hand.
The foundation of combat itself was built around the use of “Ki”, which in essence is the stamina meter. Each and every action took some amount of Ki, and if I were attacked when I was out of Ki, I would be stunned for a few seconds, completely vulnerable to any follow-up attacks. Proper management of Ki was paramount to success, and I learned to always keep an eye on it so I could best plan my attack and guard actions.
However, given the incredible mobility afforded to me in Nioh, I felt a great sense of freedom in approaching combat encounters, and never felt as though my option was to simply strafe around looking for openings.
There were a selection of ranged weapons like the bow, musket and powerful hand cannons and they felt quite useful, rewarding careful observation of the stage by allowing me to pick off troublesome snipers before they could engage with the rest of their allies.
If that arsenal of weapons and skills weren’t enough, there were also Ninjutsu and Onmyo magic, which served as the tools and magic of Nioh. Even though they initially didn’t seem all that useful, the further I delved into the skill tree, I realized how powerful they were, allowing me to buff my attack/defense and inflict debilitating status ailments on the enemy which could trivialize even the most difficult encounters. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that once I began to rely more on Onmyo magic, I was able to one-shot most bosses.
Lastly, there were also Guardian Spirits that I could align myself with that would give me a variety of buffs and in a pinch, I could invoke the Living Weapon, giving me temporary immunity to harm while dishing out some extreme punishment.
Even with this incredible combat engine, if the levels themselves weren’t interesting to explore or the enemies boring to fight, it would all have been for nothing. Luckily, the levels are a joy to hack and slash through with secrets abound, designed around with what I can only describe as “shortcut porn”. The enemies, while a bit limited in variety are endlessly fun to fight due to the many creative combat scenarios.
Outside of the combat, the second foundation of Nioh is easily its loot and equipment system. As I progressed through the various stages, I picked up countless pieces of gear with different visual styles and stats. They were color coded to their rarity as is the thing to do with loot in gaming, and I found myself constantly getting better gear and eventually start completing set bonuses that gave me a significant edge in battle.
I could also take my well earned rewards to the blacksmith to disassemble them for parts in order to forge new gear or even level up my favorite weapon to be more in line with all the shiny new instruments of death I’ve gathered. When I found that I didn’t like some of the parameters on a piece of equipment, I could reforge them to try and get a better roll, and with all these different mechanics combined, I spent hours at the blacksmith to perfect sets of equipment with outlandish effects.
As for the multiplayer component, I found finding co-op missions to be a painless process, taking mere seconds to get into, and once I was in, I could help my jolly cooperation partners finish their missions for numerous rewards. There’s also a clan system that tally up honor points to reward the members of the top-scoring group, but it’s worth noting that at this point there is no direct PVP system in Nioh.
Nioh is a culmination of some of my favorite mechanics in video games. The incredibly fast paced, twitch based reflex combat of Ninja Gaiden. The meticulous strategy and sense of discovery of Souls and the loot/equipment upgrade system of Diablo. It’s as though this was a game made specifically for me. If that wasn’t enough, Nioh manages to become more than the sum of its parts as something truly exceptional with an identity of its own – one that I simply can’t put down and it has secured a spot as the top contender in my game of the year list thus far.
Fun Tidbit – The twilight challenges and new game + mode might seem intimidating at first with their high mission levels but just get in there and give it a go, you’d be surprised what you can pull off!
Review copy of game provided by publisher.