I just want to say upfront that it’s incredibly hard to talk about this game without mentioning From Software’s Souls series. Many offshoots like Lords of the Fallen, Salt and Sanctuary, Let It Die, and Necropolis have been dubbed Souls clones or Soulslikes, which is something other critics have suggested as the birth of a new genre of game. Nioh absolutely falls into this category, but manages to do something few other Soulslike games do: retain its own identity.
Nioh’s first distinction from other Souls games is that it’s not set in a fictional world. Instead it’s set in alternate history Sengoku era Japan in the midst of the real life Battle of Sekigahara, a civil war between two central figures of the game, Ishida Mitsunari and Tokugawa Ieyasu. You play as William, or Anjin as the many of the Japanese characters of the game refer to him, whose real life counterpart William Adams survived a shipwreck in Japan to later become one of a handful of Western samurai to ever exist and would ultimately serve to advise Ieyasu.
Where history and story diverge is when occultist and supposed alchemist Edward Kelley, who looks very good and very goth despite having died at aged 42 by all known accounts, steals William’s Guardian Spirit, who is, yes, a fish lady that’s also a ghost. William then travels to Japan in order to stop Edward Kelley’s insidious plot to use all of Japan’s Amrita, which is the nebulous spirit energy that serves as your experience points in game, and take over all of Europe. William must kill the world’s most dangerous goth in order to save his magic girlfriend. This game has a ridiculous story that while ultimately is just another by the numbers save the girl revenge plot, it’s alternate history is so preposterous that I can’t help but love it.
Playing Nioh will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has played a Souls game in the past. The formula of waiting for an opportunity to strike, attacking, and dodging is all there but beyond that, Nioh manages to find its own mechanical identity. Instead of a myriad of different weapons with different movesets, Nioh has five different types of melee weapons that all share the same inputs. You don’t find a sword that can lunge forward and another that swipes side by side. Instead, each weapon type has that viability, as well as three stances that you can change on the fly. Another vital mechanic that is essential to learning how to play Nioh is the Ki Pulse, a fun sort of active reload for your stamina that forces you to make split second decisions on what your next move should be.
When you manage to find some skill points, you can apply them to a skill tree to learn even more moves as the game progresses. Not only that, but you can also customize what skills you want equipped at any given time. Say you have a kick that lunges you forward after a combo, but you unlock this new move that launches an enemy into the air and stabs them a bunch of times. You could override the kick with your new move altogether, or you could apply the launching move to your high stance and keep the kick on your low and mid stances. I found experimenting with different moves and movesets until I built just the right one I wanted to be deeply satisfying.
Outside of melee weapons, there are also the addition three different types of ranged weapons that really help mix up the combat a ton. The guns and bows that you can equip can immediately be readied at any time, and can be very effective in a lot of situations. I constantly found myself lurking up on a large group of soldiers, picking a couple off with my matchlock, and then running in and cutting them down. It feels as good as many modern third person shooters, and you could probably play the whole game that way, but it’s definitely not the main attraction.
There are two extra types of abilities that you can choose to learn as well as swinging swords and shooting guns, Ninjitsu and Onmyo Magic. Both of these types of abilities have their own isolated skill trees, so you don’t have to waste points you would use to learn sweet parries and combos. While most of the things you can learn along these paths are temporary powerups that act as refillable items, there are also some really neat unique abilities you can learn that will help you out of tricky situations. I was personally partial to Onmyo Magic’s healing spells, as well as one that summoned my Guardian Spirit for a special attack. Believe it or not, summoning a fire bird to circle around me and do a dive bomb on my enemies became a key part of my strategy for beating a lot of bosses late in the game.
The gameplay is snappy and responsive. While some actions like pulling out a bigger gun or casting spells have an associated windup time, slashing your sword around, dodging to get out of trouble, and parrying your opponents attacks at the right time just feels right. The game can knock you on your ass and punish you as well as any good difficult game can, but when you get in the right flow and clear out a whole room with just a katana, you can get that really satisfying “Did I just do that?” buzz.
During William’s trip through Japan, you’ll encounter a bunch of interesting enemies ranging from bandits, to samurai, to a handful of Yokai from Japanese folklore. While there are only a handful of unique designs for enemies, Nioh does have a few tricks up its sleeve to mix them up. You’ll run into enemies just out of eyeline constantly, some unique enemy placement and combinations, and some older faces you’re used to learn some new tricks later in the game. Still, once you get familiar with each type of enemy, you can deal with them pretty handily. Later in the game, they also seem to wind up with way more health and damage than seems necessary, but since you already know their moves, it shouldn’t change your strategy very much. Each main area does have a unique boss enemy, but in some cases like side missions or the inexplicable endgame boss rush, you wind up fighting some of the same bosses three or four times.
The lack of enemy variety is indicative to the core problem with Nioh: repetition. Despite all the different things you can do, once you start building into a couple weapon types and a Magic or Ninjitsu path, you’re basically stuck with them for the rest of the game. You fall into strategies you feel comfortable with and aren’t incentivized to try different things. You can reroll your character about halfway through the game, but at that point you probably already feel too comfortable with a katana to suddenly start using a spear instead. I found a point where I felt good about rerolling at the endgame where several missions popped up that required that I be proficient in different weapon types. I dropped the katana and axe I’d been using throughout the game and started rolling with dual katanas and a spear right at the end. The reroll process takes a lot time too. Not only do you have to reassign all your stats, but also you have to relearn all the skills on the skill tree, and equip brand new skills you might not know anything about or feel comfortable with.
Nioh’s deep customization is by far its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. This game feels like it’d be an incredible PVP game, but unfortunately at the time of writing this review, it’s not in the game yet. You get a taste of it with Revenants, AI enemies that spawn from bloodstains left by other players right where they met a grisly fate, but once you learn a Revenant’s routine, they become pretty easy to beat and farm for gear. We’ll have to wait two months until PVP finally drops in late April.
Aside from it’s problems, Nioh is a really good time. Despite the death and the drabness surrounding each oppressive level, it still manages to stay lighthearted with silly taunts and character moments. There are a lot of fun story bits and a really clear love of stories and mythology from feudal Japan. The English speaking characters speak English while the Japanese characters speak Japanese, which is such a fantastic light touch. For most of the game, William speaks English exclusively and depends on Hattori Hanzo to translate for him, leading to some genuinely funny early game moments where some stuff gets misinterpreted. It has an incredibly good, completely unfitting ending theme that rolls over the credits. I love Nioh. It’s a fun, massive game with repetition problems, and I think I’m gonna start new game plus pretty soon.