Team Ninja has been kicking around for a while, but 2004’s Ninja Gaiden cemented their popularity. The brutal action game demanded much from its players: precise timing, extensive combo memorisation, and patience. Their latest title Nioh – which was originally announced in 2005 – harks back to the developer’s glory days, while also lifting inspiration from the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. But to simply compare the game to others takes away from its achievements.
Nioh tells the story of William Adams, a western samurai caught in the middle of a Japanese civil war. As battles rage across the land, spirits and demons named Yokai have begun to creep into the mortal world, feeding off the chaos. The story itself is boilerplate, but there are hints of comedy injected into it, providing some much-needed goofiness to the otherwise serious and dark tone.
On the outset, it’d be easy to say that Nioh is derivative; mixing up light and heavy attacks with dodges, all while managing a stamina meter, dealing with strict animations and tough enemies – it all sounds very familiar. But Nioh presents complexity in the moment-to-moment action by providing a breadth of combat options. Players can swap between different stances, each with its own strengths-and-weaknesses. Readying your weapon in the high stance allows for strong attacks, at the cost of mobility. Conversely, low stance allows rapid strikes and fast dodges. Tying it together is the medium stance, which straddles the line between the two.
I first struggled to see the point in that level of granularity, but by the end of the game it all became second nature – dashing into combat with a low stance, getting off some hits, spinning sideways to avoid a swing, and getting in some high stance strikes while your opponent stumbles to recover. Stamina can also be manipulated more directly through Ki pulses, which offer a brief window to restore expended chunks with the precise hit of a button.
It’s a lot to juggle, but you’ll become intimately familiar with your toolset, and enjoy applying it to the swathes of enemies and bosses you face – all of which demand your respect. Nioh’s action is both frenetic and precise. Learning when and how to use which tool at your disposal is not only the key to progressing, but the key to your enjoyment.
Nioh does have some other elements that further distinguishes it from its kin. Loot plays a considerable part of the game’s progression, with pieces each carrying their own rarity level and random stats. You’re constantly swapping weapons and armour sets out, getting fancier and shinier gear – providing a nice parallel to your personal quest to understand the game’s combat. The UI that handles much of this can be dense and difficult to parse on first glance though. Only through extended exposure does it start to make any sense.
You don’t navigate a singular world in Nioh. Missions are selected from a map, meaning you can progress through the game in chunks. As you go through the main storyline, side quests also open up, offering chances at rarer loot. Some of these take place in different environments, but the vast majority of them have you go back to older zones with different enemy layouts. While it’s cool to have a reason to re-explore Team Ninja’s carefully crafted death-traps, the structure of these missions leaves a lot to be desired – often having you defeat a certain type of enemy multiple times.
The levels that make up the bulk of your journey are a visual treat to behold though, with Japanese history, architecture, and folklore all informing their design. Flooded places of worship with crumbling Torii gates, to steamy bath-houses occupied by murderous demons, and creaking ninja castles with hidden doors and walls. The way that some of them are laid out however, leads to frustration. Points of interest and main combat zones are considerably spaced out between each other, with verticality rarely playing a part. Trying to find the main boss room can lead to moments of confused back-tracking, as you trudge down samey looking corridors and paths.
While it may not be as ground-breaking as the games it draws its inspirations from, this samurai’s tale represents a return to form for the developer. With precise and purposeful combat, foes that demand your respect, and a world of fantastical folklore, Nioh is a fine action RPG worthy of anyone’s attention.
Keith received a digital copy of Nioh from Sony for review.