It should come as no surprise that Kou Shibusawa, founder of Koei and creator of titles like Nobunaga’s Ambition, would have an expansive knowledge of the history in this period and the capability to spin it into the compelling story that makes up Nioh. The story focuses on the journey of William Adams, a foreigner in Japan searching for a guardian spirit which was stolen from him. The search brings him to the distant island nation because of its vast supply of amrita, a mineral with unique mystical properties desperately desired by the British. Japan is in the middle of the Sengoku, or Warring States, era. The brutal warlord Oda Nobunaga has been killed by one of his retainers, and every clan in the nation seems to be trying to carve out a piece of the country in the power vacuum left behind.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the bloody battles and increasing animosity between the various houses have blurred the lines between the spirit and physical worlds, allowing yokai – demons of all shapes and sizes – to cross over. While William isn’t really looking to get caught up in the country’s affairs, he’s dragged along for much of it, going back and forth over the country in search of the spirit and the one who took her. Interestingly, a

s powerful as William becomes through the course of the game, he rarely seems to be anything more than a vehicle to move the story along. Instead, the major players seem to be the various lords of the Japanese clans, Tokugawa Ieyasu in particular. There’s a huge cast playing both major and minor roles within the various cutscenes, and it’s easy enough to lose track of who is part of which clan and which faction they serve.

There is no continuous, interconnected world in Nioh like there is in the Souls series, likely because there would be far too much ground to cover. Instead, stages are selected from an area map, with each stage having a set objective to complete before returning. Each stage is absolutely gorgeous, and while a few of them may take place in somewhat generic caves and fields, many of them have stand-out features like the gates of Itsukushima. Most are large enough that they have their own distinct sections and shortcuts, and exploration is still rewarded with hidden pathways or secret treasure. Even finishing a stage isn’t the end, as sub-missions tweak the stage design while twilight missions ramp up the difficulty by changing the enemies, and there are plenty of collectibles to find.

And what beautiful stages they are.

And what beautiful stages they are.

Stages are set up in a similar fashion to the Souls series, 3D landscapes to be navigated, with plenty of baddies waiting to cut your journey short. You’ve likely already heard that Nioh is hard, and that’s certainly justified. Combat can get rather intense, especially if more than one enemy is involved, but a degree of patience is often just as important as you wait for the chance to perform critical strikes. 5 different weapons are available once the game really gets going, and it can take some time really feeling the right one.

I began thinking I would be fine with the sword/axe combination from start to finish, but by the end I had completely shifted to using kusarigama (a sickle attached to a weight by a long chain) and dual swords. Each weapon type comes with 3 stances – low, medium, and high – which offer various trade-offs such as faster attacks or more damage dealt. Using attacks costs ki, the game’s version of stamina, but some ki can be recovered using a “ki pulse”. While initially a bit complicated, this technique soon becomes second nature, as it’s critical when launching into large combos but still having enough energy to dash away or block. While the ki system makes battles much more intense, it has the down side of completely freezing William if it runs out. It’s frustrating, to say the least, when a strong hit leaves him breathless and panting just as the enemy is on the verge of death.

Once combat mastery is achieved, or when randomly flailing weapons around manages to wind up in a kill, you’ll earn amrita for the effort. Amrita is the basic currency used to level William up, though the stats are not exactly straightforward, with many of them affecting multiple areas. Rather than focusing in any one specific area, it seems better to dabble in several different stats. Overall, there are all kinds of ways to tailor your specific playthrough. The player’s level seems to be much less important than the level of the items carried, and weaknesses can be offset with ninjutsu, magical skills, spirit guardians, or simply by tweaking various weapon techniques to suit your playstyle. There’s also a healthy amount of loot dropped by enemies that offers various bonuses, so look for what best suits you.

It's definitely worth poking about in your inventory between missions to find the best goodies.

It’s definitely worth poking about in your inventory between missions to find the best goodies.

If that’s not enough, then between each stage, returning to the overworld map allows players to access certain functions like the blacksmith, where weapons and armor can be bought, sold, made, or powered up. There’s even an option to refashion equipment so that it looks like other items. Like a specific piece of armor but hate how it clashes with your current set? This game’s got you covered. It’s a small touch, but the added customization really adds to the overall experience.

With so much going on, it’s important for a game to make all of its systems as clear as possible. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. In fact, there are many, many aspects that led to plenty of head-scratching, such as when I was forced to do dojo training missions that were identical, beat-for-beat, to the tutorial mission. Then there are items that refer to the “starting point” but don’t explain that this refers not to the place each mission begins, but the overworld map. There are a number of issues that crop up as a result of localization error or simply poorly worded explanation. While it never gets so bad that it hurts the game, it does make for some furrowed brows.

There’s a good variety of enemies to deal with in the game, ranging from wielding farm implements in a clumsy effort to beat you back to massive beasts with catlike agility who will close distance with twin swords in an instant. Even the ghosts of defeated players can be summoned, dropping some of their equipment if bested in battle. While there’s plenty to offer on the chopping block, it feels as though everything is revealed within the first few stages, with new enemy types slowing to a trickle beyond that point. You’ll have beaten most enemies a dozen times over by the time you reach the last region, with the only new challenge being the occasional elemental switch-up or environmental issues such as fighting along a cliff face or in narrow corridors.

There's nothing quite like being body-slammed by a giant oni.

There’s nothing quite like being body-slammed by a giant oni.

Don’t fret, though, for Nioh absolutely does not skimp when it comes to boss fights. Over 20 bosses lie between William and his ultimate goal, and there’s a good mix of both bestial nightmares and humans among them. Each one is exceptionally well-designed, with great music to accompany the fights. The second boss in the game typically presents the first wall for most players, providing a significant challenge for such an early fight. It also highlights one small problem with larger bosses – a lot of the game is built around creating your customized fighting combos, but many of these are ineffective against the non-humanoids. Parries, grabs, knockdowns, and more are all completely ineffective, making the fights much less elegant. That’s why I personally found the human bosses much more interesting, given that they have movesets much in line with your own (even if they have far more health and hit much harder).

Thankfully, much like the Souls series, there’s plenty of extra lore to be found. A lot of it is in the items, especially when it’s a weapon or piece of armor that is historically linked with a particular person, such as the Red Demon armor of Ii Naomasa. More information can also be found in the overworld, where plenty of background information can be found on people and monsters. As a big fan of Japanese history and folklore in particular, I loved seeing familiar names and creatures. Of course, a game like this is ripe for a sequel, and I can only hope it can serve as a worthy follow-up.

 

KAIJU VERDICT

4/4 Pops:  Essential  The rarest of things, something that everyone calling themselves a game enthusiast should pick up and try once, regardless of preferred genres or themes.

Review based on a digital copy of the game played on a PS4 Pro.

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