Nioh (2017)

Dark Souls has had massive influence on the industry since its release. Games began to embrace the option of brutal difficulty and letting the player fend for themselves. Many of the mechanics of Dark Souls can found in all the games that it has influenced. One game that clearly took inspiration from it is Nioh. This action game set in feudal Japan was obviously motivated by the world, level design, and mechanics of Soulsborne games. And as a someone who considers Dark Souls one of their favorite games, I was eager to play Nioh. What I found was an excellent game in most regards such as combat and level design, but with some major flaws that hampered my enjoyment of Nioh.

Interestingly, Nioh bases its story and world off of actual historical events, with some significant liberties taken. It tells the tale of William Adams, an English navigator who reached Japan in 1600 and eventually would become a samurai. Nioh frames the final years of the Sengoku period in Japan in a fantasy context. Japan is a rich source of the mystical Amrita, a resource that provides power to whoever controls it. Many people also have guardian spirits that provide them with special powers.

The premise of the story is that William’s guardian spirit is stolen from him, as it has the ability to detect Amrita. He travels to Japan to track down the thief, and in the process gets caught up in the battles of feudal lords. I enjoyed the premise of the story, as I always am interested in learning more about history. While Nioh takes a more fantastical approach to Japanese history, it did prompt me to read up on the Sengoku period. The issue with the approach that Nioh takes is that it’s presentation and execution of the story is dreadful.

Not every game needs to be a riveting adventure; as long as the gameplay is good enough the story can become secondary. But when a game clearly is attempting to emphasize it’s narrative and plot then it’s more difficult to forgive a poorly told story. The structure of Nioh has the player partake in missions across Japan. At the end of each mission a cutscene plays that I assume is supposed to link the events of the completed mission and the upcoming mission. But the cutscenes are incredibly confusing. Dozens of characters are just thrown into the scene without introducing them. Like the game expects the player to just know all the major players of this period in time already. I found it incredibly difficult to follow what was going on outside of the major plot points, which is a shame because the game was clearly trying to put an interesting twist on Japanese history.

I’d argue that by far and away the best aspect of Nioh is its combat system. While the game obviously takes inspiration from Fromsoft’s Soulsborne games, it does not adopt the slower and more methodical approach to combat that those games use. Instead, Nioh emphasizes fast-paced action and giving the player a variety of tools to relentlessly combo the opposition. The game can be played in a slower style, only attacking when there are clear opportunities present. But Nioh allows more skilled players to constantly be on the offensive.

The equivalent of stamina in Nioh is called Ki. Attacking, blocking, dodging, and running all consume Ki. But unlike stamina which requires a few seconds to be restored, Ki can be recovered by timing a Ki Pulse after attacking. This by itself encourages the player to be more aggressive, and not fall into the Dark Souls pattern of dodge and hit. Moreover, enemies also have a visible Ki bar that can be depleted by employing various techniques. Once their Ki is depleted the player can grapple them and deal a massive amount of damage. Ki is a much more interesting resource than a simple stamina bar, as it allows for more dynamic combat. Taking advantage of when an opponent uses a long combo and is drained of Ki is a core aspect of the game.

Nioh places heavy emphasis on giving the player an arsenal of techniques. There are seven different types of melee weapon and three different ranged weapons, all with their own movesets and playstyles. Additionally, the player can slot two melee weapons and two ranged weapons into their equipment to easily be swapped between. The sheer variety of weaponry available to the player is phenomenal. There are also three different “stances” for each weapon: high, middle, and low. High deals tons of damage, but uses more Ki. Middle deals moderate damage and is good for blocking and parrying. Low deals lower damage but uses little Ki and allows the player to dodge with ease. These stances are easily swapped between during combat, and a skilled player will be able to utilize them in appropriate scenarios.

Moreover, Nioh also contains skill trees for every weapon type as well as magic skills and ninja skills. As you progress through the game you will unlock more techniques and abilities. Some bonuses are simple boosts to damage and Ki usage, but others are moves that can be equipped and used during combat. From a simple kick that drains the enemy’s Ki, to a flurry of sword slashes that deals massive damage in a wide area, Nioh truly offers a variety of additional attacks to be unlocked. Not to mention the ninja skills and magic skills that can further modify how you play the game. From applying poison to weapons, to using scrolls to boost your defenses temporarily, or even casting spells that slow enemies, there’s plenty of additional abilities to be unlocked.

With all of the tools available to the player, the only way the game manages to stay difficult is by making the enemies incredibly powerful. The issue is that giving the enemy AI more attacks doesn’t necessarily make them more threatening if they don’t know how and when to use those attacks. The only surefire way to have the enemies keep up with the player is to make them deal a lot of damage. One thing that I noticed with my time in Nioh was that even that basic enemies could easily deal half of my healthbar with a single hit. Many bosses had one-hit-kill abilities that were extraordinarily punishing.

Personally, I grew frustrated by how often I would be killed instantly by a single mistake. I don’t think I was particularly bad at the game either, I beat many bosses on my first attempt. Only a few bosses took me more than a handful of tries. I found Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to be more challenging, yet they were less frustrating. In those games it usually took a series of mistakes to be killed. But Nioh feels full of cheap one-shots. Styling on a boss for a few minutes straight and then getting hit a single time and dying just never feels fair.

The somewhat insidious effect of the extreme damage that enemies deal is that it conditions the player to play more passively. While Nioh provides tools to be aggressive, I found myself on the defensive quite often because I was more afraid of being over-aggressive and getting killed in a single hit. One-hit-kills can be a great way of adding tension to a battle, but when they are so frequent and difficult to recognize they can easily grow irritating. I’m not really sure what the solution is either, considering that the game would be far too easy if enemies weren’t so threatening. Perhaps it’s the case that Nioh just isn’t the type of game for me.

One aspect of Nioh that sets it apart from similar games is its extensive loot system. There are tons of equipment to be found, whether it is from enemy drops, found in chests, or is a reward for completing a mission. Loot is rated based on rarity, and more rare equipment provides better bonuses. You can even put together sets of armor that give additional bonuses. I feel like the loot system shines in New Game+ playthroughs, as the player can farm powerful equipment and truly create a strong build. But in your first playthrough, the loot feels almost overwhelming.

I am not exaggerating when I say that after a single mission you will have hundreds of pieces of loot to decide what to do with. Sorting through all of it and deciding what is useful and what can be destroyed for experience or materials can almost take as much time as the mission itself. In the initial playthrough you cannot really create a build either, considering that you are leveling up quickly and subsequently will replace equipment just as quickly. Ultimately, the loot is great as a late game system, but it is incredibly tedious when you begin the game.

Any game that attempts to imitate the Soulsborne games is going to have a tough time matching their level and world design. Nioh is no exception to this. It does not even attempt to create a connected world; every level is its own mission. The levels by themselves are competently designed, there are plenty of shortcuts and hidden offshoots that are staple to Soulsborne. Unfortunately, the stages themselves are fairly boring in their visual design. Not many of the levels are truly memorable. When it comes to level and world design, Nioh pales in comparison to Soulsborne.

I’d say my largest gripe with Nioh was how much the game drags on. Without partaking in any of the side missions, the game is in the neighborhood of 30-35 hours for a single playthrough. This is reasonable, but becomes an issue when you realize how much repeated content there is. There is a pitiful amount of enemy variation. Sure, basic human enemies can have different weapons, but most of the time you fight them in a similar manner. There are only a handful of monster type enemies that frequently appear. Most of the side missions reuse the same levels and bosses, just with slightly rearranged enemy positioning.

I was mostly enjoying Nioh during the first half of the game, but as I progressed, I was just wishing to be nearing the end. Everything felt very repetitive, and that was even with me ignoring almost all of the side missions. With the repeated enemy types, the visually bland levels, the non-connected world, the disjointed story, the tedious loot system, and the occasionally frustrating bosses, I was ready for the game to be over. The game does not need to be as long as it is, especially considering it encourages multiple playthroughs.

Overall, I think Nioh is too long for its own good. The game’s biggest issues are highlighted when it feels like the game should have been over ten hours ago. I was exhausted by the end of my time with Nioh, and I probably will not be playing the sequel in the near future. The combat is the lone aspect that I truly can say was gratifying. The rest of the game felt bloated and almost excessive at times. I can safely say that Nioh is not a game for me.

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