First impressions would have you believe that Nioh is a Samurai version of Fromsoftware’s Dark Souls series… and that’s not far from the truth. The intricate and demanding skill based combat system, well-designed labyrinthine levels of varying environments, crippling difficult boss battles are all signatures of the Souls series. But simply calling Nioh a Souls clone is selling it short, with Nioh having its own distinctive identity.
In contrast to the Souls series, which draws inspirations from the myths and legends of Europe, Nioh is set in the Japanese Sengoku period, with some Japanese fantasy elements added in. A comparison can made that there are some parallels with the PS2 game Onimusha, another game with a similar style and setting, but while Dark Souls and Onimusha are tonally grim, there is some lightheartedness in Nioh’s story, with wisecracks and snark coming from protagonist William. That’s not to say that the story isn’t terrifyingly dark, but the story hops between both jovial and somber fairly seamlessly, and the Japanese silliness never takes away from the epic and horrifying moments.
The story however, is more of a backdrop for the campaign of violence that is inevitable for Nioh; William is an English sailor that is also a trained samurai, and that story tidbit translates into the combat. This is probably this biggest difference between Nioh and Dark Souls – combat is much more brisk and there are different stances you can take with the weapons William can equip.
Each stance (high, mid, and low) has its own moves and is freely switchable during combat. Nioh has a far more tactical-based approach to conbat, combining both the Dark Souls positioning styled combat with combo based attacks from the weapon choices and stances. The Stamina system is present in Nioh as well, (called Ki in Nioh) and carefully managing it will determine if you can complete the mission, or restart it.
The Ki system drains whether you are attacking, dodging, blocking or taking damage. While you could move around slowly waiting for it to regenerate, the key to regaining it quickly is in a timing based mechanic called Ki pulsing. The more perfect the time, the better more Ki recovered. While seemingly inconsequential while battling human opponents, it’s much more important while fighting Yokai (demons). Yokai can create an area called a Yokai Realm where your Ki regeneration is significantly slowed, and a perfect Ki pulse is the only reliable way to dispel a Yokai Realm.
And if I haven’t made it explicitly clear, Nioh is very difficult. You will die a lot in Nioh, and death will be your best teacher. And while mastering the stance system and learning how to manage your Ki is the real test of the game, you should take into account the gear that you’re be equipping. You also have a skill tree to invest in, granting special moves and abilities for the various stances along with new options for ninjitsu and magic. You also have access to a guardian spirit, which when charged can provide you with a brief invulnerability and powered-up attacks. They also passively grant you buffs. Recognizing which skills and guardian spirit most benefits your own play style is part of the experience of Nioh.
While good combat is part of Nioh experience, good level design is another. From war-torn villages to trap-filled castles, to the fog-filled mountainsides, each map made with branching paths, shortcuts and secrets, tricks and traps, with the most straightforward path often the unwise choice. Exploration comes with a sense of dread, even with maps you should be familiar with, and the maps are packed with interesting enemies that respawn when you save at shrine. The large and interesting variety of enemies will constantly put your skills and your attention to the test – one moment of misplaced focus, and you’ll be forced to restart from the last checkpoint.
As you move through a map, you’ll find red swords scattered around. This is a mechanic that lets you summon and fight NPC versions of fallen players called the revenant system. It’s somewhat explained in the story in why you’re able to fight revenants, but what you need to know is that some revenants might have better gear than you, and you get to claim better gear if you win against them… which is though, because they have better gear. That is a nice conundrum for you to think about, but even if you do ignore the revenants, you’ll still have to contend with the bosses before you can finish the mission at hand.
The bosses in Nioh are hauntingly beautiful, if slightly horrific. They vary in size (from human to giant sized) and difficulty (from challenging to extremely challenging). Some bosses are slow and meticulous and make good use of the boss arena; some are duels with a swordsman… but at the end of the day, all the bosses are epic and test your skills accordingly. Though if you do have trouble, you could summon a friend into game to help you.
Nioh is an epic journey, with a battle system that is complex, with a nice balance between strategy and fast and furious action. Insanely difficult, yet rewarding at the same time. Nioh sets its foot down and sets itself apart from the games it so clearly draws inspirations from. If you’re up for the challenge, give Nioh a go.