Nioh’s protagonist is William Adams, based on the real life British sailor William Adams (the first Britisher to reach Japan). In the game, once you arrive in Japan, you find an ally in Tokugawa Ieyasu (the real life shogun Ieyasu had Williams as his counsel). The first boss that you face is Derrick The Executioner (another real life character).
The fact that Nioh borrows heavily from real documented history came as a surprise to me. And it was the first of many. Nioh has robust combat mechanics, deep role play elements and multiple tactical variety to gameplay. All of which is complemented by an excellent risk Vs. reward balance and crushing Dark Souls level difficulty.
Nioh is a tactical RPG developed by Team Ninja. Set in feudal Japan, you play William Adams, a pirate who explores the country in search of mystical crystals called Amrita, and his guardian spirit which has been kidnapped. Nioh was released worldwide in February 2017, and was published by Koei Tecmo in Japan and Sony Interactive Entertainment internationally.
(+) From London to Tokyo
The first mission in Nioh takes place inside the prison, Tower Of London, where you are asked to escape the prison. I died 30 seconds into the game (as I ran bare hands into an armed guard), and I knew why this had happened, its because I had rushed into something without thinking. Even though it was the first mission and I was expecting it to be easy, the game had up-ended my expectation (Something it will do multiple times again in the next few hours). Since then I have played Nioh at a methodical pace, only running across areas which I knew I had already cleared.
And that is the pace, at what Nioh wants you to play, slowly, tactically and carefully. Everytime you forget that you are reminded of it as the game “Frees you from mortal coil” and you have to start over. I spent the better half of my weekend with Nioh. Any other game and I would have been near the end game missions, in Nioh I have just cleared the mission that unlocked the world map for me. Most of the time spent in learning the lesson that was taught to me 30 seconds into the game, don’t rush in.
If it all seems very familiar. Its because it is. The inspiration behind the pace, the difficulty and the gameplay is obvious and at this point, the developers are not even hiding it anymore. Its Dark- Souls. The idea that you lose all your “Souls” (called “Amrita” in Nioh) when you die, the idea that all enemies re-spawn when you pray at a save point, the idea that the difficulty is very steep and fighting more than one enemy at one time is very tough to say the least, the idea that the map should be created in increasing interconnected circles, so that you never need a map.
It might have been called a clone if the controls were not responsive enough. It would have been called a clone if the RPG mechanics of the game ended at increasing your attributes on every level. It might have been called a clone if it had only used Dark Souls as its only inspiration. All of the signs are there for it to be termed as a Dark Souls clone. And yet Nioh is not one, because there is more to Nioh than just Dark Souls.
The first thing you need to know is that the combat in Nioh is really deep, and not limited to the attack, dodge, attack template (though you can simplify it down to that, but the returns might not be worth it in that case). The basic idea of stamina controlling everything still exists and every action (attacking, blocking, taking a hit and even running) consumes it. If you run out of Ki, not only can you not attack, you also open yourself to damage. Only this time stamina is called Ki.
Ki management is therefore important, which makes the Ki pulse mechanic something you would like to master quickly. Much like Gears Of War (think Active reload), the game provides you a small window of opportunity after every successful attack that you launch, which if you are successful in would grant you all your Stamina/Ki back as bonus.
The in game lore is that getting into position for your next attack, gives you an advantage in battle, and indeed the animation of the Ki pulse showing you lining up for your next attack. This mechanic is a life saver when you are using high damage and high stamina consuming weapons, and helps you in executing longer attack chains which would not have been possible normally.
The mechanic becomes even more important because some enemies spawn certain areas where your Ki does not regenerate, and the only way to clear that area requires you execute a perfect Ki pulse. Its not as if those enemies cannot be beaten otherwise, but you make it tough for yourself if you do not make use of the mechanic.
The stance is another mechanic which adds a layer of variety to the gameplay. You can choose between 3, High, Med and Low stance with each one having its own pros and cons. High stances deal high damage, but have low blocking, while the Low stance allows for low damage, but higher dodge rolls, while the mid stance is the middle ground. Choosing the right stance and matching it with the right weapon would be key in most scenarios, as you might like to combine the high range spears with the low stance or buff up your high damage axe with the higher stance. Again its up to you, and most scenarios can be played out entirely with a single stance, but knowing when to best use one, would make your effort get better returns. Even aesthetically, the variation in stances are visually visible, and what more you can even enemies change their stances and if you are observant enough you can notice when an enemy has switched to defense rather than attack.
Then there is the idea of familiarity. The Japanese believed that the more a tool is used, the more its blessed by deities, which translates into the fact that the more you play with a weapon, the more familiar you become with it. The more familiar you become the better buffs the weapon gets. It encourages you to keep on playing with the same weapon, a feeling which is reinforced by the fact that you can actually level up your currently equipped weapon fusing it with another weapon that you had just found. Plus you can fuse a sword with a Kusarigama, so you don’t have to change your preferred weapon type because the new type offers way more damage. Then there is the fact that you can change the look of your weapon into whatever suits your taste without changing its actual stats. Finally, if you think there is one buff that you don’t necessarily care for on a particular weapon or armour, you an replace it with another random buff (for a cost of course) until you are satisfied. The focus here is to let you play with your favorite weapon, so you focus on the best tactics, instead of the best loot.
All of the a fore mentioned variations permute well with the basic array of melee weapon types (Swords, Dual Swords, Spears, Axes and Kusarigama) and provide you with enough incentives/variations to try them out, especially when you have maxed out the familiarity on your favorite weapon, always knowing that you can always fall back to what works best for you.
(+) RPG element
Just like the combat mechanics in Nioh have high variations. There are various ways to buff up your characters too. Apart from run of the mill, leveling up and increasing one of your basic attributes, the player can also locate kodamas in each mission. Collecting them lets the player pick up boons which buff up your character further. Plus every action that you execute in the games (kills, breaking stuff, stealth kills) all add up to you progressing towards several titles. With each title providing you a point which you can use to permanently buff up your character. The list of buff changes every time with the buff that you picked replaced by another the next time, allowing for a balanced growth of your character. If that’s not all, you also earn skill points depending on your distribution of your level up points which you can use to learn combos and new moves which adds to your repertoire as a Ninja and/or as a Samurai.
Finally, just like the Witcher 3, Nioh asks you to appreciate preparation. And if you like preparing for a battle, you can do just that by praying at an altar, and equipping yourself with shiruken, kunayi, happō and temporary power ups that add elemental damage to your weapons, armor and yourself. Another mechanic that is as deep as you want it to go without being absolutely critical to an actual play-through.
(+) World Building
All of this might have not been enough, if Nioh hadn’t been inspired by another game, namely Onimusha, and had tied up the Japanese ethos so cleanly into the universe it was trying to create. The advent of the British into Japan, the motive behind game mechanics and indeed the lore behind every enemy has been respectfully dipped in the culture of feudal Japan. Each tutorial text is followed by a blurb relating how the mechanic is translated from and into the Japanese culture. The exquisite and deep world building is there too, with real historic characters tied up into a story which feels closer to home than other stories set in fictional worlds and alternate timelines. Having a Western protagonist in a game which is unmistakably Japanese without having it come off as jutting is testament to the fact on how impressive and reasonable the world created in Nioh is.
Of course, not everything works as anticipated in Nioh. I have jumped off of bridges and died, I have strolled off the deep end of a coast and died, and I have run into ambushes which I did not see coming and died. Such deaths are more frustrating than lessons (especially if its your 2nd death before you have recovered your Amrita from the earlier death) and you would find yourself cursing a few times. The jump attack especially is a hit and miss, and I would have liked if there was an option to recover all your Amrita irrespective of how many times you have died. But sometimes you can’t have everything.
(+) The technical stuff
On the technical front, Nioh performs decently. The game asks you upfront on what suits your needs; The cinematic 30 FPS or the higher FPS and visual quality. I opted for the the 30 FPS hard limit and found it to be smooth and decent. Though I feel the visual quality could be better. The voice over are decent and most of them are in Japanese (thank good for subtitles), so much so that I was surprised when someone spoke English in the game. The background music is decent without being memorable and the cut-scenes are mostly of the short kind with most world building done through text entries in your diary.
(+) Console Seller
All in all, I would highly recommend Nioh to any RPG fan. Ever since the Witcher 3, the definition of the perfect RPG has changed. But Nioh comes pretty close without actually competing with it outright. Its an RPG done right, and it surprises you a lot. Not something you can say about a game these days.