REVIEW – 2017 is going to be one hell of a ride for PlayStation 4 owners, and that ride starts out with a game that has been limbo since 2007. While Final Fantasy XV (in some capacity), and The Last Guardian was able to wow the audience, but they were also high-risk ventures for Sony, and their respective companies, with Square Enix, nearly dabbling the project for a decade. Both have been a critical success, and out of the two, one was a Sony exclusive.
Nioh, however, had a bit of more issues, the basic concept was scrapped, and the project had now a more historical focus with the main character inspired by William Adam in the 1600s, oh and also lots of demons… so many demons. Team Ninja decided, to not compromise their signature difficult gameplay style, which was so recurrent in the Ninja Gaiden games. Does it work out for Team Ninja with this product? Ever since Itagaki left, there has been some doubt about whether Team Ninja can find its true self again (especially after Ninja Gaiden 3). It is safe to say however the development team has prevailed, and Nioh is a fascinating new exclusive for the PlayStation 4 (and for Ps4 Pro).
Nioh takes place in the 1600s, where William and his band of pirates helped The Queen of England to gain the upper hand against The Spanish by using Amrita, a powerful energy source. Sadly our William gets locked up in The Tower of London after the war ends. From which he escapes and overhears the plot of Edward Kelley, which is to conquer the world! – With the use of Amrita. William tries to stop Edward, but in combat, he can capture William’s guardian spirit. To retrieve her, he must journey to Japan, land of the rising sun, and many Oni.
The story for Nioh is average, and it luckily never overstays its welcome in the game. It has a thin plot, which drives the narrative of a revenge story at a serviceable pace. I was surprised to see how the developers would not give an inch regarding storytelling. I was expecting every Japanese person to be dubbed in English for the Western release. Instead what I got was English subtitles and the full might of the language of Japan. It helped me immerse myself in the story, and subplots that occur within Nioh, as every time you collect Amrita from certain corpses, you get to hear their final thoughts, which add another layer to the lore of the location, or to the boss of that level.
While as mentioned above, the overall plot is okay, these additional subplots are actually rather great, and fun to learn about. The side missions that are entirely optional also provide background for secondary characters. The game is riddled with cameos, special units, and notable historical figures of the 1600s Japan. These people are presented in the usual Dynasty Warriors / Epic Fantasy way. This means that they are larger than life, and can pull off great feats compared to their real life counterparts. In the end, though, the presentation and the narrative is good, but some of the story bits could have been better.
This Is My Katana!
Now onto gameplay which had many comments that this is a Dark Souls clone, but with Japanese culture at the forefront of the design. The gameplay is probably the most distant aspect from Dark Souls. While Dark Souls has its basic attack of light and heavy attacks, some long range weapons, and a few spells, with a few possible combinations for a perfect build, on the other hand, we have Nioh which deals in a more tactical combat, and it is also faster paced. William can wield an assortment of weapons, from swords to axes, and even spears. These weapons have multiple stats attributed to them, which can be respecced, upgraded, and even the weapons themselves given skins of old weapons that you liked.
Weapons also become stronger the more familiar William becomes with it. Familiarity is gained by using the weapons effectively and killing more demons with it. The attributes linked to the weapons are a bit too lengthy to detail all of them, but here are a few examples of what to except: Ki Usage during the medium attack, Ki Usage during blocking XYZ stance, quick attack +%, etc. It is worth to spend at least a couple of minutes reading about what attribute does what in the world of Nioh, as it is not enough to have a high damage output if the weapon, for instance, is ineffective against Yokai, or against Human enemies. There are also certain enemies that are weak to special attacks, and types of weapons. Also, weapons behave differently in each stance.
Weapons can be wielded in three different ways, low, medium and high stance. All of the stances have their advantages, and disadvantages when it comes to dealing with generic enemies, and bosses. Low stance is good for quick attacks, but the off trade is that the damage can be the lowest (depending on weapon type), medium is a good balance in terms of damage output, and speed of attack, while high stance provides the highest damage output, but the lowest speed (except the Kusarigama types in this case).
When we begin our journey to Japan, we can set up William’s proficiency, and starting weapons. All of the weapons are viable, but I advise a newcomer to such challenging games, to select one, and spec towards that type of weapon for awhile, and learn its moves by heart. So that the difficulty spike does not become too unbearable after a few missions, but luckily as mentioned above the player can reassign their skill points.
There are no spells in Nioh, or at least not in the traditional sense as for instance in Diablo 2, but are limited in usage, and can only be recharged at the Shrine. There are a few spells that can be picked up, but they are not permanent, so once you run out of them its goodbye Giant Purple Bull.
Another interesting take is the Ki meter, aka your mana / or endurance meter for Nioh. After a few attacks, you can regain most of it, by focusing. Do it perfectly, and you will not only recover most of your KI, which will allow you to continue with your onslaught but also allows you to clear off the Yokai Realm’s influence. The Yokai Realm is basically an aura that the monsters can spew out, or cast when they are low on Ki. Once cast they will quickly regenerate Ki, but if the player is inside the sphere of influence for the Yokai Realm, the player will not be able to regenerate Ki.
That said, though, even though the combat is finely tuned, I was disappointed in how the enemies are handled in Nioh during the heat of the combat. While you have to be tactical, the enemy does not have to be during the gameplay. The enemies do not damage each other which is a shame, as dealing with multiple enemies would have been more interesting and figuring out how to bait the enemies against each other. Instead, they sort of just clip through each other’s attack animation which ultimately feels like the AI can cheat against the player sadly. Not even the bombs were thrown by other enemies damage the AI.
The combat of Nioh is a far cry from a Dark Souls clone and is even able to surpass From Software’s franchise in a good number of ways. It also uses a refreshing number of ideas and has great polish in the mechanics. Although the lack of Friendly AI fire is a bit odd, and feels a bit dumb, especially considering this is to be a tactical combat game.
Blood and Rain in 4K?
If there is one thing that can be said about Nioh is that oozes style. Colorful vistas, deadly nights, great enemy design, and interesting boss fights. Yet, nothing saves Nioh from the one problem that will disappoint base PlayStation 4 players, and that is the fact that the graphics are all over the place. The character models are well detailed, even the environments look okay, but the rain and certain textures are just average or bad. The game does allow for the player to switch between Action Mode (60FPS but lower resolution), or Movie mode( 30FPS, but good resolution). However here I would recommend just getting a PlayStation 4 since at this point it seems 2017 might be a tipping point for most new PlayStation games (at least for exclusives).
That said, though, Nioh’s aesthetics are top notch, and just like in gameplay Team Ninja does not make compromises. It will feel alien, and entirely Japanese for 99% of the game. From the speech to the level design, and environments all are based on 1600s Japan. It is great walking in old temples that are dust covered, and full of mystical enemies ready to leap out. Enemies that attempt to snuff out William’s life are unique, and fun to fight, and quite scary to fight against them.
Their attacks are fierce, and they do not hold back on the player, and those attacks are visual gratifying to see and defend against. Nioh is flashy in its visualization of attacks and spells much more than most action-RPGs are, and it does show that the makers are Team Ninja – aka the creators of Ninja Gaiden. In their games, visual flair was always necessary, to correctly read the enemy’s attack, to have some form of grasp as to what the enemy will do in the next two seconds.
Sound design is interesting, to say the least, while the boss battles and individual sounds are some of the best sound effects/ music I have heard. The combat sound effects such as clashing of swords or the hit against an enemy with a weapon feel rather dull and uninteresting. It reminded me so much of Dynasty Warriors when the sound played and realized that maybe Koei Tecmo wanted their signature sound style… or not. This is disappointing as the visual identifiers when you attack someone, and finish the beast, or land a critical hit are impressive!
Blood is spewing everywhere like a Takashi Mike movie, limbs getting decapitated, and screams of agony. While we never see guts or entrails from demons or human bodies, the game is pretty brutal and harkens back to the old Ninja Gaiden games’ brutality. Still, I was disappointed to hear the sound effects for most of the weapons throughout my playthrough. Those could have been better, but everything on a visual standpoint is great.
The environments, on the other hand, are fifty-fifty in Nioh, some are well designed, spectacularly lit for atmospheric purposes, provide a decent semi-open world experience, but then we have the bad apples which ruin the experience. The third level, in particular, the first half with the caves is egregiously bad, and bland. While the first level aka- The Tower of London, and the Small Fishing Village was great, the third level with the caves was a snooze fest in creativity. At least some small decoration, or rotting corpses would have made it better. Luckily the last few minutes of that level shifts for a more interesting cave structure and environment, but it was not enough to salvage that location.
The presentation of Nioh is good, but at times it does feel like that this game is much better enjoyed on a PS4 Pro. It has great sound and visual design, but there are some issues with them. Still, even with the long development cycle Nioh looks great.
Last Stand of the Samurai?
There is currently no PVP in Nioh, but we do get to enjoy some jolly cooperation with random players, or with our friends. This can easily be achieved within a submenu on the map. The game will automatically search for a suitable host, and off we go to slay demons together. I have not encountered any lag during these sessions; I wonder how the large player population will influence the multiplayer aspect later down the line. Still, this is a pretty straightforward feature and enjoyable one. A PVP mode or some form of PVP might be released in the shape of a DLC, but not much has been revealed.
Most of the missions can be accessed via the map, and this is where we also get to access our Blacksmith, the main Shrine, and the multiplayer options, plus Twilight Mode. In Twilight Mode the map is filled to the brim with super difficult enemies, and there is a slight blood red tint covering the entire level. There is also new game plus option, but unfortunately, as of this review, I have had no chance to try that as, Nioh is filled with content, and the difficulty is quite high.
In the end even with all its faults, and initial issues I had with Nioh are minor compared to the full package we got for sixty dollars (or 60 EUR, or whichever currency). It might seem like a short linear game, but it will take around a good 30-50 hours to complete it with all the side missions, collecting all the allies, and playing new game plus. Is it a perfect action-RPG? No, as the story is okay, and the graphics are all over the place, but it has that old Team Ninja signature style that I have been missing since playing Ninja Gaiden 2. It is a welcome take on the genre, and can surpass the name callings of Well this is just a Dark Souls clone!
A great purchase for those who love action-RPGs, have patience, love the brutal combat and are not afraid of difficulty spikes.
+ Great, and deep combat
+ Fun enemies, with unique designs
+ Loot and forge mechanics are impressive
– The graphics are not the best
– Can get grindy a bit
– Level design is not always the best
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Genre: Action-Adventure RPG
Release date: February 8, 2017