To start things off, I’m obligated to get one thing out of the way: Ninja Gaiden & Onimusha are to Ni-Oh, what Castlevania and Zelda are to Dark Souls. Let me give you just a second to process that – no, it’s ok, I’ll wait…
Now that our comparative conjecture is out of the way, let’s get real about 2017’s first big game of the year contender, how it stands up to the Souls series, and just what makes it so ridiculously great.I’m going to be honest, after playing the Ni-Oh alpha, I knew Team Ninja was onto something, but I knew it needed ample polishing and focus. In fact, the game at that point needed enough work to catch myself saying, “There is a good game here, it has potential, but I just don’t think they can pull it off.” You see, the alpha was hard, I mean near broken hard. Sure sure, you could beat the alpha, push through, learn the environment and even over-level to better compete with enemies, but it just lacked balance and feasibility all round. From that experience I just could not believe that a triple ‘A’ developed and published title would actually listen to user feedback and create something that “we”, the gaming populace, wanted. But, I’ll be damned if they didn’t do just that.
I think if I had to parse down the one thing that has us coming back for more in these Souls-like titles, it’s the David and Goliath nature of it all; conquering odds in perpetuity is just plain addictive. But these precision action games have already become a very competitive (almost dime a dozen) niche, and sub-genre…if not a genre itself at this point. If you’re reading this, chances are you know how and why games of this lineage can be great, as you may be well aware the standard that the first Dark Souls has set for future endeavors from anyone setting out to make anything even vaguely similar. So with great introspective affirmation, I personally quantify intelligently designed user convenience as being just one of Nioh’s great leaps forward as a competitor and standout, which I hope you pick up on as a recurring theme in this write-up.
What is at first an entertaining exercise in nailing down Oriental Souls Clone as a marketing point, subtly flows into a narrative focused loot game, as much as precision and timing based combat action. Thus we have a delicate precipice of equipment drops being just as important as acquiring new skills, and memorizing enemy attack animations/patterns. The combat is just as serviceable as one would expect, even with the default control scheme taking awhile to get used to for veterans, though I have actually come to prefer this design choice for Nioh in particular. And may I just admit the sheer extension in scope the developers placed on themselves by not only having multiple weapon types, with three stances, resulting in unique animations and pro/cons for each. Layer on a ranged mechanic, magic, and an uber power up toggle via guardian possession, and a slew of passive effects from equipment, guardians, AND in-game achievements…just what madcap executive signed off on this?? Whoever it was, I hope everyone involved got a raise after the fantastic sales we’ve seen for this brand new intellectual property. The more I played, the more I realize they threw everything and the kitchen sink into Ni-Oh, without having a convoluted mess. Every piece of this intricate puzzle just manages to fit.
Don’t get me wrong here, DEATH is still the name of the game, but even that is context sensitive to the story, providing a reason for your infinite resurrections…another ‘Soulsian’ standard. Hell, even some Zelda design philosophies sit around if you squint your discerning eye enough. For instance, you gain what is essentially the Nioh equivalent of the Zelda staple: ‘fairy tagalong’, this in the form of an eyepatch wearing, talking two-tailed spirit cat. This spiritual narrator plays guiding historian, and at times, comedic relief. The comparative semblances from other genres and titles don’t stop there…but for the sake of this lengthy analysis, I digress. You’re welcome.
Now, noting one major objective win against Souls titles, is that returning to Nioh is a very simple task, as the game is just easier to pick up and play, or even revisit after a long stint away. This ease is made possible due to a dedicated in-game lore book, which covers everything from controls, to world building, enemy encyclopedia, and story synopsis. Being that I have taken so much joy in the open-ended/open-world structure of Souls titles, I was quite apprehensive to learn of Nioh lacking this standard structure. Though, I’m happy to relay that despite being mission based, the world feels very cohesive and interconnected. You still get the sense of exploration, enough so to have even an open world fanatic like myself sated, with between mission time happily devoted to crafting, planning, and learning new skills. Thanks to the implementation of a mission based structure, you have something you can treat piecemeal should you find yourself with limited time, yet there too is nothing to prevent you from flat-out marathoning the same content. You see, when you play Dark Souls, for instance, the average Souls player has to truly invest themselves not only in pure length of individual play sessions, but it is too recommended not to venture into other games before completion. As in general, the longer you are away from a souls title, the longer it will take to re-acclimate yourself to the controls, the lore, and just where the hell you were and what you were doing prior to putting the game on however momentary a hiatus. I’ve found none of these things to be an issue with Nioh, thanks entirely to the aforementioned.Nioh also sports a ample story that hits all the right beats, balancing perfectly on the delicate precipice where feudal Japanese history meets folklore. Which absolutely irritates me to no end the more I hear critics talk about Nioh. “Nioh just lacks the lore I’m used to from a game like Dark Souls.”, is a misinformed sentiment that has me gritting my teeth to near levels of pain. Please be seated as I sternly push the figurative glasses up to the bridge of my nose in a dramatic pause for the following history lesson…The story starts as interesting and becomes downright compelling. Being a driving force in me ever so diligently pushing forward, missions to mission. I’ve heard many a critic complain about the main character, what with him being European in a Japan centric setting, and historic folklore. Here’s the thing, if these same individuals knew even an ounce of Japanese history, they would know the main character, William Adams, was English born descendant of Ireland who lived as a naval privateer (fancy way of saying he was a pirate). He was the very same man who went on to become the first “white” samurai in Japanese history, and the literary & film basis for the protagonist in James Clavell’s Shogun: John Blackthorne. So, regardless of what social justice warriors would have you believe, you play a white man for a very historic reason. Should you choose to really dive into the history of Japan, you will reveal how there was even one African samurai in the annals of history…consider that a minor spoiler.I also have to call out the respect that Team Ninja is showing for female characters in the game. Not only are they powerful, they’re fully fleshed out as individuals with compulsions and intelligence, all while being fully clothed! To be precise, the skimpiest clothing you’ll find among the female lineup, is a mage who shows her thighs (horrors, I know). So I say congratulations, Team Ninja, you’ve now officially created characters that are more than blatant teenage fan service, what with the unrealistic bouncing bosoms they’ve come to expect from your Dead or Alive franchise. Isn’t it nice to respect women for a change?? I knew you guys had it in you!Which brings us to one of the last, and more “important” points: looking good generally comes at a price, and no I’m not talking currency. In most games that provide clothing with graphical variance AND stats, one generally ends up looking like a stat driven, power hungry fashion-frankenstein, or a gorgeously cool, stat empty, trainwrecked hobo. Nioh proudly lives up to the “Fashion-Souls” expectation of looking how you will without hindering your combat feasibility, but with a MAJOR improvement. Say you like a piece of low level gear, be it that the stats are to your liking, or that you think it just looks damn cool. Most RPGs would have you don new gear out of necessity, not Ni-Oh. While sure, you can buy or forge new gear from crafting materials, but why do that when you can soul merge your existing (badass) gear with higher level stuff to retain legitimacy? The possibilities are endless…as is the loot; thankfully Nioh hands you an ethereal bag of holding, good for 500 items worth of “packrattiness”, a truly beautiful thing within itself.I know what you’re thinking, “Jon, how’s the enemy design and difficulty?” Well, I’m going to hit this with bullet points…without mentioning boss encounters.
Things that really suck, that will inevitably kill you:
- Bats – while not particularly deadly themselves, a camping of bats is nearly always placed in a position to knock your dumbass to its death. Hears bats chirp and squeak? You had better creep around holding that block button.
- Insta-death rolling boulder traps – while not frequent, there are enough of them throughout the campaign to piss you off every time a new one kills you for the first time…and they will always kill you the first time…because you never learn.
- Mimics – that’s right, wouldn’t be a Souls-like without some asshole monster pretending to be a chest full of treasure. In Nioh, a sizeable, yet cute badger like creature will burst forth from the chest you are attempting to spoil. You will be knocked to the ground and laughed at, as the little bastard proceeds to literally turn into the “Dark Link” version of you. All I can say is, your butt had better be ready to jump into attack formation and knock huge chunks off the clone’s health before it has a chance to retaliate.
- Super muscular asshole lift’bros, with tongues long enough to scratch their backs – quite the mental image, no? They are big, they are fast, they are more unpredictable than you think. You will die to these douchebags, more than once, I swear. Nowhere is safe.
- Now, nothing put the fear of God into me like the EVIL PARASOLS – you’re not experiencing dyslexia, believe me, more fearsome and ferocious than samurai, ninja, and straight up demons…are those damn one eyed, nose diving, needle shooting umbrellas. @#$% those guys. They are faster than they look, and more deadly than you could ever dream.
- Lastly, depending on the player, what could be the number 1 thing that will kill you time and time again… Yourself. Whether it’s that your timing is off, you forgot to heal, your strategy sucks, or that your lemming ass just can’t stop jumping into bottomless chasms, you are your worst enemy.
Okay, thankfully that mess is over. Let’s quickly talk replayability as we wrap-up.
From remixed levels, time sensitive (loot infested) twilight levels, to an unlockable (post-game) hard mode, you will have a hard time pulling away from the stranglehold Nioh will place around your life’s neck. After over 50 hours with the main story, side-missions included, the game still entices your return with the post game introduction of “legendary gear” drops, earnable titles, additional weapon masteries, and an infinite leveling system. This all not even including the upcoming downloadable content expansions. Basically, if you let it, Nioh will own you, and that’s a good thing. All I can say is, From Software better bring their ‘A’ game, should they choose to return to the formula they created.