Game review: Nioh – samurai adventure set in 15th-century Japan
Team Ninja’s unforgiving role-playing action-packed outing owes a debt to the Dark Souls series, but with a tone and narrative of its own
When a demo for Nioh first appeared in April 2016, the gaming population was somewhat confused. After all, this was a project that was supposed to have perished in development hell more than a decade before.
Through its tumultuous development period, Nioh underwent countless iterations, beginning as a tie-in with an unmade Akira Kurosawa movie, and eventually landing on a model that resembled the famed Dark Souls series – mechanically and aesthetically. Both Nioh and Dark Souls are set amid ruin and Gothic despair, and both feature a stranger in a strange land, struggling onwards through a quest for salvation, facing monstrous creatures and demons alike.
But whereas Dark Souls takes place in an entirely imagined universe, Nioh (for the PlayStation 4) is set in 15th-century Japan, drawing on historical figures including the protagonist William Adams, the first British navigator to reach Japan, and Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari, the leaders of two warring factions in the late Sengoku period.
Even when the seemingly fictionalised, demonic Yokai are introduced into the game, they still draw heavily from ancient Japanese folklore and history, appearing in a variety of shapes and sizes, while also possessing the ability to transform their appearance to one of beauty or monstrous terror.
Both games also aren’t afraid to hand out hefty punishments to their protagonists, as death reaches out for the player in many forms, such as eviscerating enemy attacks, treacherous terrain and, in the case of Nioh, even colonies of bats. Thanks largely to the reduced health of William in Nioh, the player is nearly always one false move away from death, and quick reflexes are constantly a factor in successfully manoeuvring William out of the clutches of his enemies, and then back into attacking range within a split second.
Through the extensive dodging mechanic and the KI Pulse ability, Nioh firmly separates itself from the comparatively slow pacing of the combat in Dark Souls to achieve a more fluid, reactive combat system. William can cover a fair amount of ground with just one use of the dodge ability, meaning that while the player will need to constantly have one eye on their stamina bar, the ability can be used to rapidly move around the battlefield in order to gain an advantageous angle on the opposition.
However, all this comes with a cost: should the player entirely deplete William’s stamina bar, the unfortunate Samurai-to-be will stop dead in exhaustion, leaving him open to any and all attacks.
Successfully managing the stamina of William is of paramount importance in Nioh, but this is made easier by the KI Pulse feature, an ability that lets the player instantly recover a certain amount of stamina spent on a string of dodges and/or attacks with a single press of R1. But even the KI Pulse is an ability that comes with a gamble, as the player has to wait for the precise moment that a blue aura flashes around William, in order to make maximum use of the ability and gain back the most stamina possible.
This gambling mentality was a staple of the combat in the Dark Souls series, and Nioh goes to lengths to put its own twist on the risk versus reward system. Amrita (energy) is gained through dispatching individual enemies, and this currency is then used to upgrade William’s various stats, such as augmenting his stamina and health bars. This mirrors the currency of Souls used in the From Software series, and the player is constantly forced to gamble all their winnings against the game, moving forward at the risk of losing their accumulated Amrita through a single untimely death.
Much like Dark Souls (again), Nioh places a huge emphasis on the various boss battles throughout the game. These showdowns will nearly always occur at the end of a mission, capping off William’s latest venture in a grandiose fashion. But while the difficulty curve in the Dark Souls games is consistently rising, Nioh’s difficulty levels spike uncontrollably in these cumulative face-offs, making the rest of the game look comparatively easy. Whereas the majority of standard enemy attacks are somewhat telegraphed, Nioh’s bosses keep their cards well hidden, lashing out at the player with little to no warning in a split second. This ultimately makes many bosses feel more frustrating than challenging, especially when combining their volatile nature with an overly generous pool of health.
Nioh may at first appear to be a clone of the Dark Souls series, but the game confidently strides away from these comparisons, bringing new aspects – such as the fast-paced combat, KI Pulse system and the scarcity of ammunition – to the proven formula. The fantasy elements have deep, meaningful connections to the history of Japan, and the world feels securely rooted in a fast-paced, flourishing combat system, which more than makes up for the extremely unpredictable, frustrating nature of the boss battles throughout.