Nioh is an action RPG made by Team Ninja and published by Koei Tecmo in 2017 for PS4 and later on PC in the same year. It's a retelling of the historical tale of William Adams who became an advisor to the Shogun during the Sengoku Jidai, except with loads of demons and a talking cat.
Before we get to the game proper, I just wanna bitch about the PC port a bit. It runs as I expected of my machine (slight framedrops whenever the game stacks multiple special effects) and has a decent range of options. Hell, even the PS4 version let's you choose between resolution or framerate priority. It's a nice development on the console front. Now if only I could get games to choke on their 4K assets and always give me 60 FPS, that'd be nice.
But getting to that playable state in Nioh was a nightmare. Not only is the game gigantic (80 GB!) with no option to NOT download high-end assets, it crashed a comical amount of times. The reason being the particle effects used on attacks or when enemies explode into giblets of loot. The solution was simple: Enable Windows 7 compatability mode.
On a Windows 7 computer!
If you opt for the PC version (which is tempting, since the physical complete edition was never localized), play around with compatability and graphical options during your 2-hour refund grace period and refund it if fails you. Something tells me the game won't recieve any more patches.
The story of Nioh is its weakest aspect. The game begins with William in jail for knowing too much of Britain's plan to fight Spain, from which he escapes with the help of a spirit he can see. This spirit is then kidnapped by a warlock (Edward Kelley) who uses her to collect amrita, the game's magic plot mcguffin and exp.
William chases him to the shores of Japan where the adventure truly begins. And it's here where the plot just dies for me. It's told for someone who knows all there is to know about the warring states period of Japan. So if you're like me, the game just throws a dozen or so samurai with slightly different helmets and expects me to get a feel for their character with one minute (or less) of introduction and optional flashbacks about their honorable motivation. The cameo by Musashi was kinda cute though.
The closest character you come to know is the ninja Hattori Hanzo, but since William is such a flat bore of a character, it's difficult to understand their relationship beyond mission giver and mission taker. Had the game been a camp romp about their bromantic adventure across demon-infested Japan, I'd be much more on board. The game doesn't really end on the hype note it could easily reach.
The DLC is a bit more interesting, but it still suffers from the same problems, as it introduces EVEN MORE samurai in funny helmets.
In lieu of voiced diaries, the game usually makes bodies you collect amrita from tell you whatever the owner was thinking before dying. They help, but the game goes for quantity of quality, so most of them just scream about demons or talk slightly about whatever lord they're aligned with. They're nowhere near as memorable as the tapes in Bioshock or files in Resident Evil.
And as present as they are in the game, the demons barely matter in the story, as they're basically B.O.Ws used by the samurai you're hunting down in the current region, or just wildlife gone crazy.
The core combat in Nioh is a treat, as far as action RPGs go. Team Ninja has gone for something less hectic than Ninja Gaiden, whilst still still preserving a good flow to things.
Humans can be struck down without much issue unless they swarm you, while Yokai demand a rhythmic back-and-forth as you exchange blows.
The ki system is at the heart of this. Humans (the player included) burn ki with every action and if you run out, you'll get winded. A tired human can then be grappled for good damage or be attacked once more to be floored, which opens them up to a close-to-fatal ground grab.
As such, you'll do all you can to bring down other's ki, while keeping yours up. It's a great system, helped by the ki pulse, which is a skill you can use with the stance button to remain where you are and recover maximum ki or with a dodge, which moves you away from harm at the cost of less ki recovered.
It works like this: As you use ki, a chunk of what you used gets preserved as red ki. If you don't use more, it'll go back up as green ki to the edge of the red ki. Doing a pulse at the last possible moment (when the red ki is covered by the recovering green) awards you with maximum regain and a full pulse, which is desirable whenever you're fighting yokai, as it removes yokai realms.
These guys are your bosses and minibosses and are much sturdier than humans. They don't use ki to attack, but cannot recover it naturally. Once you deplete it, they lose hyper armour and you can stunlock them freely for a few seconds. But after depleting their meter (or after spawning or after certain attacks), they spawn a yokai realm, which recovers their ki and halts your own recovery.
So fighting them is a slower process where you need to concern yourself with spacing and timing, which is excellent. Humans are often best fought by rushing them down, which creates an interesting dichotomy, especially when you have to alternate between both in the same mission.
Nioh offers 5 (7 with the DLC) main weapon types for you to play with. It's not a lot, but each one has an unique feel and loads of skills to pick from.
The big thing to make them special is the stance system, which is like an extension of the trick weapons in Bloodborne at the cost of even weaker weapon diversity.
The three stances: Low, Medium and High do similar things between most weapons. Low stance is fast, weak and wide, while High stance is slow, narrow and strong. Medium is of course the happy medium between the two.
The game gives you two weapon slots, which totals to 6 stances between the two. And once I found my combo (dual swords and odachi 4 lyfe), I actually made use of every stance, save for the high stance of the dual swords.
Which is rather impressive frankly. Even when I frequently used the high stance of the odachi to fight yokai, I wasn't averse to using the others as well, which shows that both weapons and enemies interact well and that there isn't a pure optimal fighting style. Aside from the slowmotion spell of course. That's kinda silly. And kinda necessary.
The game is frankly brutal, opting out of Bloodborne's lengthy combo strings and instead going for shorter strings of fast attacks so strong that you easily die in 1-3 hits, with 2 being the most common unless you've bulked up something fierce. It does put a damper on things, as you're given somewhat little wiggle room to back off and heal. Most fights for me ended quickly, either due to the enemy dying fast or them trouncing me.
It makes it difficult to learn, but once you do, there isn't much in the way of cheap attacks from bosses. But you really gotta be patient with the flow of combat and stay perceptive, or you're gonna have a bad time.
There are also three functionally identical ranged weapons (bow, musket, cannon) to let you get in a juicy first hit or to get rid of snipers, but these are nearly useless in normal combat, as you need to aim them manually. It's nice that they're useful, but since you're expected to carry two of these as well, I expect more out of them, be it versatility in combat or in exploration. Being able to shoot down things feels like something the game could do to make exploration more engaging.
The last thing of note is the living weapon gauge. This let's you summon your spirit of choice (more on that later) for a short period, making you invincible for a bit and boosting attack until time runs out or you get knocked out of it. It starts as a boss killer, but once bosses get strong enough, it stops being a vital pillar of your strategy and is easily forgotten until you find yourself surrounded.
The stat system seems daunting, but is rather nice. Beyond the fact that respecs are cheap, the game is very clear on what stats affect what weapons and what each level in a stat gets you. Unless you're working towards certain skills, it's often a matter of picking the stat that gives you the best increase currently. The only stat I dislike is the health stat, since it's rather lackluster if you don't use the weapons it governs, especially when just about every other stat almost matches its health gain and the game loves two-shotting you anyway.
As you level up, complete missions and explore the game, you earn skill points to be spent on ninjitsu, magic or specific weapons. With the skill points being split like this, the game incentivizes you to at least play with everything a little.
Weapon skills give small passive bonuses or expand your movesets, which slowly defines your playstyle. The really fun ones are sealed behind specific dojo missions, but with the majority of the game being its endgame, it doesn't take long until you can customize your extra skills as you want them. Many are great, but I can't say I ever got parries to work, nor did I feel the need to, since they only work on weak humans or skeletons.
Now magic, that's the good shit. The game has a bunch of esoteric and weird spells that never appealed to me, but the core ones are excellent, in spite of their simplicity. You can ready as many as your capacity allows, with weapon buffs being the cheapest.
Unlike in the Souls-games, I actually liked using these buffs. The reasons being that you get enough to use on riff-raff AND the boss, they give you a good damage boost and that the elemental system is satisfying. I eventually ran around with a few casts of every element trying to figure out weaknesses.
There are a few projectiles, but they are rather limited. I didn't really use the elemental ones, but the spirit summon spell was one of my mainstays, since it is so effective if you pick the right spirit and aim it properly. Pancaking human bosses with an electric bear is rather OP, but there comes a point where the deck is so stacked against you in bonus missions that I can't help but deploy the cheese.
And speaking of cheese, let us not forget the debuff spells. The slowmotion one is the most amazing one, as it works on EVERYTHING, giving you room to breathe in any major encounter. But even the defense down one is vital to making fights go by quicker. I'm a bit divided on these, since they make the game so much easier. But then again, it's so hard that they feel necessary. In the end, I kinda feel like I tricked myself out of some good fights, but those would require loads of dying to two-shot attacks, so I probably came out the victor enjoyment-wise.
I can't sing the same praises for the ninjitsu skills, since so many of them are borderline laughable. They deal with mobility and status effects, which sounds good on paper, but the skills are catered against humans, who aren't an issue, yokai are. Many skills can also be substituted by just playing a tiny bit better, lessening their impact on the game.
Poison works as expected, while paralysis acts like a ki break, except you can easily hit a paralysed enemy out of it, thus missing your chance for a critical attack.
The status effects are stupidly hard to trigger on bosses, which is extra silly, since every element also has its own status effect, meaning that you always get extra damage and maybe a status effect as a mage.
The ninja projectiles are all crap, save for the giant bomb, which actually deals damage, but is incredibly limited and somewhat slow. The ninja path might get better once you master the kusarigama and dump like 50 levels into it, but the first region of the game wasn't kind to me when I tried it.
All right, herein lies the meat of Nioh, the loot!
The game follows Diablo and Borderlands, offering random loot around every corner. And wouldn't you know it, I find it barely acceptable.
Frankly, I'd be fine if you just found +X thingies to strap on your two weapons of choice, since the levels are all that matters. There are of course random effects to differentiate equipment, but they are so damn specific as to be useless. Stuff like: 6.7% extra gold from humans, 9% extra damage for shuriken or 2% extra drop attack damage. Useless, all of it!
If the game had unique loot, you could mix and match stuff and stack the effects you want. But with the game as is, I realised it was better to just care about the attack and defence of things. That strategy served me well and tells me that the system is dumb.
The biggest offender has to be the talismans, which should be nothing but unique special effects like in Salt & Sanctuary. Instead, they're an extra armour piece with defence (why?) that come in a few different classes that are LIKELY to have certain effects. But there is no assurance that higher level ones will have better effects, only that they have more defence.
Crafting and reforging equipment was something I never had use for. Crafting let's you make weapons, but you'll find something better in the next mission, so it's not a worthile endeavour. Which consequently makes all smithing material you find a worthless piece of the loot table.
Reforging is a major hassle, since you have to RNG your way to equipment ability upgrades, which takes time and money better spent on level matching.
But to be fair, there are some good things in place to keep the loot system from being actually bad.
You can transfer levels between weapons and armour, so if you get something good you don't want, you can use it to upgrade what you're using. The system to filter out crap from your inventory is also pretty good, even if there are a ton of usables I never cared for.
And for a paltry sum, you can refashion items to your liking, which eliminates the rainbow clown suit issue some loot-heavy games have.
The last thing of note is how divine items work in the post-game. They are the highest rarity of item and to upgrade these peices, you need to slap together weapons of the same level, which means that leveling stuff is harder, but the game increases the power increase, making it really satisfying to finally get your ultimate weapons.
Nioh is mission-based in structure, with a few missions being available per region. You're given 3 or so main missions per region, with sub-missions to fill up the playtime inbetween.
The main missions are the highlight, as the levels are rather gigantic, if you choose to explore everything. Which I did less and less, once I realised that it was probably more efficient to get to the next mission and the slightly higher leveled equipment therein instead.
But the game still strikes a fine balance between servicing speedrunners and slower players. There are shortcuts everywhere, connecting sections of the level, and if you know where the checkpoints are, you can get to the boss rather quickly, instead of spending an hour exploring everything slowly.
Sub-missions either reuse a main area or keep themselves to a select few smaller areas. These are much shorter and gimmicky, adding some variety to the game. Aside from one area the designers seem to be in love with, the game never goes nuts reusing levels, which is good.
In every area, there are kodama spirits to find. These are dastardly hidden around corners and grant minor bonuses to droprates, amrita and gold. I never sought out all of them in a level, but it's one of two collectibles that are truly valuable, the other being skill point items found rarely in missions.
While the levels are fine (if a bit samey), I can't say the same for the enemy placement. Even outside of the extra difficult Twilight missions, the game loves to employ monster closets. A good 60% of the time, I'd quickly swerve the camera around a corner and find an enemy there to jump me.
It just become predictable after a while, especially since so many assets are reused and there are only so many locations an enemy could possibly be in. Not helping this is how thin the game is spread. It's got the levels down, but the enemy variety is downright sad.
You'll be mastering the same few yokai and humans (with your weapon movesets) before long, and there is a lot of game left after that! And that's not even considering NG+. Thankfully, the DLC manages to include a fresh new selection of foes, something I feel the main game should've done in each region.
Being a project brought to completion by the success of Dark Souls, it should come as no surprise that I'd want to make some quick comparisons between the two.
Many mechanics have been lifted wholesale, and there isn't much lost in the translation. Combat works as it should, with no big annoyances like a beefy input buffer for dodges that can mess you up if you dodge at the same time as you're hit. Team Ninja know their stuff. If anything, tying criticals to ACTUAL STAMINA is more or less superior, as it avoids all the backstab-fishing you do in Dark Souls.
The blodstain is interesting, as you lose your spirit with it, making you a bit weaker until you recover it or die again. It still punishes death, without messing with your health. And when you die, you spawn a grave for someone else who can duel your ghost for a copy of one of the items you were using, which is cool. No messages though.
Beyond standard co-op, there's also PVP and a clan-warfare system. I never messed with any of these things, but I'm gonna assume that they're fine.
The healing system is similar to the one in Bloodborne, except that it's a tad kinder. You can never go below 3 elixirs, but to get more, you need to either grind, or play well enough that you get an excess stock. And since the game kills you so fast, it's not too comon to run out, even during bosses. Still, a static amount of elixirs would be just as fine, if not better.
AND THEY EVEN PATCHED IN A PAUSE BUTTON SINCE YOU CAN'T GET INVADED, SO THERE'S NO EXCUSE TO NOT HAVE ONE!