Nioh is the imagined story of real-life English navigator William Adams (and latterly Shogun to Tokugawa Ieyasu) who landed on Japanese shores in 1600 after an arduous journey partaken by five ships which were part of the Dutch East India Company. Historically recognised as one of the most influential foreigners ever to aid Japan, and the basis for the classic novel Shogun, in Nioh we see a fantasy narrative for Adams that is perhaps beyond the realms of historical fact but rather good fun in the context of Team Ninja’s newest action-adventure.
Team Ninja are well known these days as the creators of the Dead or Alive series of fighting games; games which have their place in the litany of interactive media available to all gamers but which perhaps are rather niche, and maybe even offensive to some. What folks might not recall is that Team Ninja also made Ninja Gaiden and its sequel. Rock-hard, deep combat wrapped up in over-the-top action-adventure and explosive boss fights galore. This has returned in Nioh, but it’s only part of a vastly different, yet familiar, offering thanks to the inspiration from peers around them. Specifically, From Software and Dark Souls.
If you’re familiar with any of the Soulsborne games then you will immediately be at home after firing up Nioh for the first time. If not, you will find the introduction very challenging and you will die a lot. It’s not an easy game by any means, and the mechanics are unintuitive. But you will gradually learn how to best each baddie and move gently through the opening level towards the main game. It’s very fair in that regard. Each death is because of a good reason and if you can identify that and learn from it, you will progress. Starting with a prologue in the tower of London, William battles his way out of a prison cell using tried and trusted techniques. How to execute them may have to be relearnt in some cases - dodging or rolling is the X button rather than the O button as we’d be used to. Regardless you control Adams from a third-person perspective, can lock onto the enemies and attack with a light or heavy blow using any weapon you have picked up or looted from the environment. You can guard against attacks or dodge and roll as previously mentioned.
As you explore the locale you’ll find some funky shortcuts, awesome goodies hidden away in nooks and crannies; under crates and in treasure chests. You can equip multiple melee weapons and ranged weapons at any one time, armour for all body parts and accessories which also impart some kind of benefit. However, you only have so much equipment you can add before you become encumbered and movement is limited. As you move through a level you’ll find that upon death - accompanied by the words ‘freed from this mortal coil’ - you are back where you last saved the game, or started, and with all enemies revived. You can gather all lost Amrita (think XP) if you make it back to where you were unceremoniously cut down last time out. Along the way you’ll find shrines at which you can pray and save all progress.
Nioh is a game which is incredibly good fun. However, whilst this is true it doesn’t mean that all choices made by the developers are good, or at least as good as they could have been. One such design decision is that we are not in one world, interconnected by horizontal and vertical geography via shortcuts and grand entrances. Instead we can think of the game as a series of levels and as such we get to choose what to do after each chapter ends. There’s the main quest, plenty of side-missions, more training and - for the sadistic - the extra-challenging Twilight missions. There’s plenty to keep you busy for a good thirty to sixty hours depending on how accomplished you are and how much you want to explore the world. The issue is that you’re never able to get truly lost in this world as it’s a series of levels set in a world, rather than a world itself.
The focus therefore is on what you do in each level, or map, rather than worrying about - or enjoying - the environment. The key to progress is combat, combat, combat. Here is where Team Ninja’s previous experience really comes into play. The combat is sufficiently brilliant and has more depth than Alice’s rabbit hole should you choose to take the ‘drink me’ potion. There are different weapons as a starting point - swords, axes, dual swords and more. Whatever weapon type you choose you have three stances - high, medium and light - which vary the strength of attacks or the agility and pace of your avatar. Every weapon has a moveset which can be learnt over time, unleashing furious combos and all kinds of fabulously exciting animated smackdowns. You can choose to learn and utilise them all, or stick to even the most basic of attacks and you’ll be able to progress. This in itself opens up different ways to play through the game if you wanted to replay it over and over.
Combat success will ultimately boil down to your use of Ki - stamina in common language - and the Ki pulse. Similar to Bloodborne’s regain mechanic but really a variant on Gears of War’s active reload, the Ki pulse when mastered will ensure you rarely run out of stamina, meaning you’re always able to deliver the fatal blow and importantly aren’t left stranded and panting, submissive to any attack from your foe. As you attack and dodge your Ki meter is exhausted. After every successful attack a quick tap of R1 (or dodge once the applicable upgrade is unlocked) - if timed correctly - refills part of your Ki. This has extra benefits once an enemy is vanquished too, in that if said enemy left behind a fog which drains your Ki a well-executed Ki pulse after defeating them will wipe the fog away, leaving you free to carry on regardless. It’s a great skill to learn - but hard to do flawlessly multiple times in a level - and one that is massively helpful when encountering a boss fight, of which there are many. Each boss fight is gigantic in scale and operatic in the way it plays out. They’re jolly good fun, but of course they’re also the pinnacle of challenge in the game. It’s a good job that you can invite help from other warriors in other worlds.
The story as mentioned is based on real life but very clearly embellished to incorporate all manner of otherworldly phenomena, as well as famous characters from history, such as Hattori Hanzo. All of this is pretty cool but the story and the way it’s told is rather unengaging and at times confusing. There’s nothing to fill in the backstory yourself apart from text stored as Amrita memories in one of the available menus - you don’t find things around the world to add flavour to what’s going on and as such are reliant on cutscenes. The bottom line is not to play Nioh for the story. Nor for the loot - you get far too much to know what to do with, much of it being no better than anything already within your inventory.
Team Ninja has looked for inspiration from games strewn throughout the past five to ten years and woven what they saw as the best bits into the very fabric of a Team Ninja game. What they’ve come up with is an action-adventure RPG which challenges, drives and improves the player with a strong focus on deep and enjoyable combat. If you like any Soulsborne game, or if you liked Ninja Gaiden you’ll find plenty to like in Nioh. But that’s part of the problem, too. It’s not as good as the game it references at all stages. When finished, the memories will be of a combat mechanic and a game that’s not quite as good as the best action-adventure RPGs out there, rather than a top-notch game in its own right.