Three minutes later, I was dead.
Nioh is an action/role-playing game that comes courtesy of Team Ninja, the studio behind the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden reboot series. The game, which tells the story of a 17th-century Englishman who must leverage a mystical power to save Japan, does indeed feel a bit like Team Ninja’s previous efforts, but it owes most of its inspiration to Dark Souls. The game is incredibly difficult, but gives players all the tools they need to succeed in its tough-but-fair world.
As a game, Nioh is tons of fun; as a PS4 exclusive, it’s easily the strongest argument for buying the system since Uncharted 4. I’ve had a chance to make my way through Nioh’s early levels, and whether you want a fast-paced action game or a more methodical RPG, there’s something here to keep you hooked. Especially for fans who were left wanting more Dark Souls after the series concluded last year, Nioh is well worth a look.
In Nioh, you’ll take on the role of William: a trader with the Dutch East India Company who travels to Japan in pursuit of a mystical element called Amrita. With the help of an enchanted journal, he begins his adventure as sort of an ersatz samurai, doing battle with tough humans and fearsome demons alike with swords, spears and chain-blades.
For what it’s worth, Nioh has a better story that I expected (more on that later), but the central draw here is the tight, balanced gameplay. During the prologue, I assumed that I would have to approach the game like Dark Souls, striking slowly and carefully, taking every opportunity to dodge and circle before landing just one or two hits. I didn’t last long with this strategy.
Nioh is closer to Bloodborne than Dark Souls. Speed is the name of the game. William can strike and dodge very fast, and often, wailing away on an enemy is a viable strategy. It’s relatively easy to stagger foes – even some bosses – so you can play a little more aggressively than Souls has trained you to. On the other hand, enemies can still dish out massive damage, and your healing abilities are limited, so you can’t afford to take many reckless chances.
Combat also has more options than Souls fans might be used to. In addition to a variety of different weapons, William can adopt three different stances: a heavy one for lots of damage, a light one for easy dodging and a middle one that strikes a balance between the two. You can equip guns and bows for ranged combat and use a handful of magic spells, meaning there are plenty of ways to deal with your opponents.
On the other hand, you probably won’t want William to be a jack-of-all-trades. You can use Amrita, the game’s magical resource that enemies drop, to improve William’s stats, as well as gather skill points to improve his abilities. You’ll probably want to focus on the stats and weapons that you use the most, whether that means making his a dexterous dual swordsman or an accomplished archer.
One thing to keep in mind is that Nioh is much more linear than the Souls series, complete with discrete levels that always end with an explosive boss fight. If you enjoy the open-ended exploration in Dark Souls, it’s not much of a focus here, although there are still plenty of secrets to find within each individual level.
While Dark Souls has a lot of lore and atmosphere, it’s always been pretty light on story. Nioh suffers from no such restrictions. The game retells the story of William Adams: a real-life navigator for the Dutch East India company who traveled to Japan and integrated himself into the local culture. Granted, in real life, William never acquired phenomenal powers and did battle with demons, but we can suspend some disbelief for the sake of a good game.
Like other Team Ninja games, Nioh is fairly over-the-top in terms of storytelling, featuring impossibly noble heroes, fantastically evil villains and a whole lot of fairly straightforward good-versus-evil rhetoric. (Missing, though, are the company’s signature female leads with improbable bustlines; I’ll say that’s a good thing, but your mileage may vary.) The writing isn’t bad at all, and the voice actors all pull off their roles with conviction, making the cutscenes easy to stomach and the story fun to follow.
Frankly, the life of William Adams is so interesting, it’s amazing that no one has made it into a video game before. Nioh is a creative take on an unconventional tale, and its energetic storytelling is one of its most significant departures from the Dark Souls series. If you want eerie and haunting, you’ll have to look elsewhere; if you want to see how the Dark Souls formula could apply to more traditional storylines, Nioh has you covered. (It’s a far sight better than Lords of the Fallen, if anyone still remembers that.)
A merry life, and a short one
I’m not far enough into Nioh to determine whether it’s a game to last the ages, but it’s a polished production with the courage of its convictions in both gameplay and storytelling. The rabbit hole doesn’t go quite as deep as Dark Souls, but what does? Whether you’re hunting for another ultra-difficult adventure to keep your skills sharp or a creative samurai tale with just enough of a real historical basis, Nioh is an easy recommendation.