A Souls-like Samurai-themed game from Team Ninja, Nioh is a fantastic entry into the class of super-difficult games that have evolved from the success of Demons Souls in 2009. It combines an RNG-themed crafting engine with a complex combat mechanic and drops them into a fantastical and very Japanese environment where demons slip across the divide between light and dark to invade our world.
Team Ninja comes back with a lot of the same archetypes that they use in most of the other Team Ninja games that they have made—primarily, Ninja Gaiden. The normal crazy-creepy spellcaster, your omnipresent ninja, the cute female types who are always trying too hard, and your normal lords and ladies who pursue pointedly dramatic storylines.
The game drives itself on a substance called “amrita,” which is supposed to be a form of empowered crystal which allows one to control physical forces. In more game-y terms, it’s what you use to level up. Nioh uses the currency the same way that the Souls games use souls—you build up a stockpile to level up, and you drop it on the ground when you are killed. This forces you to go back to where you died and conquer the encounter in order to regain your lost currency—a never-ending “do better” mechanic.
Combat focuses around a set of five weapons, ranging from the spear to the sword, to two swords, to axes, and to what is known as a Kusarigama, which is a chain attached to a spike. All weapons have three different movesets, known as high, mid, and low stances.
The game starts to become a little unwieldy, I think, when you add in the Ki pulse. Nioh incorporates a mechanic that a lot of super-difficult game players will recognise—a mechanic that has spread through gaming very, very quickly since it was conceived of: the stamina mechanic.
Your character uses “stamina” to perform every action, which regenerates based on the statistics you level up. It also regenerates with Ki pulses. Ki pulses are a quick push of the right bumper after every attack, which gathers residual energy expended by your weapon swings and refocuses it.
Proper, timed use of the Ki pulse can let you fight for a much longer time than you would be able to without it, and sometimes will actually save your life. When you “stagger” as a result of being hit while out of stamina, you are set up for a few seconds so that you can be tagged with a critical hit, which is a massive amount of damage that you can’t mitigate.
The game itself is actually sort of pedestrian as far as menus and how to get from one place to the next. There are cutscenes which sort of try to tie the whole narrative together, but they mostly consist of people sitting in tea rooms and talking to one another.
It becomes fairly difficult to follow, but at some point you begin to get the idea that entities known as “Guardian spirits” are very important. Yours, by the way, is captured very early on in the game by our black-clad mage, and then you pick up a bunch of others which add to your character’s personal power and prestige.
I want to return, though, to what I feel is sort of a broken narrative. The problem with trying to attach a solid storyline to a Souls-themed game is that you have to somehow deal with the fact that your character is continuously being killed and revived. The guardian spirit mechanic makes some sense, but the game also clearly indicates that only certain people have them.
It is, then, silent on why all the enemies are revived each time you are revived—with no explaining mechanic like in Souls games (everyone is dead anyway, and just keep getting back up again) the narrative becomes very unstable.
Additionally, nothing is helped by your “missions” being sorted like a whack-a-mole game. The world map, which you exit to after every live action sequence in order to pick the next place to which you will deploy, displays your missions in non-linear sequence. You just pick one, and the game starts it up for you.
You have a level, it has a level, and you can decide for yourself if you want to pick a challenging mission or not. There are also Twilight missions, which deal predominantly with demon invasions in various places. This is where the narrative tends to be very strong; whenever the game deals with “yokai,” which are underworld invaders on the material plain, the game makes a lot of sense. “Yokai” typically show up on bridges or on beaches, which I feel is probably an inference made from Japanese myth. That may be why these references are so powerful and interesting—they rely on established fact.
As cool as a totally-customizable game experience sounds, you run into a lot of the same problems that non-linear storytelling will almost always engender. Without a solid, paced-out theme to guide you, it’s very easy to lose track of the story and then start to also lose interest in the presented characters and things of that sort.
To finish, we’ll sort of point out the crafting system. It’s huge. You get a lot of items—think Diablo on steroids. Your inventory piles up in literal minutes of gameplay, and there are a lot of things you can do with that stuff.
Normally, you want to equip the best stuff and then with the rest of it, there are a few options. You can “Disassemble” items for their component parts which lets you roll the dice in the blacksmith. If you have requisite “materials” you can “reforge” an item with a set of probabilities for quality outcomes in the result. That is, depending how you want to “reforge” your item, there is a percentage change for one of the tiers of quality—more quality means a better item.
You can also sell your items to the gods, and in return you’ll get a random chance at a random drop of consumables—health potions, antidotes and other such things.
To sum up, Nioh has fantastic mechanics, great boss battles and a very pedestrian, broken-up storyline which attempts to clothe itself in the same sort of obscurity that Dark Souls has, but doesn’t quite manage.
That’s okay, though. It’s a great game, and I fully recommend it.