Review: Nioh draws inspiration from many games, yet manages to stand on its own
This Samurai is full of soul
Whe Nioh was first unveiled with its dark samurai themes, many had immediately drawn comparisons to the Souls series, myself included. And its undeniable that Team Ninja was definitely inspired by them. However, as I played Nioh, I realized that despite having some similar mechanics, Nioh was its own beast of a game. A beast so terrifying, that it invoked some of that same dread I had when I first played a Souls game.
In Nioh, you play as William, a Geralt of Rivia-looking Westerner in feudal Japan, who gets mixed up in a crazy demon invasion, all while still utilizing historical figures like Hattori Hanzo, Tokugawa Ieyasu and the like. If you've played any of the Samurai Warriors games, then these names should feel right at home with you. This storyline might feel even more at home if you've played the Warriors Orochi series. Nioh might take itself a bit more seriously, but at least you now have a frame of reference.
Nioh starts out relatively easy, dropping you in a tutorial level of sorts where you have to escape imprisonment. This level teaches you the basics of combat and dodging, but only on a very base level. Once you get past this, you can either immediately head over to the first real stage, or head over to the dojo for a more in depth tutorial. I'm a little confused why Team Ninja felt the need to split these two up, as all of this stuff could have been taught in the first mission. Instead, now I'm doing a second tutorial, which should not be skipped, since it teaches you even more important moves like the indispensable ki pulse and stance switching.
Combat in general feels quick and snappy, save for some of the heavier weapons you can use. The moves have a sort of immediacy to them, meaning for the most part, as soon as you press the attack button, that attack happens. Sure, some weapons have a wind-up, like the heavy hammers or axes, but most other weapons fell closer to the moves of Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden than a character from Dark Souls.
Action, for the most part, is the name of the game here, and since your moves tend to be rather fast, the game can lull you into a false state of comfort, making you think that you'll be able to button mash your way to victory. Trust me, this is not the case. There's a reason the game has so many different systems working in tandem together, like the aforementioned ki pulse which will regain some of your stamina with the correct timing of a button press, to carefully executed dodges and blocks.
Human enemies can and will pose a threat to you, especially the more heavily armored ones, since that's the game's way of telling you "Hey, that's a tough enemy with a better moveset, be careful!" However, you'll also be facing various demons called the Yokai (not nearly as cute as you'd remember from Yokai Watch though). These act as mini-bosses of sorts, placed around levels to break up the flow of combat against humans, and offer up some more challenge. Not only are they much more difficult to take down due to their increased health pool, but they also pack quite a punch. As it is with every enemy in Nioh, the first part of every battle should consist of studying the enemy movement and learning how to dodge it, and then go for hits.
What I've found though is that there is a much deeper flow to combat once you master all the various techniques and mechanics such as ki pulse, stance switching and blocking. You can quite literally be an unstoppable force of flurry attacks if you know how to time all of those right. For example, when using a ki pulse after executing a move, you can also switch stances at the same time, which will not only give you more ki, but can enable you to do more damage. There have already been insane videos posted from the previous Alpha and Beta tests, one of which is this, where you can clearly see that once everything clicks, you can be quite the force to be reckoned with.
Outside of the Souls inspirations, which include dying and then regaining your lost Amrita (Souls) where you've died, and other smaller mechanics, Nioh also borrow some mechanics from other titles such as Diablo and other loot games with its over abundance of drops and item rarities.
One particular element I really liked was the inclusion of sub missions. Since Nioh doesn't play out on a persistent huge world, but rather is split up into missions that each take place on a different map, this allowed the developers to be able to revisit maps you've already beaten and change them up slightly to provide a different kind of challenge. For example, once you beat your first main mission, you can revisit that same area for a sub mission that has you eliminating all the bandits as well as the bandit leader. This time though you start on the opposite side of the map, working your way to the other, with slight changes to the level design which manages to keep you on your toes.
What I wasn't expecting, and I quite like, is that these sub missions yield farmable materials that can be used for crafting powerful weapons and armor. That means Team Ninja also took inspiration from its Warriors games, which also task you with replaying missions for materials to more or less do the same thing. For folks that continually like improving their gear through crafting, this is a pretty awesome feature.
If the game's difficulty is bringing on frustration, players can find solace in summoning other players for co-operative play. You simply place an item on one of the shrines in a level and then other players can join you, whether it's a random player or a friend. However, if it's a friend, there's a catch. That friend had to already complete the level, which means trying to play the game entirely in co-op is impossible, and might be a big negative for those that wanted to play it that way. Joining someone else's game is extremely easy as well. You can either select a stage on the map screen and press square and boom, instant matchmaking. In my experience, I've always found someone to help within 10 seconds or so.
However, Nioh does offer something pretty awesome for players who do want to play co-op together. Through the Torii Gate, players can opt to play co-op with a friend, which then places them into a level, where they share one giant bar. If a player dies, they can be picked back up, but the bar decreases, increasing the tension. It's a great balancing act since in general co-op makes the game easier, but given the high stakes in a shared bar, as well as the mission failing entirely if both players die, forcing them to restart from the beginning, ups the pressure on making sure both players bring their A game.
What's clear is that despite getting occasionally frustrated at the game's difficulty, which can at times be uncompromising, I still want to dive back in and press on. This is something I've always admired about the Souls series, that despite kicking my ass, I was always willing to dive back in. Nioh is different enough where I don't feel like I'm playing an imitation of the Souls series, at least not like Lords of the Fallen. The Ninja Gaiden influence is pretty heavy, what with all the different combos and weapons you can wield, so for fans hoping to see Team Ninja get back into what they did best, Nioh comes pretty damn close.
There are clear inspirations taken from various games, and yet Nioh manages to do things a bit differently, and because of that, is able to stand on its own as a fun action game.