When we waltzed around TGS 2015 getting as much Bloodborne The Old Hunters and Dark Souls 3 footage as we could, a small and obscure booth by Koei Tecmo got our attention. Inside this empty booth was nothing but a gameplay trailer on a loop for what soon became one of our Most Wanted Games. This is a similar story to how I fell in love with Demon’s Souls, back before it was cool, and the similarities thankfully don’t end there.
Developed by: Team Ninja
Published by: Koei Tecmo, Sony
Release date: February 7th, 2017
Age rating: M
- Master every fighting style – learn the flow of combat and move with precision. Unleash combinations of attacks and dodges specific to a range of authentic samurai weapons, including polearms, katanas and axes.
- Explore a fantastical and dark vision of 16th century Japan – fight alongside and against legendary heroes and villains of the Warring States period.
- Face brutal and grotesque enemies – stand alone against skilled samurai and demons known as the Yokai.
Story & Setting
Nioh follows a fictional story of real events surrounding William Adams and the ascension to power of the Tokugawa clan in Japan, with the very famous Battle of Sekigahara. Peppered in, the mythical creatures of Japanese folklore make a rather unique appearance in gaming, giving non-japanese a glimpse of what Yokai can be about. Presented as an Irishman due to the “traditional” notion that the Irish are spiritual, William becomes a Japanese Witcher of sorts – someone following their own path in a world of political intrigue who defeats monstrous Yokai in his wake.
Koei Tecmo is no stranger to the time period, having developed multiple games set in the “Sengoku era” – where wars within Japan gave little to no stability for more than 100 years. The period is so famous within Japanese history, that there are thousands of stories, movies, animes, and social interpretations of the era. The addition of the Yokai, however, is not as common even though these creatures are mentioned and believed in throughout Japanese history to the present day.
The unique mingling of real historic events, fictional scenarios and spiced up mythological creatures gives Nioh a decisively unique yet familiar feel that hits all the right spots because of it’s delivery: contextual. Following on the steps of Souls, Nioh gives players context through weapon and item descriptions, memories of the dead around you, and of course the lore notes you will find on the Wiki. The Yokai you meet are actually real historical figures turn into Yokai for their grief, torment or anger – giving flavor to the setting.
Nioh’s gameplay mixes fast-paced Ninja Gaiden with tactical Bloodborne and Dark Souls checkpoints, and cherry-on-tops it with a variety of weapon styles and skills. Players can pick to buff specific stats to match their playstyle, and can learn several different skills or use consumables to buff weapons with elements that enemies may be weak to.
Bringing in more traditional RPG features, many enemies feel like a true challenge from the get-go, and some missions will require players to level up and improve their gear through crafting, re-forging and good old farming to get better loot from the random pools of difficulties.
A common concern from RPG players is whether one can get to create their character. Physically, you will always be William, and that can be a deterrent, but this will be your William, and you can clad him in different armors, or even use disguises to look as other characters if you prefer. Players can customize skill to optimize parrying or guard break, for example, creating nuanced scenarios. You may also focus on improving your dodge or riposte, bringing the gameplay closer to Bloodborne and delivering fast-paced thrills reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden.
The combat portion of Nioh is nuanced, polished, and rewarding whilst not becoming inaccessible or twitch-reaction based. Players are presented with three stances for their weapons, that they can swap on the fly and customize by investing points into each skill of each weapon. The stances give heavy attacks on high, balanced on mid, and light but very fast on low stance. Combined with this, you can have a heavy, tanky build that proceeds like a slow mammoth, or you can be the sleek and agile ninja that swiftly dodges enemy attacks and backstabs them. It all revolves around Ki, which plays the part of a Stamina bar, and unlike other games can be replenished by executing well-timed recoveries. These recoveries, called “Ki Pulse” can be tweaked to have more effects such as increasing your damage done or reducing enemy regeneration.
Ranged weapons are also available and extremely powerful. Headshots can kill enemies in one hit, and heavy arms like cannons can deplete the health bar of powerful Yokai swiftly from a safe distance. This is a rather welcome addition as enemies can swarm players and the lock-on can be confusing due to the swift nature of combat.
Accessorizing William there are several amulets that increase defensive or offensive values, as well as consumables that grant short-lived bonuses, or items which such as rocks to lure enemies out from their crowds.
Players round out their build by equipping a Guardian Spirit: a magical creature that will grant special bonuses and can be used as a “Living Weapon” to buff one’s attacks for a short while. These Guardians are also responsible for guarding the player’s accumulated Amrita (xp for the level) when they die, making it so players can retrieve their lost experience if they make it back to the spot they were defeated at.
Once you’re kitted out you will tackle the many challenging enemies the game has to throw at you. The human enemies are mostly manageable with careful planning and reacting to their stances and ki. The yokai on the other hand are the stars of the show and they each have unique elements that both give them character and increase the challenge. Defeating the variety of yokai takes careful planning and solid execution and many of them present the challenge of bosses in other games.
The bosses are mostly memorable arena type experiences with high powered and sometimes larger than life yokai enemies, as well as duels with prominent NPCs. The bosses are also where the game’s toughest challenges exist, as many are lightning fast and all can inflict quite a large amount of damage with single attacks across a variety of phases. They do however, stick to certain patterns, and careful observation can reveal windows for attack. Once you figure out those windows, you find that many of the bosses have similar methods for taking them down, which lessens the awe of them just a bit. If this game gets a sequel we can anticipate more variance in how to bring them down.
Killing all of those challenging enemies has more than just intrinsic rewards. The game features a Diablo like loot system that tosses multi colored gear at you in a wonderful explosion. Once you find what you like, you can head to the game’s Blacksmith and engage in all different matters of upgrade and modification. You can Forge new gear, Refashion existing items to make them look like something new, level up gear via Soul Match which is similar to Destiny’s Infusion, and Reforge weapons to reroll their passive attributes. These features all combine in crazy ways to give you a wealth of options in what you do with your loot. If you’re playing this game and are unhappy with the gear you’re using, you’re doing something very, very wrong.
Online & Multiplayer
Nioh presents both asynchronous and multiplayer online features. The graves of other players can be seen around the world as “Revenants“, and rather than simply show you how other players died they tell you what it was that killed them, and provide an opportunity for you to challenge the bloodied remains of other players to obtain their gear.
Online co-op is available via “Torii Gates” and Ochoko cups, making it so single player campaigners may summon in visitors from another world at a shrine. Similar to souls, the session ends if the host dies, but if the summoned ally is defeated another one may be brought in. Gestures and cosmetics are available to make this experience more unique, and players can trade equipment.
Another feature is designed specifically for co-op, with more challenging missions under the “Yokai Realm with a Companion” banner. In this mode, players can take on missions with more powerful enemies and Yokai as a duo, and share in a survival bar that depletes with each death and may be refilled slightly at shrines. Players in this mode can revive each other a limited number o times, making for entertaining moments.
Online connectivity could be improved as the system can sometimes be hit or miss, causing us to wait for longer periods than expected and the password doesn’t seem to work consistently. The menus for these features are somewhat confusing and could benefit from some clarification when you’re sifting through all the different parameters of the mode.
Adding depth to both combat and online aspects, players may visit the Hidden Teahouse to join Clans. Clans have symbolical meanings but also give players special bonuses, and add them to “Clan Battles”: a leaderboard of earned points that improves your Clan’s standing in the war, earning you better benefits for membership.
PvP is coming via a free post launch DLC, and nothing is known as far as what its implementation will be, whether it’s in-game or via an arena like matchmaking system. When it does release, we expect it to be another value adding activity to participate in for hours on end.
Design, Visual & Audio
Nioh’s character design is what one may expect of Koei Tecmo for this time period. Armors and weapons are realistic but gorgeous, and landscapes are somewhat historically accurate, with added flare for the Yokai. With 4k resolution available, some battles present truly beautiful effects.
The level design is certainly a big plus for the game, and conjures up memories of the careful exploration in Demon’s Souls. You will progress across the self contained missions, carefully memorizing the lay of the land and enemies. Methodical progress is rewarded via shortcuts and well placed shrines. Attentive play also opens up opportunities to turn the tables on enemies by using environmental traps against foes. The visual design of the levels is on par with the game’s detailed weapons and armor, although thematically they can get slightly repetitive. The stages themselves won’t have the memory attachment as levels in the Souls series do, but the way they are laid out is certainly very intelligent. The game uses the environment to teach you as you play it, and that is a huge win and may be the game’s brightest spot.
The mission structure is very similar to Destiny, in that you select a mission or activity from an overview screen and launch into it. In some ways this is very refreshing against this trend that seems to push everything towards open worlds. Segmenting the game’s activities this way actually helps you find everything there is to do, which is not always the case in seamless worlds. Making the missions all repeatable, and across difficulties along with other daily activities blends with this and makes the barriers to gameplay minimal. It’s become increasingly common to need several hours of free time to accomplish anything in gaming and this return to basics is so very welcome. If you have a half hour or 5 hours, you can do something in Nioh. Want to visit the Blacksmith? Click Blacksmith, no need to run across the map to get there. This proves that a game can be complicated and still be accessible. This is a thankful design principle in a climate where games are becoming increasingly obtuse.