Released back in 2017, Nioh’s still often seen as “just another Dark Souls rip-off” for those who haven’t played it. The likenesses are there, don’t get me wrong; the levelling system is very similar, death works pretty much the same functionally and Nioh definitely punishes players for stepping out of line. Though once you take the time to immerse yourself in the structure and feel of the mechanics, the differences really start to show…
Nioh’s Campy, Yet Serious Presentation
Nioh’s campy, yet serious presentation is actually one of the biggest departures from the soulsbourne formula. If I could liken it to anything, I’d say it gives me the same type of feeling of playing a Resident Evil game or any other bonkers project from Hideo Kojima. So instead of learning the game’s lore through the environment, with subtle hints and nods and everywhere, Nioh has a very focused, theatrical approach to its narrative. That being said, the story and cast, in all honesty, are kind of bad…
Characters come and go at the drop of a hat, lacking any solid development (besides one or two people) and the main protagonist’s portrayal can be stiffer than Harry Potter’s broomstick at times. The story itself, following real-life, western samurai, William Adams in the 1600s is passable at best, with a lot of tongue-in-cheek, serious, yet not serious moments. You might find yourself engaged with the slick directing or how hype the stakes are at times. Though at the end of the day, the story mostly serves as a bridge to tie all the missions and events of Nioh together.
Changing Up The Formula
Speaking of missions, that’s another big change-up from the usual soulsborne formula. Instead of just blitzing it from one bonfire to another, this game’s actually split into chapters. This means Willam can revisit areas to complete extra missions, grind XP, search for gear and heaps of other things. The areas of Japan William travels to are all beautifully distinct and really encourage a heap of exploration and discovery. You’ll find shortcuts that make back-tracking after death easier and tonnes of hidden treasures waiting to be opened.
The areas of Japan William travels to are all beautifully distinct and really encourage a heap of exploration and discovery.
However, I did start to lose my bearing a few times, due to the fact certain areas have a very similar architecture. As a result, I found myself walking around in circles like a complete knucklehead, on more than one occassion. Most importantly – why is this game so dark? And I don’t mean tonal-wise. Crank up that in-game brightness – stat, unless you want to give yourself a headache after twenty minutes of squinting. Just thank me later.
Now onto the actual gameplay, this is where Nioh truly shines brightest. Where do I even start? Let’s go with the tools of the trade first. The range of weapons you can choose from are just awesome, full stop. The dual swords are sweet, but the Kusarigama’s my favourite hands-down, simply because of how flowy it is. Combine that with the ranged weapons like the bow or the hand cannon and you’re already having a good time.
Consider Your Stance & Stamina in Nioh
There’s also the three stances, which were a major addition in 2017 for the Action RPG genre. The positions of low, mid and high affect the pace and strength of William’s strikes, how vulnerable he is to damage and how quickly he can maneuver around the battlefield. Generally-speaking, Low is for fast ‘dodge & counter’ style play, whilst mid enhances your blocking capability, maintaining a great balance between offence and defence. High stance, on the other hand, prioritises strong attacks at the cost of being more susceptible to damage and moving slightly slower.
It is a bit tricky at first to switch stances on the fly, and when you add stamina or ‘Ki’ as it’s called into the mix, the mechanics will need a bit of getting used to.
You’re incentivised to not stick with one particular stance, but rather change up your play-style to adapt to the relevant scenario. For instance, if there’s a monster crawling on the floor towards you, using high stance probably isn’t the most appropriate. This forces you to think quickly and really emphasises learning your opponents attack patterns and behaviours. It is a bit tricky at first to switch stances on the fly, and when you add stamina or ‘Ki’ as it’s called into the mix, the mechanics will need a bit of getting used to.
All things considered, balancing your Ki usage is essential to mastering Nioh. Without it, you’re essentially a human sandbag, and that’s no fun. This forces every action taken to be extremely calculated, as one false move could result in a three-hit death combo. The enemies themselves display their own Ki bars when locked on, which helps dictate how you’ll approach them. For instance, if an adversary dwindles down their Ki using a few sword swings and William counters with a few strikes of his own, the opponent will usually either drop their guard or be unable to fight back for a short spell. At the same time, the same thing can happen to you, quick-smart.
What’s more, is that some of the monsters called Yokai can reduce your stamina as a passive effect. So always make sure you’re aware of William’s Ki. Even the garden variety ones are actually pretty challenging, especially if they start teaming up on William. Some of the bosses, in particular, can feel impossibly difficult at first glance, but once you start carefully studying their attack indicators and mechanics, as well as stop freaking out about how broken they are, that’s when you’ll start to realise that the encounters are all pretty fair and square, and you’ll find yourself admiring the game’s combat design.
Discretion Is The Better Part of Valour
I also really appreciated the game’s Revenant system. This is basically Nioh’s spin on the Bloodstains feature in Dark Souls, with an added touch. How it works is that during each level you’ll come across different gravesites of NPCs or other players who’ve fallen, and it’ll describe their cause of death. So if it says, impaled by an umbrella, or something along those lines, you can expect the same enemy to be lurking nearby, waiting to smack William silly. On top of that, the player can choose to summon the deceased warrior and take them out to earn some of their gear. These Revenant encounters are pretty gruelling, but they’re 100% worth it if you’re itching for a tough fight or are looking to farm for some of the game’s top-tier equipment.
Don’t forget to time William’s Ki ‘pulses’ correctly too. This feature recovers a bunch of Ki if you time a shoulder-button press shortly after depleting some of the gauge.
To make things easier in these duels, and in general, don’t forget to time William’s Ki ‘pulses’ correctly too. This feature recovers a bunch of Ki if you time a shoulder-button press shortly after depleting some of the gauge. I’ve seen so many people NOT use this feature and then stop playing altogether, saying “this game is too hard”. That’s like playing FIFA without a sprint button and then wondering why you can’t keep up. It’s silly.
Look, I still suck badly at these types of games, but once you start fully implementing all of Nioh’s mechanics, your chances of success will slowly, but surely begin to increase. So when you go for combos or guards, try think a couple of steps ahead and actively use Ki pulse. Or on the other hand, if a normal battle’s a little too overwhelming, it’s sometimes best to retreat and re-evaluate. Not all the enemies need to be slain, in fact, a majority of them don’t. Awareness is king in Nioh.
Additionally, be sure to take advantage of William’s items and abilities that he gains along the way. I won’t name any in particular, because it’s more interesting to figure out those aspects yourself, but some of them will just straight-up trivialise the bosses. So it is worth taking a couple of minutes to experiment and trial out what works best for you and your play-style.
To this day, Nioh’s excellence in combat design still shines through, creating a soulsborne experience that’s distinctly it’s own, whilst making it accessible enough for those that may not find these types of games appealing. The story and characters are far from perfect and there may be some odd difficulty spikes for good measure, but once this game gets its hooks into you, it’s hard to put down.
Nioh easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the soulsborne genre, creating its own unique experience that’s more than worth the price of admission. The story & characters are very generic, but the hardcore combat will soak up hours upon hours of your time. Oh, and did I mention there are 3 DLC packs included? Much win.
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