Nioh Review: The Witcher in Japan

Nioh is an action RPG developed by Team Ninja, originally released for the PS4 but has since been ported to PC as the complete edition with all DLC’s. For better or worse, it is often classified as a “Souls-like” game and thus draws a lot comparisons to the famous FromSoftware franchise, and as someone who loves FromSoftware it was not particularly surprising that I ended up playing Nioh. After playing through the base game and DLC’s and reaching Way of the Demon (or NG++), while there are certainly quite a few similarities, Nioh also does a lot of things very differently from the Souls series that calling it another Souls rip-off does not do it any justice.

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In Nioh, Geralt goes to Japan to hunt Yokai.

In Nioh you play as William Adams, an Englishman who from a first glance looks a lot like Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher series, who is in possession of a guardian spirit with magical properties. This was quite intriguing to me at first, as why would I be playing as a white dude from England when the game takes place in Japan during the Sengoku era (Japan’s “Warring States” period in the 16/17th centuries)? Turns out William Adams, and every other relevant character in the game are all actual historical characters who were alive during the late Sengoku era (or at least inspired by), with Adams himself being one of the first notable western samurai who would become an advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan’s three “Great Unifiers.” Obviously, as Nioh features fantasy and magical elements, there is a lot of creative liberty taken with the narrative and setting, but for the most part most major events in the game are inspired by their respective historical events (like the Battle of Sekigahara).

Gameplay:

At its core, Nioh is an action hack-and-slash with RPG elements, and in those respects it is very similar to the Souls games. Like Dark Souls, combat in Nioh is centered around a stamina management system (called ki) where attacking, dodging, and blocking all pull from the same resource. However, Nioh ramps it up a notch by adding a significant amount of depth to its core system. You can hold your weapon in three stances, and each stance affects your swing speed, damage, and even blocking/dodging capabilities. There are also multiple weapon classes in Nioh (similar to Monster Hunter), with each weapon having its own move-set and skills. Figuring out what stances and skills work best against each enemy adds a lot more complexity to the combat, and this is (in my opinion) Nioh’s crowning achievement as a game. I went through my play-through using an odachi (Japanese-style greatsword) and a katana, and started to pick up the spear after skill points became more abundant, and those are just few of the available options you have.

Another key part of Nioh’s gameplay loop is the RPG-aspect of character progression, which is way more prominent than in the Souls games. The gear you wear and your stats are pretty significant to how effective your damage output and defense are. Different weapons and armor pieces have their own effects and bonuses, and the goal is to figure out what equipment you want that is best tailored to your specific play-style. Players can decide to go for a more mobile style that lets them avoid attacks more easily, but at the cost of being punished harder if they actually get hit, or jump on the other end of the spectrum and wear heavy armor that makes them slow, albeit significantly tankier. The game also has a blacksmith that allows for more customization, from buying new gear to enhancing currently existing equipment, and those features will become your best friend on the higher difficulty levels, where proper builds become increasingly important. With the right set-up, it is possible to perform some crazy feats in combat. My only real gripe with the way the system is implemented in Nioh is that it is similar to what you would expect from MMORPG’s, where sometimes valuable drops from enemies can be extremely rare to find, and fighting the same enemy a million times just get a rare smithing text is a waste of my time, though thankfully hardcore gear farming is only really relevant on the higher difficulties, which are not necessary to beat in order to enjoy the game.

Easily my biggest criticism of Nioh’s gameplay is in their enemy/boss design, which I think fall short of the Souls games by a significant margin. A lot of the enemies lack interesting move-sets and have really exploitable AI, but to make up for those they tend to hit very hard and have some moves that are difficult to react to. As a result, I found a lot of the boss fights to either be incredibly boring or borderline bullshit. The game seems to acknowledge the latter, by giving me access to overpowered tools like Sloth and Guardian Spirit Talismans, so I can counter-cheese some of the more frustrating bosses. The biggest enjoyment I get out of the Souls games is the (unironic) feeling of accomplishment of defeating a boss through gradually learning its complex move-set and figuring out how to best adapt. In contrast, Nioh boss fights felt more like a contest of who can abuse the bigger cheese; the bosses with their non-telegraphed 1/2-shotting attacks or me with my completed build and tools abusing their terrible AI.

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Going to have to get used to this guy because he’s everywhere.

Writing:

By far the coolest part of Nioh’s narrative is its historical references. As someone who is generally very interested in history, I had a blast learning about the different characters and events in late Sengoku Japan, and after beating the game I spent a good amount of time just going on the Internet to try and find out more about these individuals and the battles they participated in. It is thanks to Nioh that I learned about who William Adams really was (though in reality he was not a yokai slayer unfortunately). Aside from that, I honestly did not care for the actual plot at all. The actual writing is pretty barebones and in general just enough to go from one mission to the other and give you an excuse to fight more things. The more interesting details about the various characters you encounter are dumped in exposition text boxes which were fun to read, but from a storytelling execution standpoint I really cannot say were anything amazing. However, I will say that Nioh’s mediocre writing did not particularly detract from my overall experience, as I was ultimately in for the developed and refined combat system, so the story was more like a cherry on top as opposed to the actual sundae.

Ending Thoughts:

Overall, I was a big fan of Nioh’s concepts. To me, gameplay-wise it felt sort of like a hybrid between Dark Souls and Monster Hunter with its combat and character progression system, and I think the developers had some really good ideas, and the combat system is excellent. I wasn’t as big a fan of the overall enemy design and how grindy the end/post-game could be, but the game is still executed well enough to differentiate itself from the other Souls-like titles. I have heard a lot of good things about Nioh 2, and how it apparently made a lot of improvements across the board, so I am very excited to play it assuming it gets its own eventual PC port. For anyone who enjoys Souls-like games, Nioh will be right up their alley.

Rating: The complete edition is on sale on Steam for $50 retail. It’s got a lot of content for the price, but I would probably wait for a discount considering the game’s been out for a few years already, especially so if you have a PS4 with access to Nioh 2.

Software engineer and gaming enthusiast, writing reviews to share quality media; check out my personal site at www.edmondwu.dev

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