Dat mustache, tho

Nioh pits the player agains a variety of foes. Deadly yokai and horrifying beasts rage about the countryside eager for blood. The boss fights are often grand battles against monumental foes but the best are surprisingly subdued.

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Combat in Nioh is a fast and furious affair. It is full of shifting stances and last second dodging. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in an action game. The bosses are particularly challenging, with mammoth beasts and stomping demons. Which is why I was surprised that my favorite fights thus far have been the simplest.

Warning: I am about to spoil some early game bosses. Avert your eyes if you want to go in without foreknowledge.

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A few missions into the game, you are sent to explore the castle of a lord who has gone missing. It’s a remarkably designed level with pounding rain, cyclops demons, and ambushing ninjas. In an open courtyard, you encounter the lightning demon Nue. They can summon lightning strikes and cover the ground is dark energy that increases their damage. There’s a nice emphasis on spacing. In the best moments, it goes something like this:

I am the goddess of the katana!

But Nioh is a game that doesn’t just thrive on powerful bosses. Often, they have sudden and fatal attacks that can shut down a fight in an instant. This can distract from the interesting dash and slash action. In the worst moments, the fight against Nue goes something like this:

Well, shit.

There’s a good sense of accomplishment to slaying a huge demon but Rue turned out to be my least favorite boss of the early game. This was made readily apparent as I progressed further into the level. Descending deep into catacombs, I sliced up skeletons and bashed living statues in search of the lost lord.

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Eventually, I found him but he was guarded by the game’s antagonist, a sinister looking mage who probably mains Reaper in Overwatch. Using his magecraft, he took on the appearance of the lord and we engaged in a sword duel. It was a straight up samurai showdown and it was awesome.

Oh yeah, that’s the good shit!

The fight wasn’t the most visually dynamic. It wasn’t full of flashing lightning or flaming sword attacks. Was made it remarkable was how purely it distilled Nioh’s core mechanics. Nioh is a game of positioning. It’s about flanking, recoveries, and setting up for the perfect counter. This fight focused on all of those. I would dash in for a chain of spear strikes before regaining stamina with a well timed button press so I could dash through the enemy’s guard.

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I think Nioh will invite a lot of comparison to Bloodborne. Both games share an emphasis on fast action. But while Bloodborne’s regain system encourages desperate and appropriately visceral aggression, Nioh feels more considered.

In fighting games, there’s a concept called ‘footsies.’ It refers to the moments of action when opponents are outside of each other’s combo range and engage in a mid-range positioning game full of pokes and baiting.

Nioh is full of footsies. The enemies often play on your zeal while you’ll also test the waters with light attacks before learning the best times to attack in earnest. This boss fight was filled with such dynamics. It was wonderful.

Another early game boss emphasized dodging and positioning as well.

While I appreciate battling giant centipedes and bizarre water beasts, I think Nioh works much better when the focus is on smaller enemies where it can highlight the game’s dazzling movement mechanics. Slaying strange spirits is nice but I’ll take a straight up swordfight any day of the week. And when Nioh offers those? They’re some of the best boss fights I’ve ever had.