Look, I didn’t expect to spend the last two nights obsessively playing Nioh either, but here we are.
Nioh is a new PS4-exclusive action game from Team Ninja, the studio behind the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series. It’s out in about a week, on February 7. The game has been floating at the periphery of my awareness for a while now, partly due to its incredibly protracted development (it was first announced at E3 2005??) and partly because it’s had multiple demos and betas to allow the developers to tweak and fine-tune the game based on player feedback.
Sony sent me a copy earlier this week and I found myself completely drawn in by it. I’ve now played five or six hours, which has gotten me past the first real (asshole) boss and into the meat of the game. I thought I’d write up some impressions based on my time with it. I do include a clip of the first real boss and a silly gif from a story cutscene, if you’re concerned about seeing that sort of thing a week before the game comes out.
First of all: this game is good. I’ll explain how it achieves that goodness in this article, but I wanted to get the big-picture take out of the way up front. I am super into this game. I suppose it’s possible that it turns to garbage after its impressive opening missions, but based on how strong its fundamentals are, that seems unlikely.
Nioh borrows several core structural elements from From Software’s Souls games, though it also differentiates itself in some key ways. Those borrowed elements: You earn XP by killing enemies, and if you die, you drop whatever unused XP you were carrying and have one shot to go pick it all back up or you lose it good. When you die, the level resets (mostly) and standard enemies respawn. You can cash in XP at shrines, which are basically Souls bonfires, which lets you level up and also reset the level.
Levels are twisting, layered affairs where if you venture far enough in the correct direction, you can kick down ladders and up shortcuts to let you get around easier. There are tricks and traps throughout, and often the most straightforward path is not the smartest one. There is no jump button. Bosses are massive beasts that can kill you in a couple of hits. Their health bars are displayed with a giant red bar at the bottom of the screen. You get the idea.
Nioh is also very difficult, and you can die at any moment if you aren’t careful. (I fought the second boss like 30 times before I finally beat him. It was a rush, but man, fuck that guy.) Combat is also Souls-influenced, with a strong focus on 1v1 duels against deadly opponents. Any basic enemy around your level can kill you in a few hits, and you’ll have to play smart, pay attention to your surroundings, carefully manage your stamina, and lure clumped enemies away from their friends. Your moves (and your opponents’ moves) are animation-locked, meaning you’ll have to carefully choose between a quick but weak jab or a longer, stronger combo. If you overcommit you can leave yourself open to a devastating counterattack.
Here’s a clip of me taking on a tough armored enemy, which gives a basic sense of how combat flows:
Combat in Nioh moves much faster than a Dark Souls game, and in fact feels even more fleet to me than Bloodborne. The latter game is certainly the better overall comparison, particularly given that the protagonist William dodges with a speedy quickstep rather than a roll. Like Bloodborne, there are no shields in Nioh, though you can adopt a blocking stance to absorb some attacks.
In Nioh, stamina (here called Ki) is everything. It governs how many times you can attack and dodge, and if you run out in the middle of a fight, William will spend a moment standing still, huffing and puffing and waiting to get completely owned by his opponent.
Every time you attack, however, you’ll see a small cloud of Ki particles accumulate around William. Press R1 when that happens and you’ll trigger a Ki Pulse, which triggers much faster Ki regeneration. It’s a crucial move and an interesting additional mechanic to juggle on top of attacking, dodging, and blocking.
Ki Pulsing reminds me a little of Bloodborne’s health-replenishing attacks, where you could recover a portion of your lost health if you launched an offensive shortly after taking damage. It’s a technically optional but often crucial extra thing to hold in your mind while fighting, and it adds a wrinkle to combat. It can be a bit frustrating to get the timing right, since as far as I can tell you have to be standing still to do it, but it adds an interesting and integral new dynamic to combat. (Update: Never mind, I played some more and there’s a skill you can unlock that lets you do a Ki Pulse while dodging.)
Nioh has online functionality similar to a Souls game, and you’ll see red graves anywhere another player has died. (Some also appear to have been added by the developers.) Pass over the grave and you’ll see some information about who they were and what killed them, along with an option to “fight revenant.”
If you choose to do that, you’ll summon a hostile, computer-controlled version of their character. These fights are much tougher than your average enemy, but can net you better gear if you win. It’s an interesting twist on the Souls formula, and a nifty middle ground between PvE and PvP. (Apparently Team Ninja will be adding PvP in a free update, but isn’t in the game yet. You can, however, summon other players to help you out in your game or go fight alongside others. I haven’t really done that yet.)
While the first few levels mostly feature human enemies, there are also demons, known as Yokai, each of which is apparently based on a creatur from Japanese folklore. Most of the Yokai I’ve fought have been signaled with a glowing, darkened area that appears in the game world. If I go close enough, a demon pops out and it’s time for a knock-down, drag-out fight. They’re basically sub-bosses, much tougher than any of the other enemies in the level.
Yokai also activate something called the “Yokai Realm” when they run out of Ki, which drops a circular ward of glowing darkness on the ground. If you’re standing on it, your Ki will regenerate much more slowly and the Yokai will be more powerful. Fortunately, you can purify a Yokai Realm area by activating a Ki Blast after an attack. I didn’t really grasp this system until I took on the first proper boss—suddenly, I found myself leaping in, scoring some hits, activating a Ki blast to keep the boss from becoming more powerful, then getting out before he could wreck me.
I have a feeling that later levels will become more and more Yokai-heavy, though I’m actually really enjoying the early levels’ balance of ordinary humans with a few Yokai to spice things up.
In addition to Ki Blasts and managing pockets of Yokai Realm darkness, you also have to keep track of William’s stance. There are three possible stances, which can be quickly changed by holding R1 and tapping a face button. Low, medium and high stance each do an increasing amount of damage but move ever more slowly.
Here’s me taking on two guys (not generally recommended) using William’s low stance:
Each stance also works differently with each of the main weapon types, which include familiar options like a longsword, two shorter swords, axes, spears, hammers, a chain-sickle Kusarigama. You can quickly switch between one of two equipped melee weapons on the fly. In addition to melee options, you can also whip out one of your two ranged weapons in the middle of a fight, and it’s actually easier to do that than I would’ve thought. It all adds up to a fast-moving and unusually complex combat system with a ton of options for offense and defense. This seems like the kind of game that skilled players will spend months mastering.
Nioh isn’t just influenced by the Souls games—there’s more than a little Diablo to it as well, particularly with regard to loot. Enemies regularly drop armor, weapons, and usable items, and each one is color-coded for rarity. There’s no limit to how much you can carry, so you’ll wind up with multiple copies of a given piece of armor, each one with slightly different perks and abilities.
After the second level, I got access to a blacksmith who will let me forge my own weapons and armor, merge existing weapons with higher-level but inferior weapons, change the appearance of a piece of gear while keeping its perks, and change up the perks on a given piece of gear.
There’s also a Diablo-ish mission select screen, which is another departure from the Souls formula. Nioh isn’t one big interconnected map, but rather a series of maps with specific missions attached to them. I’m actually fine with that, but people expecting a Souls-like open map game might be disappointed.
I’m currently in the midst of a side mission that has returned me to the map from the second story mission, but in reverse. The enemy locations are different, everyone’s tougher, the doors work differently, some areas are blocked off, and there are all new secrets and bosses. It’s a cool idea. Nioh’s basic gameplay is so good that I’m happy to replay levels and get into new fights.
Anyone who’s played Dark Souls probably knows how “stealth” in those games works. You use your bow and arrow to carefully cheese enemies from so far away that they can’t get to you, whittling down huge foes with 60 arrows until they die. Nioh actually has stealth that feels less like cheesing and more like an intended strategy. You can headshot enemies with your bow and arrow, which will often kill them outright, though with stronger enemies it’ll just knock them to the ground. If you can close fast enough, you can trigger a finishing move before they get up.
However, enemies are fairly vigilant, so if you take out one guy, the guy standing next to him will immediately come running your way. Your foes seem much more aggressive in Nioh than in a Souls game, and I’ve yet to see one run into an invisible wall and immediately lose interest in me. They’ll chase you across half the level if they have to.
It’s possible for a careful player to sneak across the rooftops of a level, picking off unaware enemies from afar, but they really will have to be careful when doing so. Do things right, and you can clear levels largely by striking from the shadows.
I’ve never gotten too deep into Team Ninja’s past games, but so far Nioh is a marked tonal departure from what I’ve played of Ninja Gaiden or Dead or Alive. It’s a historical fantasy tale set in Japan’s war-torn 16th century Sengoku period, and the developers have apparently gone to great lengths to include period appropriate weapons, armor, and fighting styles. It’s just that there’s also magic and demons.
The plot centers around a western Samurai named William, who’s actually based on a real dude named William Adams. He’s tracking a mysterious occult conspiracy that originated in England. It actually feels a bit Assassin’s Creed-ish so far, with a mix of historical figures (Hattori Hanzo has already turned up as my Ninja trainer), secret societies, and fantastical truths waiting to be discovered. I’m not really playing this game for the story, but so far the setting has been refreshingly low-key, with nary a big-titty CIA agent in sight.
A lot of what I’ve written here will be old news to people who’ve been following Nioh for years. If you’ve played all the demos and are already planning out your character builds, you probably know more about this game than I do. I’ve only just unlocked Ninjutsu abilities and haven’t even begun to experiment with specialized skills and magic abilities.
I do feel confident saying that Nioh is good, however, and am much more excited about it than I was a week ago. It’s a historically grounded samurai Bloodborne, with a healthy dose of Diablo and some nifty new ideas of its own. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you will almost certainly like this game.