Nioh Review

February 23, 2017

In this review I will continuously reference Dark Souls. Normally I try to avoid comparisons: every title should be discussed and rated on its own merits. But in the case of Nioh, Team Ninja’s once-was-vaporware action RPG, the comparisons are necessary. Whatever twists and turns Nioh‘s turbulent development cycle took, the end result is a vision deeply infused with influence from Hidetaka Miyazaki, yet impressively bold with its own conceptualisation to stand proud as an original work. Nioh is part Samurai Souls, but mostly a long overdue, confident body of work from a developer with scattered quality over the last few years.

Unfinished script fragments penned by acclaimed and influential director/writer Akira Kurosawa have been scrambled together with Team Ninja’s own ideas to form the basis of Nioh‘s premise, which follows protagonist William through a dark reimagining of Japan’s transition between of the Sengoku and Edo periods. The most immediate shift from Miyazaki’s portfolio is here: gone is the largely obscure, discovery based minimalist narrative of Dark Souls, replaced with Nioh‘s liberal use of cutscenes, characterisation, and structured storytelling. Real historical figures intersect throughout the narrative, sprinkled with dark fantasy elements heavily influenced by Japanese mythology, somewhat reminiscent of Dynasty Warriors. While particular story beats and peaks can at times come across as a kitschy, the emphasis on a traditional game narrative is a welcome shift from the genre’s status quo. I was particularly fond of the the use of language: William’s Western upbringing equates to an English speaking character, yet despite the localisation most Japanese characters retain their original tongue, subtitled to enforce authenticity of locations. I felt this came across best through Nioh‘s in-mission storytelling. Discovering a corpse will more often than not allow you to extract their amrita (Nioh‘s version of souls, for levelling), and at the same time play back a short burst of dialogue, written and performed in location appropriate dialect, of the deceased’s last moments. Piecing together these audio snippets alongside the context of the corpse’s location within the environment enriches narrative discovery and progression in a simple yet engaging way.

Nioh‘s narrative structure isn’t an isolated directorial decision, instead symbiotic with progression structure entire. Dark Souls‘ game-sized labyrinth of interconnected pathways and zones are nowhere to be found, Nioh finding comfort in traditional mission selection from a world map. Each stage is built with influence from Dark Souls on a compartmentalised level, like bite-sized pieces of what Souls fans have become accustomed to. Stages are still built with a clever sense of challenging gauntlets that can, in most cases, be bypassed by shortcuts and secrets unlocked the further you progress. And honestly, this structural change helps give Nioh its own identity. While accomplishments in Dark Souls are self appointed (and if you’re me, usually bookended by discovering bonfires and conquering bosses), Nioh‘s design is more straight-forward and focused. This has allowed Team Ninja to reuse stages for additional mission challenges (even if changes are usually minimal), or at the very least simply the option to return and grind for gear and discover missed goodies.

I don’t want to spoil Nioh‘s stage variety, but generally I was impressed with the diversity of locations, aesthetic designs, enemy types, and encounters. Perhaps faltering behind Miyazaki’s exceptionally well paced work, I did find Nioh was more prone to peaks and valleys of encounter structure and difficulty speaks. It’s hard to pinpoint what is the fault of the game versus fault of my own play, and I’m not going to pretend like I’m a master samurai, but there were definitely a handful of boss and encounter peaks which surprised at their difficulty compared to the lead-up. I never felt this to be a major detraction from overall quality, though. Nioh‘s Dark Souls similar die-and-revive character life cycle ensured a speedy return to missions, and in the case of bosses level shortcuts regularly guaranteed quick access to the climatic fight.

Though the aforementioned differences between Nioh and its obvious influences are noteworthy, what really impressed me most were the underlining changes to the combat system. On a surface level accrued skills and experience from Dark Souls will assist in breaching Nioh, but mastery will only come through learning and appreciating Nioh‘s combat nuances. Nioh‘s broader control over combat results in every melee weapon type usable with three stances; high and heavy, medium and balanced, or low and fast. Whether you’re using a katana, warhammer, or spear, combat movesets including damage values, speed, and hitbox areas change depending on stance, all three of which can be seamlessly swapped on the fly. With a second weapon loadout in reserve, you effectively have six combat variations available at any one time. Nioh more broadly embraces ranged attacks (eg: bow or rifle) as contextually useful regardless of your build, and a variety of melee counter attacks more seamlessly blend into encounters not unlike their mechanical necessity in a character action game. The aforementioned stances, abilities and gear, alongside other functions such as a Gears of War active reload-like skill for your stamina use (called ki pulse), encourage full game system mastery to strip opponents of defences and efficiently dismember them.

Nioh finds a curious balance here. To no detriment, Dark Souls balances the less-is-more approach, hand tailoring weapons and their use along with frequency of gear types against diversity of character builds and what is/isn’t actually useful to you. Nioh, on the other hand, is more accommodating and encouraging to players giving everything a try, yet relishes in gear diversity through regular item stat specific loot drops. Build diversity is still important too, and you’ll be encouraged to spec along a skill arc complimenting your preferred play style, but even a samurai sword master will find use from a randomly dropped rare high stat war axe. Nioh relishes in an abundance of aesthetically similar gear that are individually buffed and levelled with nuanced traits and statistics. It’s a striking formulaic shift from Dark Souls, yet scratches a loot hungry itch I hadn’t realised I missed from the genre.

While I cannot offer any insight into the PlayStation 4 Pro build of Nioh (I hear it’s quite good!), I can offer praise to Team Ninja for appreciating the technical necessity for a high framerate in titles that reward precise player feedback and response. I’d argue that it’s at least one lesson FROM Software can learn. Nioh offers a rendering option similar to Dark Souls where visuals are prioritised and framerate fluctuates, but also offers a visually downscaled mode that ensures a mostly locked performance. I love my fancy bells and whistles, but for a game like this consistent performance makes all the difference, even if it comes at a cost of overall graphical quality and resolution clarity.

And this degree of technical attention brings Nioh full circle. Given the series popularity I’m admittedly surprised at the lack of blatant Dark Souls imitators, though its influential tendrils can definitely be seen in a multitude of titles scattered across genres. Nioh is one of the few that more overtly approaches a Dark Souls-like design philosophy, but where something like Lords of the Fallen is perhaps too stagnant and on-the-nose with its influential material, Nioh is very much its own thing. The appeal to Dark Souls fans goes without question and comes with my immediate recommendation: the core similarities and crossover game systems act as a comfortable synchronicity. But Team Ninja have taken cues from their own portfolio and vision to ensure Nioh is a little bit Ninja Gaiden along with their own Souls-like ideas too. At worst, it’s an exceedingly welcome imitation of the Dark Souls we’ve come to love. And at its best, it’s an exciting and very welcome new direction and series from within the broader action RPG genre.


Superb combat system Rewarding levels Loot galore Technical efforts


Inconsistent balance Will inevitably be compared to Souls until the end of time

Overall Score: