Samurai Billiam Saves Japan – Nioh Review

I still don’t know what a “Nioh” is. Probably should have read the item descriptions.

For as much as I love some Dark Souls, I’ve noticed I have a pretty short leash on games that are “inspired” by it. The easiest thing to take away from Souls games is that they’re difficult, so it’s very easy for developers to lose sight of why those games resonant with people. It reminds me of how the success of Grand Theft Auto led to a ton of “GTA clones” which may have varied in quality, but couldn’t seem to escape the shadow of what inspired them. It wouldn’t be until enough games used the GTA formula in ways that were wildly different from its originator that we came to accept this style of sandbox as more than developer imitation.

Which brings us to Nioh, a game that takes a huge step towards establishing “Souls-like” as an actual subgenre in games.

I’ve seen many fans get defensive when Nioh gets called “Samurai Souls” but there’s really no mistaking the similarities. You collect souls (called “Amrita” this time) to level up, and you’ll lose all collected Amrita when you die. You have a chance to regain it by going back to where you died and picking them up, but even basic enemies are rarely pushovers. You have to approach fights with caution and you have to give the level design your full attention so you can efficiently make up any potential lost ground.

Items and magic can get assigned to shortcut buttons on the dpad, and there are mostly meaningless gestures that you’ll unlock throughout the game. You can summon other players to help or fight. So sure, Nioh is pretty damn Dark Souls at the end of the day, but it’s really how the two games are different that ends up standing out the most.

Nioh prioritizes a fast, deep combat system that really is one of a kind. All the main weapons feel really good to use. This is helped by having the ability to switch stances on the fly. So even if you’re going with a heavier weapon like a spear or axe you can switch to a lower stance for quicker attacks, or you go to a high stance for greater damage with weapons like the flashy and fast kusarigama, Nioh wants you experiment with these approaches. Is this a fight you want to be bobbing in and out of danger, or is this somebody you’re going to really have to get right up on top of and bully? I ended up doing plenty of both in my playthrough, and it’s rewarding to beat a difficult enemy not just by getting their attack timing down but getting the most out of my own offense.

The game gives you a ton of options as you progress. It’s not a matter of combo memorization like other action games, but there’s a lot of abilities you can add to the end of your basic combos or add to a very specific button combination. Executing the rad abilities Nioh offers isn’t the challenge, but rather knowing when to use them. There were plenty of moments in fights where I had to play really deliberately and be elusive like I would in a Souls game, but that just made the moments where I was spin-kicking around my spear and jumping off of enemies to promptly smash my katana on their head even more satisfying.

The other key aspect of Nioh‘s combat is the Ki Pulse, which is essentially an active reload for stamina. If used effectively, you can restore most of your used stamina instantly and keep moving or attacking. It can also purify areas that would normally drain your stamina. It’s a neat feature, but my favorite part of Nioh‘s stamina is that all enemies have stamina. Critical hits are more often determined by wearing an enemy down rather than nailing some specifically timed parry. I like this because it puts the enemies on an equal playing field. If you get an enemy that won’t stop blocking, just shove them with your spear and it’ll wear them down. They’ll either open up or get drained until they have no choice.

So Nioh‘s combat is really fun, but the downside to it is that the game throws a lot of its mechanics at the player all at once. It’s a bit rough to juggle them all at first, and it’s not helped that a lot of the better abilities require you to navigate what is some pretty horrendous menu design. There’s a skill tree for each weapon option, a separate skill tree for ninjitsu abilities, and a separate skill tree for magic abilities. What’s worse is that all the icons on the skill trees look the same, so if you want one specific upgrade, you got to scroll through and track it down every time.

Nioh is also a much more loot driven game than the Souls series, and it does a good job of making the equipment you find seem useful even if it’s not immediately better than what you have. You can combine weapons to improve stats, disassemble weapons to make new ones from scratch, and reforge weapons to potentially get better perks. But once again, this stuff is all thrown at the player at once with some clunky menus. You can quickly select things to sell and disassemble and you’ll eventually get the rhythm of how you should go about things with the blacksmith between missions. Nevertheless, it always felt like a chore and by the end of the game I was mostly only doing it to keep my inventory clean.

It’s a shame then that for as convoluted as the menus get, there’s a lot of reward in figuring them out. There’s an in-game achievement system that will give you permanent passive upgrades to your character outside of traditionally leveling up. There’s a lot of detail given to the enemies you fight and historical background to the characters you meet. It’s also great that you can not only upgrade your equipment with the loot you find, but you can refashion that equipment to look however you want it to as Nioh has some outstanding armor and weapon designs. But the menu interface is just sloppy and consistently a pain to navigate.

Another place where Nioh differentiates from the Souls series is in story and world-building. While there is a lot of fascinating descriptions about characters and items to enrich the world, the game is telling a much mores straightforward story compared to the rather abstract and infinitely more imaginative Souls lore. You play the role of Irish prisoner William Adams who escapes an english jail cell to rescue his guardian spirit who is capture by an evil alchemist who seeks to use her to unleash demons onto the world. William learns to fight like a samurai (somehow) on the way to Japan, and gets embroiled in the current civil war going on. Of course, he learns to fight for something beyond himself, settle the war, and save the world from the real bastards.

The main bullet points of Nioh‘s story don’t really hit hard. William and his main allies are paper thin, and the journey they go through is a very typical foreign hero adventure. However, what I did enjoy were the figures entrenched in the war going on in Japan and how William learns from all of them. While William is firmly on one side of the conflict out of personal necessity, he learns that those he’s fighting against are almost never truly bad people. He also learns that the people he is fighting with can also hide much more sinister sides than it initially appears.

For as little as there is to the main story, it’s weirdly satisfying how much nuance the game gives these fictionalized versions of major Japanese figures. Even the addition of ridiculous demon bosses only add to the complicated, often tragic tone the game sets out to achieve as these characters all have their own histories with this world. By taking this clearly stylized, but really fun tour through a dark chapter in Japanese history I end up remembering William’s adventure with a surprising fondness, even if his personal role is merely that of an observer and a weapon.

As for the setting, Nioh takes a mission structure to its gameplay instead of the vast, interconnected world of a Souls game. The levels are of a decent size and full of the shortcut/checkpoint gameplay you would expect, but they’re much more contained. Some of the level designs are really cool such as the shrine that has been flooded by a sea monster, a ninja mansion full of secrets and trap doors, and a village overrun with demonic spiders (actually, that one sucked). Unfortunately, if you try to do all the missions Nioh has to offer, you’ll find yourself revisiting all the maps multiple times. Even the best levels are really only fun for one thorough playthrough, so being a completionist in this game can border on repetitive.

Although, it wasn’t so much the level design as it was the enemy variety that made Nioh feel a bit repetitive as I neared the end. You will get your money’s worth in raw gameplay hours, but the game seems to run out of demons at some point. It’s still fun to play because you have to be on your toes no matter how strong you get, but you stop learning how to handle new enemies once the game runs out of ideas. It almost seems to say, “Well, we’ll throw three of these same demons at you now, and one can throw a fireball this time.” The fun of a Souls-like game really comes from the feeling that you’re becoming a better player with every fight, and Nioh seems to drop that feeling in the last quarter of the game. Except with the boss fights.

Now, not every boss fight is going to be a winner in any game, but I may have enjoyed Nioh‘s diverse lineup more than that of any of the Souls games. They’re almost all interesting, unique characters, and most of them are really fun to fight. From a difficulty standpoint, Nioh is probably much easier than the games that inspired it, but some of the challenges of these bosses were such tense fights that more than once I found myself feeling really great about a victory even when it had been hours since I had turned the game off.

I suppose the pride I feel comes from the fact that Nioh is a game that seems designed to be mastered. It doesn’t just hand over skill to you, and your power doesn’t mean much as enemies grow in power with you. You have to put time into it to really understand the speed of its snappy, fluid take on the Souls formula and to get the most out of its systems. I’ll be the first to say that with some of its menu issues, the game is definitely a labor in areas that never should be, and they might have padded it out with more missions than they had enough content for. Still, when you beat that final boss you’ll feel like you really have command of this game.

It’s a sense of accomplishment you really can only get from a Souls-like game, and what Nioh teaches you somehow feels new despite its obvious takeaways from that established formula. That is probably the best thing a game can do when trying to contribute to a young genre.