Nioh is the answer to the question, “What if a Dark Souls game were faster and less confusing?
The natural follow up to that questions is “Would that game be any good?”
The answer: Yes, in a really odd way.
The “Dark Souls like” is becoming common enough that it may soon move from a trend to a full fledged genre, making games like Nioh a bit more common.
Stylistically, Nioh is reminiscent of the Onimusha series mostly by virtue of a shared setting and theme. That is, of course, when Nioh isn’t cribbing from Dark Souls. When compared to Dark Souls, Nioh seems more buttoned down and organized. It’s as if a really skilled office manager took a look at a Dark Souls game and cleaned it up. All the weapons and armor have crystal clear stats in the menus. Every mission has a clearly posted minimum level recommendation. The bosses and enemies in Nioh, while still quite grotesque, are not as messy. There’s less gore dripping from everything. Nioh has a specific tutorial area, where a player can go to practice their fighting skills without worrying about losing level progress. The fighting skills for each weapon type are available for players to look up in the menu for those times when they find a powerful new spear but they’ve spent the last ten hours of the game not using spears, for example. A lot of these differences amount to nice quality of life improvements to the Dark Souls formula, even if they do make the menus somewhat busy and overwhelming at first.
The narrative in Nioh is equally standardized and sorted out to its detriment, unfortunately. The game’s protagonist, William, also called Anjin, is based loosely on a historical figure and is an Englishman who can apparently master the Japanese Martial Arts, Japanese Spycraft, and Japanese Magical arts in the course of a few weeks. William comes across as stiff and kind of lacking a personality, which is unfortunately a problem across the entire cast of characters.
There is a clear antagonist, as well, Edward Kelley, who, like William and a lot of the characters in the game, is very, very loosely based on an actual historical figure. Throughout the game, Kelley manipulates his way into unspeakable amounts of power given by demonic forces. Like any good villain, Kelley has minions, the most fearsome of which are demons of the Buddhist and Shinto variety. These demonic enemies are rooted in human failures and desires. In Nioh, demons walking the earth is the result of decades of conflict stoked by Kelley. As common people are forced to fight in pointless wars, they live lives of suffering and die filled with regret. According to Nioh, this negative energy coalesces around vengeful spirits and brings demons into the world. Also According to Nioh, you can destroy these mystical creatures with ordinary swords and other weapons so long as you’re pure of heart and have the blessing of a spirit embodying human compassion and belief. While this is an interesting backdrop, by the end of the game, the story becomes a bit tedious: The characters are just not established well enough to draw you in to care about their conflict.
The name of the game in Nioh is controlled aggression. Where the Dark Souls games require patience and caution almost at all times, Nioh often pushes players to just go for it. Where chipping away at a boss until it finally rolls over and dies is a totally valid strategy in Dark Souls, Nioh’s bosses do not respond favorably to this type of strategy to say the least. Even with the more common enemies in Nioh, encounters tend to be short and brutal one way or another. Either the player sees the enemy first – in which case they can be isolated and dealt with using a variety of strategies – or the player blunders into the enemy, in which case poor William will be dead before he even knows what hit him. A rare but rewarding event is when, as a player, you manage to thwart an enemy ambush through skill alone. One of the best feelings in this game is going from “Oh no! I’m outnumbered, I’m totally going to die!” to “Oh, yeah! I got all you sneaky punks!”
The major change to gameplay that Nioh adds to the emerging Dark Souls genre is speed. The game accomplishes this acceleration of combat through its “Ki” system. Essentially an active reload for sword swings, the “Ki” system allows players to replenish the stamina used in an attack or combination of attacks with a well timed button press. Skillful use of the system can allow a player to greatly extend their combo or quickly escape with just enough stamina if they get into trouble. Earlier I wrote about controlled aggression being the defining characteristic of Nioh. The “Ki” system illustrates this quality more than any other aspect of the game. Against an enemy of comparable strength. the system allows a player to finish a fight quickly and brutally. Against a stronger enemy, the system allows the player to save just enough stamina to get out of the way of a massive attack. In this way Nioh dares the player to take just one too many swings of a sword, and when the player takes that bait, the punishment is as swift and brutal as anything out there.
A cool aspect of Nioh is that the game is pretty well balanced in terms of accommodating play styles. Often in these types of games, there tends to be one or two ways to play the game that are really useful, and if you stray from that style, you’ll have a tough time. Nioh on the other hand lets players switch up their style on the fly and adapt to the challenge they’re facing which is a refreshing change. The way Nioh deals with variation of play style is really interesting. In addition to the five weapon types and their myriad skills, there are also Ninjutsu and Omya Magic skills to balance, not to mention the Guardian Spirits players can call upon once they’ve dealt and received enough damage. The overall experience is different because of the speed at which Nioh throws all this stuff at players. In a Souls game, a player might be lucky to come across a new useful weapon once every couple hours of play so that every new piece of equipment is exciting and must be closely examined. In Nioh, better equipment is constantly dropping from enemies, so much so that a viable play style is to not even look at equipment until the enemies start one-shotting you. Elemental weaknesses for enemies often change from mission to mission, making picking the right magic and Guardian Spirit important. Learning which enemies are susceptible to poisons and paralytics can be equally vital if you’ve chosen to spec in that direction. Or players can just ignore all that and build stats that let them wear heavier armor and do more damage with weapons.
Games like Nioh and the Souls series are rare enough that there is still a lot of room for variation in tone, style, and nuance in this budding genre. Not every change that Nioh makes to the formula is necessarily an improvement on the formula, but taking a risk on a relatively new style rarely works out as well as Nioh, but, to be clear, this style of game is not for everyone. The level of challenge that Nioh offers will be a thrill to some but will equally prove loathsome for others.
Visuals Nioh looks good but not great. It’s easy to catch Nioh in a bad light. Seeing far away enemies hitching as they patrol a route or watching the camera lose focus as it moves through a texture are unfortunately common occurrences. Most of the levels in Nioh are claustrophobic, which is fitting. Sound design is equally middle of the road during fighting but excels in quieter moments when the music shifts to an appropriately creepy tone.
The way Nioh is organized around missions and not zones makes it difficult to compare to other, similar games in terms of scope. There’s about the same amount of sheer content in Nioh that you might expect to find in a Souls game. The fact that you access that content through a menu and that what it often amounts to is a repopulation of an area you’ve already played through detracts ever so slightly from the experience. Because the game is so up front about what you’ll be doing in a given mission, it tends to take away from the mystery.
Ultimately, Nioh is a mixed bag. Strong gameplay and solid presentation end up mostly overshadowing a weak narrative, wooden characters, and a few technical hiccups. The main issue, though, is one of limited appeal. Only a specific type of player will find Nioh’s challenge interesting enough to keep at it in spite of some of its weaknesses.