Only the darkest souls feed perilous yokai in Nioh, the Sengoku-era Soulslike
Nioh was one of the first games left to the wayside as this year’s early months of instant gaming classics crashed like waves month after month. While Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Persona 5 captured the attention and admiration of the gaming community, Nioh garnered a more niche following. It became easy for fans of the Dark Souls franchise to make the leap into Nioh‘s brutal combat and convoluted levels, but its added complexity made it difficult to appeal to a wider audience. As we begin to dig into our hefty backlogs for 2017, I argue that now is as good a time as ever to pick up the overlooked Sengoku-era action title packed with Japanese heroes, villains, and all the yokai in-between. Nioh: Complete Edition includes three downloadable expansions that contain additional story missions to continue your adventure: Dragon of the North, Defiant Honor, and Bloodshed’s End.
Before I delve any further into this review, I feel like I should spare a few words on the quality of Nioh‘s port to PC. Wary Dark Souls fans will have nothing to fear from Nioh: Complete Edition, which doesn’t need any additional fanmade patches to run smoothly or add stability. While the game suffers from the occasional hiccup (most memorably in Hino-Enma’s first dive attack at the start of every grueling battle against her), my computer had little trouble running at a capped 60 FPS with high visual settings. The game also offers medium and low settings for less powerful computers and a 30 FPS cap for those who aren’t bothered by fewer frames-per-second. My only real issue with the port is its confusing controller mapping. Though I appreciate the ability to bind my settings to the traditional Dark Souls controls, adjusting the buttons for dodging or interacting with items inadvertently changes what buttons I use to navigate the menu. This caused me a great deal of trouble after accidentally mapping the “accept” button to the down arrow on my d-pad, forcing me to scroll upwards through the menu to fix my mistake.
Dodging is ki in Nioh
If Koei Tecmo’s alpha demo of Nioh was able to beat one thing into my skull, it was that ki management is vital to your survival. Though your guard no longer breaks immediately after depleting the stamina bar, ki pulses—well-timed button presses that regain some of your lost stamina—are just as important. Ki pulses can extinguish stamina-sapping pools left behind by particularly nasty yokai. Living Water, a pivotal upgrade to the skill tree for players who prefer to be light on their feet, allows you dodge in place of using a standing ki pulse. In addition to preserving precious stamina, Living Water saves you precious fractions of a second that can make the difference between life and death in Nioh.
Almost any move that requires you to use the same button as ki pulse will have the same effect. Even sheathing your weapon or changing your stance will count as a ki pulse, paving the way for ridiculously powerful combos. When people say that you really have to get into the rhythm of Nioh, they aren’t kidding: knowing the exact time to dodge, change stances, or simply activate a regular ki pulse is a matter of careful timing. Stances have their own skills attached to them that you can upgrade through each weapon’s skill tree, so it’s a good idea to experiment with different patterns to find out the best way to engage the enemy. The Dual Swords are excellent in low stance for engaging the enemy with quick slashes, then switching to mid or high stance to finish the blow. If I’m unable to stagger the enemy with a few slashes in low stance, I’ll quickly dodge out of the way and re-engage when their stamina is depleted.
Pieces of a disconnected world
One thing that Dark Souls veterans will immediately notice about Nioh is its lack of interconnected locations. One of my favorite moments from Dark Souls was the striking view of Ash Lake from the Tomb of Giants along the path to face the skeletal Gravelord Nito. Moments like that are totally absent from Nioh due to its mission structure. Each level is distinct from the last, allowing the player to leap from wrecked shorelines to snowy hillscapes without over-exaggerating the real-life locations they were based on. Considering how flexible Nioh is on Japanese history and folklore, however, I feel like they could have sacrificed some level of realism for a more immersive world.
What Nioh lacks in immersion it more than makes up for in superb level design. Each mission is designed around a core concept that employs fundamental rules of game design to teach the player how to deal with the boss at its end. In The Ocean Roars Again, a giant, gelatinous sea monster known as an Umi-Bozu attacks from the shore. Heading straight from the beginning of the mission, it takes less than a minute to reach the boss’s doors. If you take it on unprepared, the Umi-Bozu will send out miniature versions of itself to harass you while you’re fighting back the already trying boss. However, if you manage to light the three torches placed throughout the level, the miniature Umi-Bozus in the boss room will disintegrate moments before reaching the arena. The map itself leads you from traditional Japanese rooftops to half-sunken boats and rewards you for exploring all of its nooks and crannies. In addition to massive piles of loot and amrita (the experience points of Nioh), little green spirits called Kodama are hidden throughout each mission to boost passive bonuses like weapon drop chances or gold earned from enemies.
Nioh may be an unabashed Dark Souls clone, but there’s just enough that distinguishes it from its peers to keep Dark Souls fanboys like myself on their toes. These differences can be hit or miss; while the ki system and skill trees are welcome additions to the Soulsborne formula, repetitive enemies and randomized loot feel like cheap ways to pad the overall content of Nioh. It also foregoes some of the atmosphere and mysterious lore of Dark Souls for a more linear narrative, but a confusing storyline with poorly developed characters (and a really strange scene where the famous Hattori Hanzo uses a cat as a pocket watch) leaves me wondering why they even bothered. It’s a testament to Nioh‘s strengths that these complaints do so little to negatively effect my overall enjoyment of the game.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS4, PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Koei Tecmo ; Developer: Koei Tecmo; Players: 1-2 ; Released: November 7, 2017 ; MSRP: $49.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Steam key of Nioh: Complete Edition given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.