There is no avoiding death in Nioh, even if you’re gifted enough to stay alive. Corpses litter its many moonlit, war-torn locales; it’s a dark vision of Japan during the aftermath of the violent Sengoku period in the early 17th century. It’s a time of upheaval seen through new perspectives in Nioh: by the fluid yet demanding action game designs of Team Ninja and from the narrative view of navigator and trader William Adams. As is Koei Tecmo’s tradition with historical figures, Adams’ reputation and prowess as the first western samurai are elevated to supernatural status. While his skills and powers befit a game dense with hostiles and hazards, it has less in common with Ninja Gaiden and more with the recent works of From Software.
Even when Nioh plays like a superb spinoff of Dark Souls, it has so far shown potential in carving its own identity. For instance, while its shrines function similarly to Dark Souls’ progress-saving “bonfires,” they are not necessarily safe havens since a shrine becomes inaccessible if an enemy is nearby. By and large, Nioh’s demons and possessed humans move with more assertiveness and emotion than anyone you’ll find in Dark Souls. You hear it in their growls when they spot you and in their grunts as they labor to swing heavy weapons with two hands. And no matter how victorious you are, wins mean little unless you make it back to your shrine to redeem your experience and level up.
Nioh’s environments can be deceptive and you quickly learn to stay on your toes at all times. Demons stand in plain sight at the end of hallways, hoping that you’ll charge ahead carelessly without anticipating his buddy hiding around the corner. You feel smart when you’ve methodically lured a possessed ninja into a one-on-one battle. Conversely, you feel idiotic when an enemy capitalizes on your cockiness or carelessness. That’s the twisted beauty of Nioh: it pulverizes you the moment you don’t respect a foe’s abilities. That includes any attempts at brute forcing your way to victory. In Nioh, even a weapon with high attack power like an axe is better in the hands of a patient player than a persistently aggressive one.
Aggressive habits are understandable if you prefer Bloodborne, since health replenishes every time you deal damage. Conversely, stamina–which determines the amount of actions you can perform in a brief span of time–takes immense skill to replenish in Nioh. Like the efficient movements of a veteran samurai, stamina management in Nioh requires mindful execution where every strike has purpose. The fact that enemies are also subject to the limits of stamina is a standout feature, creating a level of combat depth not found in From Software’s games.
Mastering stamina replenishment has, as of yet, not been a prerequisite for advancing in Nioh. Instead, you can defeat its bosses by mixing thoughtful tactics and proactive use of the game’s many consumables. It’s also an immense help that each weapon has an expansive move set, spread evenly across three fighting stances. It’s gratifying to have the presence of mind to switch between these poses in a duel, and besting an enemy without wasting a single action makes you feel like a veritable badass.
The myriad variables to consider when it comes to weapon choice, combat stances, and moment-to-moment strategies almost feel overwhelming, but having all these options is turning out to be one of Nioh’s strengths. The wealth of loot collected from a dozen vanquished foes can turn you into a weapons user of multiple disciplines, jumping from sword to spear to hammer in the span of an hour. And even if you do become familiar with all five weapon types, there’s also the consideration of foregoing the defensive security of an armored samurai in favor of the less protected yet more agile ninja persona. It remains to be seen if this degree of diversity will be a detriment to long-term success, but so far, Nioh has been a punishing yet gratifying excursion for jacks of all trades.
Even after spending roughly 40 hours battling my way through Nioh, its progress menu implies that I still have a ways to go. And given that its collectibles have practical value, I have additional incentives to fully explore the worlds’s many engrossing environments. With any luck, the increased levels that result from these thorough searches also help make the boss fights less of a headache. Given the varying degrees of hardships I’ve encountered up to this point, I can’t wait to see what devious tricks the remaining bosses have up their sleeves as I forge through the rest of the game. Stay tuned for our full review in the coming days.