The comparisons between Nioh and the Dark Souls series (including Bloodborne) are inevitable, so I’ll go ahead and get them out-of-the-way now: Nioh is basically Team Ninja making a Dark Souls game, and in the process, managing to make the best goddamned version of a Souls game I have ever experienced.
Much like the Souls series it clearly takes inspiration from, Nioh can be a challenging game to overcome; but unlike the Souls games, the difficulty never spikes after the defeat of a boss (something I noticed every single time I managed to beat a boss in any Souls title). Instead, it has a very gradual curve to the difficulty. During my time playing Nioh, I never had to grind out for hours just to power level my character to the point where I could barely defeat the next boss. In fact, grinding might as well be a thing of the past when you combine how much experience (or Amrita, as it is referred to in-game) you receive from defeating human and Yokai (demon) enemies and a tactical approach.
One of the (many) key differences between Nioh and Souls games are the things that Nioh brings to the table that I didn’t even know I desired in a Souls-like game before. Different weapon stances that offer variety in attack speed and attack damage? Yes please. The ability to have certain consumables (curatives, projectiles, magical items that imbue your weapon with additional elemental damage) refill each time I visit my save point? Sign me up! The four main weapon types available to you in-game each have a variety of skills you can learn to make yourself better in combat? Mmm-hmm. The ability from the goddamned get-go to sacrifice weapons, armor, and consumable items not currently equipped to my character in exchange for Amrita (and additionally, in some cases, curative items that I will actually use)? Aw yis. Being able to regain a certain amount of stamina after a successful attack by performing a dodge move, thereby allowing you to keep the assault going? HNNNNNG. The simple fact that your currency for buying things and upgrading your character aren’t the fucking same thing? OH LAWD JESUS! These are just a few examples of the “quality of life” changes that Nioh makes to the Souls formula to make it feel like a new and exciting type of game, while still allowing hardcore Souls fans, like myself, to scratch that Souls itch after beating the rest of the series of games.
Speaking of those “quality of life” changes I mentioned, I do think my favorite element of Nioh, aside from the different types of weaponry one can use (and the different tactical advantages that each weapon offers the player), is the implementation of the stance system.
In Nioh, there are 4 basic attack stances available: High, Medium, Low, and Sheathed. The “High” stance favors power above all else, allowing you to do insane amounts of damage at the cost of using up a bit of stamina and screwing maneuverability, leaving you wide open for counter attack should you miss your strike. The “Low” stance greatly favors speed and maneuverability, allowing you to throw out a bunch of low damage strikes at the opponent that use a very small amount of stamina in the process. It also allows you to use your “Ki Pulse” ability (which lets you regain lost stamina in an instant) while blocking, something that other stances do not allow for. The “Medium” stance is a middle ground between the High and Low stances, allowing for moderate damage and maneuverability, and is a pretty good starting point for new players. Lastly, the “Sheathed” stance is mostly only employed for very specific skills associated with each of the weapons you can use.
On the topic of weapons in Nioh, there are five melee weapon types (as well as three types of ranged weaponry) the player has available to them. Each of these weapon types offers a different style of combat to the player. For example, the kusarigama (more or less a chain sickle with a weight on the end), allows for effective long-range and short-range combat (including being able to pull enemies towards the player – or flinging the player towards the enemy if they are a demon or heavily armored human), at the cost of not being quite as powerful as the axes or two-handed swords. Even better, unlike the Souls series, which would greatly limit what weapon types you could use based on your stats, Nioh does not place such limits – allowing the player to, in a single play through, try out all five different weapon types and figure out which best suits their play style. In addition, as you use your melee weaponry, you gain what are known as “Samurai Skill Points”, which can be used to unlock various skills to bolster combat. Better still, the skill points are not locked to a specific weapon type, so you could be gaining skill points with a two-handed sword, but use the points to unlock skills for the kusarigama or axe.
In addition to the various weapon types that Nioh offers, it also has Ninjitsu which offers the player various projectile weapons or status effect curatives to equip, and Onmyo which are magic talismans that can be equipped to apply magical effects to weapons, or that can be used on enemies to make them more susceptible to certain types of attacks or reduce various stats. The one drawback of Ninjitsu and Onmyo is that, unlike the samurai skill points that are granted through usage of melee weapons, the points given to the player to unlock things for these two are only available if you level up the attributes associated with them (Dexterity for Ninjitsu and Magic for Onmyo).
Taking yet another page out of the Dark Souls book, Nioh also offers the ability to upgrade weapons and armor through the utilization of a blacksmith system, but unlike the very simplistic system given to the player in the Souls series, Nioh has a very in-depth approach. In addition to being able to upgrade a weapon by combining it with other weapons/armor, the player is given the ability to forge their own weapons and armor (so long as they have encountered said weapons and armor out in the wild beforehand), as well as reforging a weapon to upgrade or change the passive bonuses the weapon/armor has. The player also has the ability to forge “tools”, which will allow you to forge better weapons/armor with better base bonuses. As you acquire or forge higher level tools, you can also forge even more powerful weapons/armor.
And that’s not all, as you can upgrade them by using what is known as “Soul Match”, which allows you to improve the damage, in the case of weapons, and defense in the case of Armor, at the price of sacrificing another. You can also use a system known as “Reforge” to change the “Special Effects” that each of your weapons/armor have, at the cost of items known as “Spirit Iron” and a bit of gold per effect you wish to change. Granted, you do not have much choice in what new “Special Effects” your weapon/armor will receive, but if you’ve got a special effect that improves a specific type of attack by 10%, but you don’t use that type of attack, it’s nice to be able to erase that from a weapon and replace with something you might actually use, than having to switch to another weapon entirely.
And lastly, you have the “Refashion” system which, as the name may imply, allows you to refashion the way your weapons or armor look for a price. I happen to be one of those types of people who like my armor to not look like a mishmash of randomized bullshit, so being able to make all the new and fancy armor I acquire look like they belong to the same set satisfies my great levels of autism.
Another thing that I greatly appreciate Nioh for is doing away with the “open world” nature of the Souls series in favor of a mission based system ala the Tenchu series. Every time you complete a mission (usually by killing a Yokai boss monster if doing a main mission or killing a human boss in the side/twilight missions) you are brought back to a main map screen where you can choose to return to your “Starting Point”(which happens to be the only place where you can use the blacksmith service), or pick another mission on the map to tackle. The map itself is fairly large, taking the player all over what is supposed to be 17th century Japan with the various locations having a multitude of missions for the player to mess around with. I find this system does away with one of the biggest issues I’ve always had with the Souls series as a whole, as it often felt like I was spending far too much time walking/running from place to place, rather than actively engaging with what I was supposed to be doing to progress the story at that moment. While some might find this change somewhat irksome, I happen to find it a rather welcome change to the formula allowing for better over all balancing of missions.
Now, you might be thinking “Mulatto, this is all fine and dandy, but what about muh story?”(I can almost guarantee that none of you are thinking that because playing a Souls-like game for the story is like watching hentai for the plot). The story is superb. Granted, its not Oscar-worthy writing or anything, but the story itself is serviceable enough and doesn’t leave me with too much to complain about. The biggest strength of the story itself is just how it is given to the player. Unlike the Souls series, where the situation is that there is a story, but you gotta actively go looking for it if you want to find it and experience it, Nioh plays like a more traditional Team Ninja game. There are cut scenes given to you at regular intervals that give all sorts of exposition and context to everything you are doing, whom you are doing it for, and most importantly why you are doing it. Don’t get me wrong, the Souls series’ approach to storytelling is one that I can definitely appreciate for the novelty, but I will openly admit that actively knowing the ins and outs of the motivation behind my character doing all the things is infinitely more engaging than “go out and kill all the bosses because ignite the flames or some shit”, and being the utter weeb that I am, it was interesting to see historical figures of Japan (such as Hattori Hanzo, Kuroda Nagamasa, and Tachibana Ginchiyo) depicted in this fantastical version of the Land of the Rising Sun.
All in all, Nioh is a phenomenal title that will scratch that itch many have had for a new Souls game and should FromSoft decide to make another Dark Souls, or a sequel to Bloodborne, I would not at all be surprised to see some of the elements of Nioh appear in that future title.
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