*This review originally appeared at wizarddojo.com*
The way of the Samurai is glorious…
The trials and tribulation of the Souls’ series is a rather novel experience for myself, as I originally dipped my toes into this amalgamation of impeccable construct and design with 2015’s Bloodborne. Its exquisite Gothic, Victorian setting was unquestionably appealing and its faster, visceral combat improved on Dark Souls’ meticulous combat design. Dark Souls III continued to expand on this concept by notably increasing the speed of the series’ combat design, while maintaining the inert core of the beloved franchise. However, Team Ninja’s conspicuous take on the established Souls formula is arguably the best iteration yet. Nioh’s dynamic combat is practically flawless, with its innovative stance and Ki (stamina) recovery system acting as the glorious cherry on top. Its level of difficulty is relatively on par with From Software’s repertoire, but enemies rely on the same defined rules and mechanics as the player, incorporating an additional layer of fairness. In regards to level design, Nioh follows the immaculate steps laid out by Dark Souls developer, From Software; Nioh is beautifully atmospheric and chock full of impeccably designed shortcuts, secrets, and other hidden goodies, imploring that key sense of exploration and back-tracking. Its fictitious take on the late Sengoku Period is exquisitely beguiling; from the charismatic encounters with historian legends such as Oda Nobunaga or Tokugawa Ieyasu, to the exhilarating key moments in history such as the Battle of Sekigahara, Nioh is an intriguing period piece that is surprisingly informative as it is entertaining. As an action RPG, Nioh is an absolute triumph in game design and player accessibility, as its level of flexibility and gratification is beyond dynamic, catering to an abundance of different preferences. Nioh takes the basic foundation of the Souls formula and expands it exponentially, incorporating dynamic systems to create a novel gameplay experience that surpasses anything that came before it.
As I previously mentioned, Nioh is a fictitious tale set in the illustrious Sengoku period; as with its gameplay, its presentation value is elegantly top-notch, appropriately highlighting the key aesthetic variances and vicious beauty of the Samurai era. Its historical key points and figures are an undoubtable highpoint and saving grace to what is a rather lackluster and underwhelming narrative that is disjointed at best. While I appreciate Nioh’s cinematic touch and succulent ambience– its focused nature is a nice breather from Dark Souls’ ambiguous undertones – its narrative still falls victim to From Software’s convoluted tendencies in exposition. While its narrative lacks a primary sense cohesion and focus, Nioh’s slew of idiosyncratic historical figures provide an abundance of charm and depth that makes up for any omissions or shortcomings that plague the narrative. Each character’s background story is brilliantly executed, accompanied with illustriously design, painted-esque animations; from the tragic demise of Nobunaga’s wife to the malicious paternal ties of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Okatsu, these key moments beautifully illustrate Nioh’s presentational quality and strengths. Nioh’s aesthetic variance is fluctuated efficiently; the crisp, haunted moonlight enveloping forgotten temples embody the chill of war, while the frozen remnants of a distraught village evoke an ambience of remorse and loss. Environments are expertly designed and evoke a proper sense of fantastical realism with its pristine attention to detail; demons of Japanese folklore, called Yokai, are brilliantly constructed with a twisted ambience kept in mind. As a testament to Nioh’s profound sense of accessibility, it offers three flexible graphical setting options that cater to different preferences. Movie mode caps the frame rate at 30fps in order to boost the resolution, Action Mode sacrifices resolution in order to keep a solid 60fps, and Variable Movie Mode is a welcome, yet unreliable compromise of the two. It’s a remarkable system that emits an unparalleled sense of equilibrium, and Team Ninja should be commended for its inclusion as this system is a new gold standard for experiences that cater to graphical fidelity and performance. Nioh’s audio counterpart is also relatively strong, with both its English and Japanese performances complementing their corresponding idiosyncratic personalities. Its music, while not necessarily strong in comparison to its other presentational values, is an adequate effort that elegantly conveys somber undertones while instigating a bombastic ambience for epic battles of war.
Nioh’s prime factor and most redeeming quality is its impeccable combat. The swift, visceral combat is a notable homage to the calculated nature of Onimusha and the hasty, arcade-y flow of Ninja Gaiden; it’s a glorious amalgamation of hack n’ slash goodness and meticulous calculation, with a bevy of complex systems that come together to construct one of the most satisfying combat systems ever created. Nioh’s brilliantly innovative stance system is further testament to Nioh’s unparalleled sense of flexibility. The stance system allows player to switch between the low, mid, and high stance on the fly, each with its own attributes to speed, damage, and Ki consumption. With Nioh’s various weapon choices (swords, dual swords, axes, spears, and kusarigama) and the three mechanically varied stances, there are a plethora of different combinations and playstyles that cater to multiple preferences. It compliments the satisfying combat profusely, creating a well-rounded, flexible, and harmonizing system. Equally as impressive is Nioh’s Ki recovery system, which adds an additional layer of strategy to Nioh’s established risk and reward formula. Shorly put, the simple press of a button will allow you to restore an allotted amount of lost Ki (stamina) – the amount restored is determined by the precision of your timing. Utilizing this system incorrectly and using up too much Ki will leave you immobilized, leaving you wide open to an array of pulverizing attacks. However, in an essence of equilibrium and unparalleled fairness, enemies (including bosses) also rely on this same Ki system, and are prone to the same detriments and stylistic finishing moves if they are staggered and run out of Ki. Guardian Spirits and their corresponding Living Weapon provide an edge of insurmountable power unprecedented in the Souls series, akin to the fantastical magic systems of Onimusha and Ninja Gaiden. Each Guardian Spirit provide unique abilities and attribute enhancements. Aside from enveloping your equipped weapon in the spirit’s respective element, Living Weapons can also enhance your attack power, significantly buff your defense, and can even activate upon death for a welcomed second chance. It’s an element that not only separates Nioh from the established formula, but significantly evens the odds against the daunting bosses. Bosses are brilliant works of art, as their meticulously designed move sets and grotesque art design are akin to the intricate technicality of From Software’s repertoire, and while nothing notably compares to the gargantuan scale of Amygdala from Bloodborne or the enthralling design of the Nameless King from Dark Souls III, Nioh’s elite cast of Yokai and humanoid fiends are still worthy adversaries that provide an arduous challenge. Normal enemies are also demented in their aesthetic design and can provide a notable challenge; in certain late game missions, previous bosses can be encountered as normal enemies. Nioh’s shortcut design is brilliantly implemented, catering to the impeccable design of Metroidvania classics – checkpoints, which take the form of Shrines in Nioh, are few and far between, so unlocking and utilizing these shortcuts is an imperative strategy for success. In accordance to the Souls series punishing nature, you lose your Guardian Spirit and all of your Amrita, Nioh’s experience resource, upon death; if you fail to retrieve your lost amrita during your subsequent life, all of your hard-earned Amrita will be lost forever. This system is not only as punishing as From Software’s offerings, but it’s equally as rewarding. Nioh’s coop system is an excellent inclusion that neutralizes Nioh’s punishing aura, but is weighed down by some questionable limitations. Did you want to aid a friend, struggling with a difficult mission and/or boss? You can only do so if you’ve completed that aforementioned mission yourself. It’s a shame you cannot experience Nioh’s glorious tribulation concurrently with a friend. One must always be one step ahead in order to formulate this coop system. Another interesting online inclusion is Nioh’s Revenant system; Revenants are AI controlled enemies that take the form of fellow players who’ve fallen. Seeing how they are particularly levelled, Revenants provide an engrossing challenge and are absolutely worth fighting due to their substantial gear drop.
Setting itself apart from the staples of this engrossing formula, Nioh is actually mission-based, as opposed to the expected open sandbox structure. However, each mission boasts a surprisingly robust sandbox that still intertwines and emits an engrossing sense of exploration – these sandbox missions are chockfull of unique goodies to discover and shortcuts to unlock, remaining faithful to the established formula. While the mission-based structure can feel slightly disjointed and lacks the cohesion of the more traditional structure, missions are easier to digest, resulting in a more efficient manner of tracking progression. Plus with a slew of different side-missions and revamped older missions entitled “Twilight Missions” for an added set of challenge and reward, it’s an easier system to micromanage and is far more seamless and enjoyable because of it. Aside from illustrious chests filled with rare items, weapons, and/or gear loomed throughout the landscapes, Nioh also scatters little Kodama throughout its vast sandbox as an additional collectible to attain. Kodama are cute little green creatures that provide additional bonuses – the more you collect, the stronger the bonus becomes. Each bonus is determined by the type of Kodama, which is differentiated by the little hat they wear. These bonuses increase the drop rate of specific goodies such as elixirs, money, Amrita, and/or gear. Nioh’s levelling system is relatively standard, efficiently following the footsteps laid before it. What sets Nioh apart from the competition is its skill system, which in turn allows you to learn lite combos and enhance your already excellent move sets. Whether it be a flashy parry counterattack, or unleashing a visceral whirlwind ensemble, these skills add an enticing flavour to an engrossing gameplay experience and are a testament to Nioh’s arcade-y heritage. Nioh’s gear enhancing system is superbly ground-breaking and is the final cherry on top to its unparalleled flexible nature. Have you ever grown attached to a specific weapon or piece of armor in an RPG before? Don’t lie, everyone has at some point. In Nioh, even if you find a stronger piece of gear, you never have to give up that weapon you profusely love. As long as you’ve got the coin to spare, you can increase your weapon’s attack damage by Soul Matching it with the stronger weapon, inheriting its increased level, while retaining your current weapon’s alluring stats such as elemental damage, attribute buffs and/or set bonuses. Nioh’s weapon familiarity system is a notable element that rewards players for this sense of attachment. Simply put, the more you use a weapon, the stronger it will get. Each weapon has a familiarity level and by result, the weapon’s attack damage increases as the familiarity level increases. A weapon’s familiarity level eventually caps, and this cap is determined by the rarity of the weapon. Divine and one of a kind weapons have a greater familiarity level cap, therefore their attack potential is substantially larger than an uncommon or average weapon. Another element that aids this glorious sense of flexibility is Nioh’s Refashion feature. This allows you to change the appearance of any weapon or item to something else that might suit your visual preference. It’s a great inclusion that was not necessary, but most certainly welcome, brilliantly catering to player preference yet again.
Nioh is a brilliant testament to the combat pioneers of yesteryear and the exquisitely designed formula established by From Software, while transcending into a robust experience that surpasses anything that came before it. Its cinematic narrative is a nice, welcome deviation, but its convoluted and disjointed nature leaves much to be desired. However, the engaging cast of side characters and their respective stories make up for all central narrative discrepancies. With an impressive amount of innovative systems that encapsulate a complex combat experience, Nioh simply obliterates the competition in regards to gameplay as its combat is novel, dynamic, and ever so satisfying. Whether it be the brilliant Ki recovery system, the well-varied stance mechanic, or the bevy of different gear enhancing options, Nioh is a well-rounded experience like no other, successfully catering to an insurmountable level of flexibility. It’s a brilliant masterpiece in terms of player accessibility; gameplay has simply never been so impeccably fine-tuned to a diverse amount of preferences. It’s difficult to not compare Nioh to From Software’s repertoire as it bears so many similarities to those brilliant vessels of game design, but Nioh does an incredible amount of implementation to set itself apart from the Souls series, and it’s arguably the stronger experience because of it.
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