Nioh makes a very mixed first impression, but it’s rather fitting looking back at it. With little explanation or narrative reason, I immediately found myself controlling William Adams as he escaped from a London prison cell. The game does the bare minimum of explaining how the game’s systems work (bafflingly, the proper tutorial isn’t unlocked until a few hours into the game), and I quickly found myself lost as there’s not a proper map to look at. Despite this initial frustration, I instantly adored the snappy combat that will feel familiar to anyone who has played Team Ninja’s past action games.
Now dozens of hours later, I’m largely left feeling the same way about Nioh. There are aspects of the design that are downright infuriating, but the action is so satisfying that I’m willing to put up with its issues. What really separates this from other third-person action games is that it features a Gears of War-style active reload mechanic to regenerate stamina. This allows skilled players to keep most of their stamina after a combo, and pulling it off during a clutch moment feels awesome. It’s one of my favorite mechanics that I’ve seen in an action game in years, and helps make the dullest of combat exchanges more fun to engage in.
As flawed as Nioh is (more on that soon), the one area where I have absolutely no complaints is the combat. Weapons can be held in three different positions (high, mid, low) with each variant giving the player new combos and attacks. Throw in a huge skill tree, and several different melee weapon types, and there are hundreds of ways to go about killing baddies. Over time I found that particular stances worked particularly well against certain enemies (for example, I would use an overhead attack to destroy a crawling spider), and I found myself switching between all three pretty often.
The action feels snappy and responsive, which is a far cry from some of its contemporaries that value animation over function. That doesn’t mean that players can mindlessly hack their way through enemies, though, as I found out first-hand that even the weakest of foes can end William’s journey if they didn’t have my full attention. Death, while obviously not ideal, isn’t a huge deal within the game as the player retains most of their progress after dying. Items and equipment picked up will still be in William’s inventory when he awakens at the nearest checkpoint, and the only thing lost is experience that can be picked up if the player manages to reach where they previously died (it’s kept by their spirit guardian, who also serves as a special attack). This is one of the few concessions that Nioh makes for the player, and it’s a key one as otherwise hours could feel like they made zero progress after playing hours of the game.
After the trial by fire that is the opening hours, Nioh settles into a formulaic structure. One new story mission will always be available on the world map, and the player can jump into that standalone area after they’ve stocked up on supplies at the local blacksmith. I really enjoyed the episodic nature of the game since players get to see a lot of different sides of Japan (although sides that are often run down by demons) instead of working their way through one connected world. Levels tend to be pretty huge, as the number of times I managed to get lost in them is pretty embarrassing.
Each story mission typically plays out the same. William (or Anjin as he’s later known) works his way through enemy and soldiers until he reaches a shrine that can be used to level up and as a checkpoint. He repeats that cycle, and eventually finds himself facing off against a boss fight to cap off the stage. It’s these encounters where the game both shines and shows some lack of polish.
Boss fights typically find our blonde samurai battling it out against a gigantic demon. These David vs. Goliath tales are definitely cool to see when the little guy wins, but that is rarely the case on the first try (or 10th in some cases). A lot of the frustration with boss fights comes from the fact that many of the creatures have singular attacks or combos that can kill Anjin in a single blow. That often means to be successful, players have to play near-perfect for upwards to 15-minutes. That’s difficult to do when you know the pattern, and it’s even more frustrating if the player has to get through a sizable area before they can get to the fight (checkpoints are rarely put right outside a boss area).
Still Fighting It
The boss fights often feel unbalanced when compared to the stages that they are set in, so it’s only fair that players can even the fight a bit. This is done by summoning other players to their game by offering up a cup at their shrine, and then players who have previously finished that mission can help out those that are struggling. This works well in theory, but some of the bosses are so overpowered that I’ve seen players who are 50-levels over the suggested skill level end up dying. This is a particular bummer, as the person who was brought in then gets kicked out of the game and the summoner cup that was offered is gone forever.
These cups are very hard to come by in the first half of the game as the only way to earn more is to jump into past missions and successfully help another player pass them (later on you can buy them in a store). When someone dies (be it the summoner or the one helping out) then nobody wins and a cup is ultimately wasted. I once had this happen in a level after helping someone from the very beginning of it to the boss fight. Because the person I was helping got killed by the boss, the run ultimately was just a waste of 30 minutes as the gear I obtained was of a low level and I never gained the cup I needed.
While obtaining cups is a huge pain (made worse that you lose all progress in a level if you exit to the world map), it’s ultimately worth it as playing with others is the way to play Nioh. The game is so much more fun with another player, as enemies are easier to take down when being distracted. I just wish that that Team Ninja didn’t put up so many unnecessary hurdles in front of this enjoyment, but even that design can’t take away from the enjoyment.
Many of the hours I spent playing Nioh felt tedious. I replayed levels I had beat before in order to level up (which barely boosts your stats but every sliver of health counts in the game), constantly looked for crafting items so I could create better armor, and fought the souls of defeated players to die in order to gain glory (which can buy the aforementioned summoner cups). It’s a real shame that the majority of this grind is brought on by the ridiculous boss fights, as I never found the actual levels to be insurmountable as they offer up an enjoyable challenge.
Another disappointing aspect of the game is its visual performance. While the game runs at a solid frame-rate of 60fps, the visual resolution jumps around a lot depending on how much is happening on-screen. There are some options on the main menu where the player can enhance the visuals at the cost of frame-rate, but the hit in performance wasn’t worth slightly less pop-in. I’ve also seen enemies disappear completely when I would take a slight step backward and the animation of large foes almost looked like they were stop-motion when at a distance. These visual hiccups aren’t enough to really take away from the game, but they are definitely noticeable. If anything, it made me wish there was a PC version of the game as the best of both worlds simply can’t be had on a PS4 Pro.
Nioh is a game of highs and lows. It’s a tremendous blast when the combat gets to shine, but it often gets the spotlight after hours of tedium. Instead of crafting a tight 20-hour experience like Ninja Gaiden, Team Ninja has opted to create a title that had me constantly grinding. It’s a flawed experience that really has no respect for the player’s time, but one that I’m ultimately glad to have experienced.
Review code for Nioh provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.