Nine out of ten!?! Whoa... I'm not into samurais but I may have to try this out
By Gabriel Jones 13.02.2017 3
In the year 1600, an English navigator sailed to Japan. Becoming a samurai under the command of Tokugawa Ieyasu, he proved to be instrumental in winning the Battle of Sekigahara. This sailor also dealt with a foreign conspirator known only as Edward Kelley, who sought the magic of the spirit stones. These mystical rocks contain powerful amrita, which is capable of summoning vicious demons known as Yokai. Despite the overwhelming and otherworldly odds, the Western samurai persevered, slaying countless monsters and saving not just Japan, but the entire world. Nioh is a videogame based on the only somewhat exaggerated legend of William Adams.
Admittedly, this critic was more than a little anxious going into Team Ninja's latest. After all, an action title that draws inspiration from Dark Souls and Diablo could turn out to be a colossal mess. These two games, great as they are, go together about as well as oil and water. Furthermore, even if Nioh succeeded at paying respect to either of those classics, it'd most likely be at the cost of its own identity. Having a good game means little if it isn't distinct. It has to be different, memorable, and unique in its own way.
Well, as it turns out, this game is Team Ninja's best since Ninja Gaiden Black. It is a stunningly-crafted slasher that'll appeal to anyone who ever wanted to be an awesome samurai during the Sengoku period. How did they manage to get almost everything right? Not only is this game a class act in terms of 3D action, it also expertly juggles various RPG elements. There is enough depth to reward players seeking their own specialised build, or they can focus entirely on the basics, relying solely on skilful play to survive relentless battles.
Central to the great combat is ki. Ki functions in a way similar to the stamina in From's popular franchise. If William exhausts his ki, then he can't attack, block, or dodge. Naturally, this leaves him open to a brutal counterattack. This game goes much further with the system, making ki just as if not more important than the health meter. All enemies have ki meters, and draining them can have numerous effects. A massive yokai that normally shrugs off sword swings will be staggered when their ki is drained. Exhausted soldiers are vulnerable to finishing moves. When William is locked on to an enemy, their ki meter is always visible, so he always has an idea of the current situation.
What really opens the ki system up is proper usage of the R1 button. If the player presses the R1 button at the right moment after a combo, they'll perform a ki pulse, regaining a portion of their ki instantaneously. It's almost like the active reload mechanic from Gears of War. Developing this skill is essential to maintaining an aggressive playstyle, and is endlessly satisfying. The ki boosts are even more effective when switching stances. The stance determines the amount of power and speed behind every attack. Mastering the timing will keep William engaged in the fight, eliminating the need to take a step back just to recover ki. The pulses will also disperse the yokai's evil auras, giving them fewer opportunities to regain their own ki.
While there are only five types of melee weapons, there are numerous aspects that keep them fresh and interesting. Every weapon can be wielded in one of three stances, and William can switch between them instantly. Each stance has its own selection of moves, including special attacks and combo endings. The sailor is liable to switch stances multiple times in the same fight. The setup is exceptionally fluid. It's also important to note that two weapons can be equipped at a time, and swapping between them only takes a couple seconds. Even though the hundreds of blades are differentiated mostly by their stats and bonus abilities, there's still plenty of variety and flexibility in the implementation.
William's effectiveness in battle is further bolstered by the inclusion of ninjutsu and onmyo magic. They aren't necessary to complete the game, but these tools can still make a world of difference. When dealing with multiple foes, taking advantage of openings isn't always possible. Something as simple and quick as a shuriken can knock down enemies who have depleted their ki. Scattering caltrops can also slow down adversaries, making odds a bit more manageable. Onmyo techniques involve the use of talismans. Some serve to give a weapon elemental affinity, others can debuff monsters. The sloth talisman is especially useful, as its ability to slow enemies isn't limited to the basic fodder.
It should also be pointed out that William's almost peerless abilities are still appropriately matched by his adversaries. There will be a point where he can flawlessly handle the most skilled combatant, but the threat of death is always lingering. Oft-times, all it takes is three or four direct hits to defeat the hero. Enemies tend to do a lot of damage. If an attack looks like it needs a second or two to wind up, it's all but guaranteed that it'll result in an instantaneous demise. Thankfully, deaths, no matter how prevalent, are never that punishing. Kodama shrines, which serve as checkpoints, are appropriately spaced. The load times are also surprisingly quick, so the player is never out of the game for very long.
Gear is another superbly done aspect of this game. There are a multitude of weapons and armour to collect and upgrade, but they never affect the pacing. The player will never deem it necessary to "grind" areas repeatedly in the hopes of better loot drops. Hours aren't going to be spent just to get a +1 here or a +7 there. This can be attributed to both the revenants and the blacksmith. As the hero explores each area, undoubtedly, they'll stumble upon bloody graves. These are remnants of other heroes who have lost their lives in the liberation of Japan, from demonic influence. Summoning and then defeating them in a duel can cause them to drop pieces of their gear. Need better stuff? Hunt a few high-level revenants. Favoured pieces of equipment can also be "soulmatched" by the blacksmith. Weapons and armour can be strengthened by sacrificing higher level gear.
The brilliance of the gear system is that it never gets in the way of the important mantra: "Making the game yours." The player always has the freedom to pursue weapons and abilities that interest them. The consistent loot drops keep them engaged, but it never becomes overbearing. If they have a specific strategy for dealing with adversity that stops working, usually all it takes is a slight tweak, never an overhaul. Their style is developed around adaptability, which helps to keep them involved for the entirety of this massive game. A playthrough focused almost entirely on the story can take over thirty hours. A wealth of side-content as well as New Game+ mode with additional changes can double or even triple that play time. Yet even in all these hours of play, there is never a moment where the player becomes disengaged or bored. They are constantly finding new ways to challenge and entertain themselves.
As far as complaints go, the only one that immediately comes to mind is enemy variety. To put it simply, there needed to be a bit more diversity in the demons. Lumbering yokai tend to be the most prevalent of the fiends. Their move-set is easy to figure out and punish, so they're not much of a threat by themselves. The same could be said of the other yokai really. After dealing with them often enough, they cease to be a problem. A few more enemy types would go a long way towards keeping the player guessing as they explore every level. The music is also rather disappointing. While the tracks that play while exploring are sufficiently moody, the boss themes lack thematic impact.
It's almost shocking that Nioh turned out as well as it did. While Team Ninja is an exceptional talent, it took a pretty huge risk in crafting this game. It takes a lot effort to develop a polished 3D action game, let alone one that relies heavily on RPG elements such as levelling and equipment. Thankfully, the team managed to put out a winner. Every single one of the game's multitude of sub-systems co-exists with one another in perfect harmony. There is a consistent feeling of joy thanks to the phenomenal combat and acquisition of sweet gear. Popping open a demon to see colour-coded weapons and armour pour out of its lifeless body like candy from a piñata is actually fun again.
Nine out of ten!?! Whoa... I'm not into samurais but I may have to try this out
One of the reasons I'm seriously tempted to finally take the plunge and treat myself to a Playstation 4. This review firmly keeps up the pressure. When the reviews start coming in for Ni No Kuni 2 and Horizon Zero start landing it maybe that time...