Nioh should be right up my alley. As one of the many games to borrow liberally from the Dark Souls franchise, I really like every idea that Nioh presents. There are even elements cribbed from the (mostly) excellent Diablo and Ninja Gaiden series. Now, I don’t know what happened behind closed doors at Team Ninja, but something seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Despite a decade-long development, Team Ninja’s design choices, programming, coding, artwork and voice acting all fail to spark something much more crucial: a sense of life.
While I may not love it in the same way many outlets have, I still think Nioh is a fine game and a pretty decent way to spend roughly 40 hours. But Nioh is something no game wants to be. Utterly forgetful. This time next year, Nioh will be but a blip in my early 2017 gaming record. The game totes quick responsive combat, a setting that dips into one of my favorite eras in all of history, and what seems like a ton of great ideas. But at the end of the day, something is just off—like Team Ninja couldn’t quite put all these puzzle pieces together. They smashed ends together to make it fit, even if they weren’t meant to.
When you first jump into Nioh you’ll be greeted by about a half-dozen systems that, aside from not being explained all that well, appear to establish the rules and gameplay fundamentals. Yet the enemy AI seems to ignore those rules at the most opportune times, as if to make you think Nioh is hard. Which it is not. Nioh is obtuse and unforgiving, in that order.
It will punish you for mistakes much like a Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden will, but instead of realizing that you made a mistake, it feels like the enemy changed the rules in their favor for a split second. Bosses will auto lock and contort unnaturally to make sure they connect with you. You’ll encounter fights seemingly designed by people who don’t make games—or good games, at least. Other fights are just downright insulting. Like presenting this hulking samurai opponent, only for you to smash three arbitrary crystals instead of properly squaring off with him. You know, like a samurai would. Granted you are able to opt into a side mission to duel said samurai, but all of the excitement and scene setting from the main level is lost when you’re just abruptly spawned in, with no showmanship or gusto at all. This happens a lot in Nioh.
Bosses will auto lock and contort unnaturally to make sure they connect with you.
Now while that sounds like I’m complaining that the game beat me up and knocked me around a bit—you should know that it very much didn’t. Not a single boss in Nioh took me more than three tries, and the ones that took three were the ones that were really poorly designed. The final area includes seven boss fights. Seven. Not one after another, mind you, but a few minutes and a short walk apart. There’s time to refresh your healing items and level up and such, but still, I went through this entire gauntlet on a single life. About 80% of my deaths in Nioh were due to holes, cliffs, Ki locking, or just me belligerently playing, hoping that the end was around the corner.
Difficulty aside, Nioh can be fun from moment to moment. The combat is quick, responsive and aggressive. Think Bloodborne, but with a slightly deeper movement system and a less forgiving stamina bar. That aside, I really enjoyed the low/mid/high stance system and the use of Ki—but the increased emphasis on loot can be tiresome. Very much like Diablo, you’ll find items everywhere. They’ll be of various rarities with random stats like an elemental effect or bonus damage in high stance, things like that. The problem is that no gear ever feels permanent. Sure, you can feed obsolete weapons into crafting ones you really like, but you’ll still be swapping out weapons and armor left and right. Consequently, Nioh makes it really difficult to get attached to your character, even if the sporadic cutscenes want you to care about William and his plight, I think?
That’s because Nioh is a mess tonally. I genuinely couldn’t tell if the game was being cheeky and self-aware of how dumb it is, or if me chuckling at all the po-faced seriousness was unintended. Nioh really does seem to tell a grim and dour story about a swashbuckling Irish pirate, William Adams, and his hunt for an oddly dressed English magician, who stole his spirit guardian, Saoirse. Handily, William turns into a master samurai by reading a single journal, before chasing said magician all across feudal Japan to rescue said spirit guardian. Now I’m not a scriptwriter, but that sounds like a god damn comedy to me.
In the background, several warlords are fighting a battle against the demon hordes, there are some magic crystals called Amrita, the Spanish are involved somehow but honestly, I’m not sure. William doesn’t seem to care, either way, he just wants his Saoirse back, whom he loves romantically… or platonically. Something I’m also not sure of.
Now sparing the gritty historic details, feudal Japan was an awesome and terrifying time to exist. It was bloody and violent, but according to Nioh, it was also boring as all hell. Team Ninja never spends a second building an interesting world. They try and tap into that Dark Souls feeling of winding around an area for 20 hours and then opening one door that connects the entire level, but the levels themselves are so small and linear that it really never mattered. The level design is mundane and one-note. So one-note, in fact, that you’ll visit the same half dozen areas during every single side mission, facing the same 15 something enemy types. Again and again and again. During my almost exactly 40 hours with Nioh, I became so exhausted seeing the same areas and enemies that I was actively wishing the game would end, even while enjoying the act of actually playing it.
During my almost exactly 40 hours with Nioh, I became so exhausted seeing the same areas and enemies that I was actively wishing the game would end, even while enjoying the act of actually playing it.
Which really felt strange to me, I really enjoyed playing one of the most boring games I’ve played in recent memory. The mechanics and systems are solid in theory, but everything else really weighs on you after about 20 hours. The game is constantly throwing new spirit animals and gear at you, none of which you have a reason to truly care about or engage with. All of my 40 hours were spent with the starting animal, despite having earned 20+ new ones. I gave a few a go just so I could say I did, and yep, they’re just as unimportant as the rest. The game never inspires you to go outside your comfort zone and experiment with anything it has. You can pick up one sword and press square square square on every enemy in the game and fare just fine if you can Ki pulse properly—which is actually a really important and fairly neat system—even with the stance system, Mid stance works just fine for every occasion, I never felt forced to learn anything new the entire time I was in Japan.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, damn, this dude is complaining a lot. And you’d be mostly right, but because deep down, I wanted to love Nioh more than anything. But when all said and done, outside of its really great combat (that I just happened to master in 20 minutes) the rest of the game really feels like a mess to me. The boring level design, weirdly presented story, underdeveloped characters, and criminally underutilized setting made those 40 hours seem like weeks of my life. The culmination of those flaws really took someone who was ready and willing to love Nioh as much as any of the Souls games, and made me someone who never wants to touch Nioh again—despite having mostly enjoyed playing it.