It’s been a while, but I feel like writing another game review.
I’m a big fan of the Souls series of video games, from From Software, going way back. Not quite back to the beginning, I played Demon’s Souls when it was released by Atlus and not the Asian version that was available in English before then. And, I must admit, I have never dared to try the old, impossibly archaic King’s Field series on the Playstation 1 and 2. But, going back reasonably far, shall we say.
Back when Dark Souls first came out, it was a revelation. It had the deliberately paced gameplay and spooky, sorrowful atmosphere of Demon’s Souls, but you didn’t have to load in levels so often! It was more open-world, featuring a journey through a single, larger environment rather than teleporting to a wide variety of different ones. The innovation of bonfires smoothed everything out to an incredible degree. I played it for a hundred hours on the PS3, and a couple hundred more on the PC.
This is all to say that: I have some experience with this still somewhat nascent genre. They are not perfect, certainly, and definitely not for everyone, but to me they are something special. Sometimes, I feel like the things that I like about them are not the same as most fans of the series. For example, the difficulty I could take or leave. I’m not generally a fan of very difficult games, and the weird hardcore contingent of fans who insist on playing alone are very strange to me.
Nioh is a game in this genre. People will swear up and down that it is not like a Souls game, and should be approached with a different attitude, and in some ways they’re right, but also… c’mon. It’s got bonfires, it got dodge rolls, it’s got all the hallmarks of the series. It’s even got a spooky atmosphere and a story that’s hard to follow, although for different reasons. There are not a lot of games in this genre, so I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to include this one.
The part of Nioh where you’re fightin’ dudes is fucking great. The combat is very fast and fluid, hits feel really meaty and good, it’s got lots of really fun skills to unlock and enemies to fight. Top to bottom, this part is just incredibly solid, might even be better than anything From has made, depending on your taste with regards to pacing. It’s a bit faster paced even than Dark Souls 3, but the player character is responsive enough that it doesn’t feel as overwhelming.
I’ve read a lot of complaints about enemy variety, but I don’t put much stock in them. It has plenty of variety for what it’s doing. Due to its mission-based structure, it ends up having to reuse them a lot more than the typical Souls game, but that also means it just has a lot more content. They do a very good job of mixing up the circumstances in which you face enemies, and easily rival any of the main Souls games in sheer number of enemy types, especially with all the variations on ninjas and soldiers.
If anything, the problem is that they don’t use enough of their toolbox, often enough. There are some enemies that only show up in a scant few areas in the whole game, whereas you run into yoki and dwellers in large numbers in just about every single mission. In particular, the karakasa umbrella yokai are vanishingly rare, despite being very unique. It’s a shame, but not really a huge problem.
What is a huge problem, though, is the part where it’s an RPG. The stuff going on under the hood, so to speak. This is a very different sort of game than anything Team Ninja, the developers of the modern Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series’, has made before. They are well within their wheelhouse when it comes to cutting monsters and dudes up with a katana, but if you want stats? RPG stuff? Forget it. They are at sea, clearly.
There are several problems, all minor annoyances on their own that add up to a real mar on an otherwise excellent experience. First of all, the level scaling. For the first, say, 3/4ths of the game you’ll easily be able to keep up with it. You gain just enough amrita (the souls equivalent) to keep apace of the recommended levels for missions as they go along. But then, suddenly, you’ll fall behind, more and more. You are expected to grind, to make up for the distance.
This is the first major problem: grinding. It requires a LOT of grinding, and there isn’t really a fun way to do it. In a Souls game, there are prizes to seek out that will give you huge amounts of souls so you can get a few levels here and there. There are areas where tough but soul-rich enemies can be found. Nioh has none of these. It just comes down to rote repetition of missions you’ve already done, boss and all.
This is also true of the items and equipment. It has a great system for spells and consumables, where they all fall under “jutsus”, using a separate system of skill points to invest in acquiring and improving consumable projectiles and spells that are replenished anytime you rest at a bonfi- I mean, a shrine. It works fantastically well, and I’d love to see a similar approach in future souls games.
But equipment… well, it’s a mess. It is seemingly modeled on Diablo. The first one, I mean. Items have random rarity and sets of bonuses. The rarity determines only how many bonuses the item has, nothing more. The bonuses can be anything from allowing you to deal slightly more damage to enemies already under a certain status effect, to adding damage scaling with a completely new stat, or giving you a chance to not use up elixir when you need to heal. Which is to say, they vary wildly in their usefulness.
There are sets of equipment that offer more predictable bonuses if you can collect them, but that presents its own problems. You see, equipment also has a level, determining how good it is as armor or weapon. And thus, you must constantly switch it out, or pay exorbitant fees at the blacksmith to keep your equipment up to date. Trying to keep set bonuses going is an exercise is incredible frustration, I know from experience.
It all, seemingly, goes back to the developers wanting you to grind, grind, grind. Grind for levels, grind for equipment, grind for materials to forge equipment, and simply grind for rare drops.
“Okay,” you may be saying, “souls games also require grinding, what’s the big deal?” Well, it’s hard to explain, but the game just isn’t really built for this kind of grind on the gameplay side of things. Combat is tense, and can be very difficult and nerve-wracking. There are always lots of tricky traps and enemies that must be carefully pulled and managed and manipulated to survive any given mission. It does not lend itself to a kind of zen grind, where you fall into the rhythm of a game and just listen to a podcast or whatever.
It’s a very strange, frustrating mix of things, in general. I mentioned the plot earlier, and it’s fucking buck-wild. You are an English sailor who chases an evil wizard to Japan, where he’s trying to steal their magical rocks so that John Dee can help England conquer the world. It flirts with being a historical epic, merely tinged with supernatural elements, but doesn’t really achieve either very well. The history gets in the way of the supernatural stuff, and vice-versa. Also, they’re simply trying to cover too much ground without sufficient explanation. There are cutscenes, but they are very short and incredibly confusing, generally. Unless you are already well-versed in this specific period of Japanese history, you’re going to be lost. Heck, even if you are, you’ll probably get confused.
The level design is very uneven. Some areas are incredible, an abandoned castle covered in spider-webs or a flooded, ruined temple. Some are boring and annoying to deal with, like pretty much any time you have to go into a cave system. Because of the mission structure, there is really no cohesion between levels. But they’re large enough that they can be their own thing, generally. They do often have a much more… video game-y feel to them, unlike the Souls series. Areas will feel contrived to set up ambushes or traps, or just don’t feel as organic as the spaces in Souls games.
Visually, it’s absolutely stunning. The way that the developers use Japanese textile patterns for parts of the UI is very evocative and cozy. The way that demonic influence is represented by a sort of prismatic miasma is very striking, if a bit overused. The lighting is very dramatic and striking at times, probably an echo of this game’s origins as an adaptation of an unproduced Akira Kurosawa script way back in 2004.
Overall, it’s a game that I like a lot and keep coming back to, but it’s hard to recommend. The problems with the itemization and the UI are dire, and crop up more and more as you get further into the game. There is a screen that shows you all the bonuses you have active, currently, and it is a nightmare. Just trying to get basic information about what is going on for your character is like pulling teeth. Say what you will about the Souls series’ various incredibly dense character information screens, I’d take them over Team Ninja’s efforts any day.
I have high hopes for Nioh 2. Adding character customization shows that they are aware of at least some of the complaints about the first game. I really think the first deserves more credit and attention, but it’s hard to argue with its many faults.
God, I wish I could like it more.