The first thing people are going to try to tell you about Nioh is that it’s hard, and they’ll be right. There’s a cult of difficulty that’s grown up around the brand of stat-heavy, slow-paced action combat that Team Ninja’s new samurai game traffics in, one that’s been liberally encouraged by both its own marketers and those of the Dark Souls series from which it so liberally cribs. “Brutal!” scream the boxes. “Hardest game ever!” crow the blurbs. “Get good,” moans a legion of difficulty masochists, exulting in their mutual shared pain. But difficulty on its own is nothing—less than nothing, really, because it gets in the way of fun. So the question isn’t whether Nioh is hard. (It is; see above.) It’s whether that difficulty manifests itself in interesting ways.
First, some basics: You play through Nioh as blond, Irish pirate William, a former prisoner who makes his way to the Far East as part of a certified Roaring Rampage Of Revenge. The object of that vengeance? Edward Kelley, an English alchemist who’s stolen William’s fairy companion, Saoirse, and who seeks to plunge Japan into civil war for his own nefarious ends. The rest of the game’s lightly sketched characters will presumably be more familiar to fans of the late Sengoku period in which the game takes place. Suffice it to say you spend a lot of time sipping tea with stone-faced samurai and gently flirting with fiercely independent ninja girls.
We can get the rest of the plot out of the way quickly, because there’s really not much there: no dangling mysteries, no shocking twists, just a whole bunch of “Go there, kill that” missions set in locations that are almost all operating on some variant of “nighttime in a Japanese village, and some of it’s on fire.” The only major break from this “burning shack” aesthetic is also the game’s most interesting narrative flourish: William’s ability to see into the spirit world, which is full of bright, cartoonish animals and hulking, slightly goofy monsters. On a story level, it lets the game get away with some deft shorthand, IDing one character by making his spirit animal a weathered but spritely tomcat, another a fleet and mischievous rabbit. And on a visual level, there’s nothing like fighting a 12-foot-tall purple Oni outfitted with a giant, glowing eye or a massive, slashing tongue to break up the game’s otherwise overtly realistic look.
The frustrating thing about that persistent drabness is the way the game flaunts how damn unnecessary it is; not only do small side missions frequently take place in brightly colored areas and even (gasp) sunlight, but some of the main missions can, too. The most interesting thing about the game’s structure—which foregoes a massive, interconnected world in favor of discrete levels picked from a mission map—is how it allows Team Ninja to remix and replay levels for optional missions, taking the basic architecture and changing how it plays by reversing the player’s orientation, mixing up the lighting, and dropping in new enemies to fight. It doesn’t hurt that some of that base architecture, like a giant maze-like castle or a ninja mansion full of traps and hidden walls, is pretty fun to fight through in the first place. Replaying levels never quite feels tedious, and it allows the player to collect extra resources to tackle their next main challenge at their leisure.
Which brings us, inevitably, back to the sword-wielding elephant demon in the room: whether Nioh can make its much-touted difficulty interesting or fun enough to justify all the headaches it’s likely to cause. Because even with that optional practice, you’re going to die in this game, a lot. Not only does death make you drop all your experience points and respawn at a checkpoint, but it also cruelly cuts you off from your Guardian Spirit. The spirit is one of several ways the game tries to tilt things back in the player’s favor, providing a series of stat boosts and allowing players to tap into a brief, quasi-invincible Super Mode every few minutes. It’s not as game-changing as it initially sounds, but it is a potent enough boost that you’ll notice whenever it’s not there. Part of Nioh’s difficulty is that there are a lot of systems like this buried in its fighting, and the game expects you to have a grasp on most of them if you’re going to stay alive.
The two most prominent, and the ones that the game is testing for with most of its fights, are the ones related to Ki and stance. Ki is the equivalent of stamina in the Souls games, a meter under your health bar that rapidly recharges at rest, but drops whenever you attack, run, or block or take a hit. In Nioh, Ki is life: Run out and you stop moving and open yourself up to counterattacks; exhaust an enemy’s and you’re guaranteed at least a few free hits. Everything in the game has its own Ki meter, and manipulating them—mostly through the use of action-timed “Ki Pulses,” which allow the player to rapidly charge their bar and dispel stamina-draining “yokai realms” placed by enemies—is one of the keys to getting through a fight unscathed.
The other thing to worry about is stance, which is also how the game compensates for its relatively minimal roster of weapons. (There are only five basic types, plus a handful of bows and guns.) Every katana, spear, or ax can be held in either a low, middle, or high stance, and each confers concrete benefits, not just to attacking, but to avoiding damage as well. Low stance enhances William’s dodge move, allowing the player to keep their distance from rapid attackers. Middle stance reduces the Ki lost when he blocks. High stance is all about slow, damage-dealing moves. Misunderstanding the interplay between these two systems—by wasting a bunch of Ki dodging while in high stance, for instance, instead of switching in and out of them as the situation demands—is likely going to be where most of your early deaths come from, especially against bosses that might kill you 10 or 20 times before you find your groove.
But while those deaths can be frustrating, they still fall under the banner of “interesting” difficulty, even as they force players to understand what the game is trying to do by slamming their skulls in over and over again. When it works—when you dart out of your enemy’s reach in low stance, only to dash back in and punish them for their overreach with some high-stance slaughter—it’s exhilarating. The core of Nioh’s fighting is as good or better than anything in this Souls-inspired “genre,” taking Team Ninja’s action-game roots and marrying them to a slower, more tactical style of play. Unfortunately, it’s not the only kind of difficulty Nioh offers up.
One-hit kills are bad. That feels like a pretty basic concept, but it’s worth establishing: Dying from a single hit or a single, unavoidable combo stifles learning, frustrates players, and removes the triumphant sense of rallying back from the brink of defeat. And Nioh, to its shame, is full of one-hit kills. A few are explicit and usually pretty easy to avoid, but most come from enemies hitting too hard and the player lacking the proper max health to soak up the pain. It doesn’t feel like this lamer brand of difficulty originates from some intentional urge on Team Ninja’s part to make things “extra-brutal” or murderous. Instead, it seems to stem from Nioh’s most unequivocally awful system: the way it handles equipment and loot.
There are games where randomly generated loot works, or at least doesn’t actively detract from the experience. The Diablo games manage the trick somehow. On a good day, the Borderlands series pulls it off, too. Nioh doesn’t. Unless you really try to avoid it, William will relentlessly hoover up the katanas and kusarigamas that pop out of the game’s piñata-like enemies, storing them in his (large but not infinite) backpack like an ancient Japanese hoarder. (To be clear, you don’t have to pick stuff up, but that presents its own problems in terms of staying properly equipped.) Every hour or so, you’ll have to take a break from playing to sell it all off or break it down for scraps, sifting through a 500-deep list for the one piece that might have the skills or stats to turn the tide of a future fight.
It’s incredibly tedious, and made worse by the fact that the equipment is where Nioh’s system bloat is at its worst. Want to make a weapon? First, pick from four material types to determine its rarity. Want to power up your old sword? Be sure you’ve maxed out its familiarity gauge, and ensure that any skills it’s inheriting are of a compatible type. Just selling stuff off? Don’t forget to increase your patronage level at the shop so you can get the best prices! The whole thing is maddening and sloppy.
All of that would just be irritating fluff if the randomness of the loot didn’t make it harder for the designers to adequately calibrate their boss fights for the player’s likely level and strength. That’s where Nioh’s loot actively gets in the way of having fun, in the space between surviving a boss’ volley of attacks and letting a single shot put you in the ground. In a game with a lot of minor sins, and a lot of sterling virtues, it’s the one fault that borders on unforgivable.
It borders on but doesn’t cross over. For all its little problems, Nioh deserves a lot of credit for what it gets right: finding ways to streamline some of the more obtuse features of the games it mimics and present them in a tighter, more traditional package. (Not to mention some of its more interesting and esoteric systems, like the ability to fight copies of other players who died in the same level you’re on or the way gestures can be used to placate certain enemies.) Despite its occasionally dull visuals, it offers up some fun characters, engagingly designed levels, and enemies that remain interesting to fight even after the hundredth time you see them. Even more, when its combat system clicks—which it does, roughly 80 percent of the time—it manages to inject a strain of pure action into the Souls formula that feels both welcome and novel. It’s just a shame about that other 20 percent.
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4