It’s midnight on a Wednesday and I need sleep, but I can’t quite give in yet. I’ve been playing Nioh all evening yet I haven’t moved an inch. Blocking my path is a black monolith that rises from the ocean to pummel me with arms shaped like eels; to eviscerate me with lightning blasts from its orb-eye; to make a mockery of the character that I’ve carefully levelled to a point of pride.
Bit by bit I’m learning to deal with its varied attacks, walking a tight margin for error like a trapeze artist. I decide to take a break – not for sleep – but to explore the other areas of the pirate-infested ruins, searching for loot and a chance to level up. There’s something cathartic about having a plan of action and when I return to the beast, luck is in my favor. Or maybe it’s not luck at all. Nioh is a numbers game and after three hours of trying and failing, I’ve got just the right amount of strength and health to do the trick. I raise my arms aloft as if I’ve won the Super Bowl and watch the beast vanish for good.
But it’s not over yet. Next up is a new level to explore and a new boss to vanquish, and like an addict seeking his fix, I extend the session into the early hours of morning. The road to glory in Nioh is littered with head-scratching obstacles, but boy does success feel good.
Nioh’s addictive quality will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time with its playable alpha and beta. The full game is more of the same – full of hardships, new environments and sweet, sweet victory. There are traces of Ninja Gaiden in its blood, not least a section through the bowels of a ninja sanctuary, but Nioh, a PS4 exclusive released worldwide this Tuesday, owes a greater debt to Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls.
While games like Salt and Sanctuary and Lords of the Fallen have borrowed ideas from the Souls playbook, Nioh actually feels like an addition to the Souls series set in a spinoff world. The world is new, inspired instead by Japanese folklore, but the ballpark details are familiar. Shrines are bonfires, souls are amrita, elixirs are a form of estus and your character levels up by spending points accrued from slain enemies. The push-pull effect of risk and reward is front and center, sitting next to the same spirit of adventure. Even time-honored tropes like falling boulders and hidden traps are recycled here.
Nioh is a tribute act, then, but unlike other imitators, it’s every bit as good as the star. It might be hewing well-worn ground, but it makes a point to refine and improve the formula. Combat is nigh-on faultless. It leans more heavily towards the balletic tapdance of Bloodborne than the leaden footed war of attrition meted out in Dark Souls. But in a sense, it has its cake and eats it, allowing you to block with your weapon and giving you heavy armor to create a tank character if you wish.
A priority is placed on stamina management through a wonderful invention called the Ki Pulse. Hitting the R1 button at the exact right moment after an attack returns the energy you’ve expended and expels the energy-sapping fog that enemies lay at your feet. Ki Pulse is reminiscent of the active reload system in Gears of War, and in tense situations it can be the difference between winning and losing.
Like the Souls games, fights are pitched on a precarious pendulum and even lowly foes can get the better of you if you mistime your swing. Memorable encounters abound and it’s a game to discuss with friends as you take delight in your different experiences. Everyone will have their own preference in terms of armor, weapon and playstyle and there’s a suitable variety to the combat, including an assortment of melee weapons – and even guns – to pick up throughout the lengthy adventure.
It’s a good thing you’ve got these tools, too, because Nioh is brutal. It’s possible to seek help through its seamless matchmaking co-operative options, but if you play the majority of it solo – as I did – you’ll encounter the greatest highs and biggest lows. One. More. Try. Yet it’s never unfair and if you’re dying repeatedly you’re likely under levelled. Start to gain the advantage back, and there’s no better feeling that exploring a zone for the first time with slain enemies in your midst.
If you’re really stuck, you can exit a mission using an in-game item called a Himorogi Branch and head back to the world map, where old missions can be replayed or new ground can be plundered in one of many side quests. The Himorogi Branch is limited, so use it wisely, though you’ll pick up a dozen or so by the midway mark.
Nioh is not an open world, and if you hoped it would be you’ll be disappointed. Levels are very much self-contained chunks of content, a far cry from the organic regions Dark Souls so beautifully spun from a single region. But the design philosophy is the same, and though these maps are small, they bend back on themselves offering cunning shortcuts and hidden treasures galore. Very often you begin with a locked door in plain sight that leads right to the boss. But it’s a shortcut that can only be opened after hours of hard work.
Boss fights cap off each main story mission; they’re tense and technical encounters that require a surgeon’s precision to overcome. Go it alone and you’ll find yourself forced to embrace the grind to improve your character’s stats, but the thrill of victory makes it all worthwhile.
If I’m going to nitpick, boss fights mirror the levels themselves: they tick all the right boxes, but they never feel inspired. There’s no duel as thrilling as Ornstein and Smouth, no area as memorable as Sen’s Fortress. Bosses and levels are a vehicle for the excellent combat rather than the work of a true visionary like Miyazaki.
And that’s fine. Nioh is its own entity, replete with a nutty story built around Japanese folklore. It’s a tongue-in-cheek romp that by turns stars crackpot geijas, a talking cat and even a deadly toad who smokes a pipe. You get the idea.
Where Nioh succeeds is in pure gameplay; the concussive brilliance of its combat, the purity of its controls, the virtually non-existent loading times, the buttery smooth framerate. There’s even an option to lock the framerate at 60 FPS or sacrifice speed for better visuals, something that should become standard in all games going forward.
The world, the story and the lore might not be to everyone’s tastes (and that extends to the loot you pick up, which is mostly forgettable and not the sort of gear you’ll pour over and read item descriptions for). But on the ground, a sword in hand, I can’t think of a game that’s mastered combat better.
There’s so much more to talk about, including the ability to switch stances, earn passive upgrades through weapon familiarity and spend points on signature moves. But this is a review, not a game guide, and you can discover these intricacies for yourself. What I will say is this. Nioh is exactly the game I wanted Dark Souls III to be: generous, free-spirited and with a priority placed on fun. It champions the true joy of a challenge and after all this time, there are no visible signs of a protracted life in development.
Nioh has turned out every bit as good as we could have hoped, then, and Sony must be smiling. They have a winner on their hands and a new franchise to boot. A star has been born, and Nioh manages to step out of the considerable shadow of Dark Souls while paying it the biggest debt possible.
It’s a great time to own a PS4, folks.
Nioh champions the joy of combat and the fun of overcoming a challenge. It owes a debt to Dark Souls, yes, but manages to step out of its considerable shadow, too.