The Best Souls Game that isn't a Souls Game
Nioh -- or Ni-Oh, as it was titled in its first incarnation -- entered development in 2004. Needless to say, the game was stuck in development hell. After countless delays, scrapped versions, and rebooting from scratch with differing genres (at one point, Omega Force was developing it into a Dynasty Warriors clone), the game finally released in 2017 and is a return to form for Team Ninja. The road to release was a long and arduous journey, which perfectly encapsulates Nioh itself. Difficult, lengthy, taxing...but William's journey is worth taking every step of the way.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: when you see and play this game, it's impossible to not draw comparisons to the Souls games. Nioh absolutely is an entry to the "Soulsborne" genre conceived by FromSoftware with Demon's Souls. Nevertheless, while Nioh will always be compared to the Souls games, it has the strength to stand on its own two feet.
Nioh (PS4, enhanced on PS4 Pro)
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment (Worldwide) / Koei Tecmo (Japan)
Release Date: February 7, 2017
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro using an LG OLED65C6P Television and Onkyo 7.1 Surround Sound
Long Live Nioh
Nioh's strongest aspect is the fast-paced combat. If you're a veteran Souls player, you'll feel right at home while dodging, parrying (kind of), blocking, backstabbing, and rolling your way through the game's many environments. Monitoring your health and stamina -- or Ki, in this instance -- is vital to survival in feudal Japan. Maintaining your Ki as it depletes from attacking, dodging, blocking, etc. is standard fare to this genre.
But where it differs to make this system unique is the ingenious "Ki Pulse" mechanic. Similar to the Gears of War "active reload" mechanic, perfectly timing your button press rewards you in more ways than one: not only do you recover lost Ki (the amount varies depending on your stats and gear), but you also dispel pools of Yokai Realm left behind by certain enemies that slow your Ki regeneration. Certain skills reward you with buffs like making your next attack stronger. The satisfying sound accompanied by a Ki Pulse is a neat little bonus as well.
The Ki Pulse mechanic only bolsters the game's aforementioned dynamic combat system. It's hard-hitting, punishing, and ultimately satisfying battles against hordes of humans and demons alike will kick your ass until you learn how to better yourself. The path you take to get there is entirely up to you.
This game made me fear toads more than I already do
Accumulation of "Amrita" (experience you acquire to level up) from defeating enemies, opening chests, offering weapons and armor at Shrines, etc. is required to increase your stats in order to build yourself as you see fit. Just like the Souls games, you lose Amrita upon death. However, it can be recovered by revisiting the location of your death while it's being protected by your Guardian Spirit (more on that later). Just don't die again on your way back before recovering it, or else it's gone forever.
The game's five different melee weapon types are designed to complement the stats you increase for your build (STR, DEX, etc.). The same goes for the ranged weapons, which you can freely aim. Bows & arrows or rifles and hand cannons can hit different body parts for variable damage (just aim for the head for most enemies).
While you're not locked out of using any weapon, it's wise to stick to specializing two or three melee types depending on your build. Each weapon feels unique, and each one is feasible in battle -- you won't get that feeling of regret that you picked a lesser weapon here. Different skill points acquired over time are used to pick abilities and traits of your own choosing. The skill trees differ from Samurai, Ninjutsu, Magic, etc. Go for certain builds, or just dump points in everything.
It all depends on your playstyle.
Like zoning and staying out of reach as you attack? Use spears and kusarigama. Like getting in their face with slow but strong attacks? Use axes. Or you can have the best of both worlds and use dual swords and kusarigama and switch between the two on the fly to adapt to the situation. The ability to freely switch between two melee and two ranged weapons mid-battle is another way Nioh improves upon its Souls predecessors. Not to mention the stances used in battle. High Stance, Mid Stance, and Low Stance affect your power, defense, speed and Ki usage, respectively. Stick with one or use them all, you can freely switch at any time, even mid-combo.
Duals Swords just looked too cool NOT to use
Along the way, you'll befriend the game's numerous "Guardian Spirits" which are portrayed as different animals and mystical creatures. Each being provides you with passive benefits and powers your "Living Weapon" that you can activate with the press of △ + O when your Amrita gauge (a meter gradually filled during battle) is full. The Living Weapon varies depending on your Guardian Spirit, all of which carry an elemental attribute that is vital in battle. Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, and Lightning all have unique effects in battle and strengths/weaknesses which you can utilize to take down enemies and the many bosses you'll encounter.
The elements can also be applied to your weapons, either by scavenging drops for weapons with an element already imbued within it or by creating them yourself with Nioh's easy-to-learn but highly rewarding crafting system. Constant visits to the Blacksmith in between missions proves fruitful in aiding your journey, you can even pay Gold to re-spec your existing gear.
Whether you like to favor a few Guardian Spirits and elements (personally, I liked to use Fire and its accompanying Spirits) or constantly switch between everything, Nioh's flexibility provides the freedom to make your decisions viable.
There is no inherently "wrong" way to play and the choice is yours.
Enjoy the views. Right before getting your ass kicked
Nioh's fantastic gameplay isn't the title's only strong suit; its presentation is absolutely gorgeous. Beautiful, atmospheric environments power the game's exceptional level design. Each stage feels unique and has its own flavor, indoor and outdoor areas showcase strong lighting effects despite a lack of HDR. Great looking textures complement William's excellent character model and each NPC's unique character design. Various enemy designs keep encounters feeling fresh, especially for the bosses in particular.
These pretty screenshots were totally worth getting my ass kicked
A strong soundtrack plays throughout your journey, along with memorable boss themes, which you'll hear many times cause yeah, you're going to die, a lot. The bilingual (Japanese & English) dialogue is delivered by a pretty good performance from the cast, although the English sounds hammy at times, especially from Edward Kelley, the antagonist.
The presentation is made even better by one of Nioh's coolest features: the ability to "Refashion" gear. During a visit to the Blacksmith, you can choose to alter the cosmetics of your gear without having it affect the actual attributes of it. The age-old dilemma of choosing between good gear or good-looking gear is thrown out the window. Once you acquire armor, it's registered at the Blacksmith which enables you to change any armor piece's appearance into one you have previously seen. Personally, some armor sets I found relatively early in the game were better-looking than most found later on. I ticked the option to hide my helmet (another great feature) and wore the Hero Set for a long time.
Make sure to subscribe to the Bukkake Waffles Nioh Lookbook for Summer 2017. You too, can look pretty while getting your ass kicked
Not only is gear customizable, you can even change your hairstyle as well as your facial hair. All this only sweetens the fact that the choices you make for your William are reflected in the game's entertaining and well-directed cutscenes. The game's load times are nice and snappy, which makes dying easier (a stark contrast from Bloodborne's lengthy load times). The on-screen UI is easy to read; although navigating its many menus can be jarring at first, you become accustomed to it relatively fast.
"This feather is almost as pretty as me." - Geralt William (1564-1620)
While Nioh looks and runs great on a base PlayStation 4, it looks and performs even better on a PlayStation 4 Pro. The game smartly gives you the options of "Action Mode" (PS4 - 720p/60fps | PS4 Pro - 1080p/60fps), "Movie Mode" (PS4 - 1080p/30fps | PS4 Pro - 2160p/30fps), and "Variable Mode" with adapts the resolution and frame rate depending on what's happening on screen. If you know Team Ninja, they take pride in focusing on being able to play with a stable 60fps. With Action Mode, it's as stable as it gets and is absolutely the way Nioh is meant to be played.
With that being said, I frequently found myself switching to Movie Mode when I didn't have to go through any crazy bosses or areas because this game looks stunning in full 4K. Avoid Variable mode, it's just way too inconsistent to recommend. If you like better visuals or better performance, it's up to you and Nioh is strong either way.
How pretty. I totally didn't just get my ass kicked before getting here
As much as Nioh shines in its gameplay, it falters in its narrative. What starts as a quest with William reclaiming his Guardian Spirit that was taken from him, it morphs into a forgettable tale of warring clans vying for power during feudal era Japan. A lacking antagonist in Edward Kelley using William's Guardian Spirit, Saoirse, to claim Japan's Amrita (mystical golden powerful stone) for himself pushes a weak motive that is followed by twists, turns, and revelations that have minimal impact.
Although its story is pedestrian, the characters themselves are memorable. One of Team Ninja's greatest strengths is their talent in creating distinct, charismatic, and straight-up good looking characters. The supporting cast that aids you in your journey, both male and female, will have you wanting to spend more time with them because William himself can be as bland as plain toast. I'd be more than willing to play or see more of Hattori Hanzo and Okatsu, whether in DLC or a sequel.
Okatsu is waifu. Hands off. No seriously, she'll kick your ass
Additionally, it was fun to discover that William himself is based on William Adams -- albeit very loosely -- a real-life sailor who became one of the few Western samurai. Nioh's interpretation of other real-life historical figures during feudal Japan made experiencing its average plot less of a slog.
All in all, I had a blast during my time with Nioh. It takes the tried-and-true gameplay loop of "kill enemies, get loot" and makes it gratifying in its own ways. If you enjoyed any of the Souls games, I wholly recommend playing it. You are immediately immersed in the action of the game, no hand-holding, no tutorial. That feeling of satisfaction from defeating a boss that you've been struggling with, and finding shortcuts back to that boss by navigating through the smart level design by mentally mapping the layout will have you feeling right at home.
There are even collectibles to find in the form of Kodama, cute little green creatures that actually provide passive benefits with the more you find in each region. High replayability will keep you coming back for more with tons of side missions and a rewarding New Game+ mode with different gear and harder missions.
Nioh is a fantastic game that should be experienced by "Soulsborne" veterans and newcomers alike.
- Waffle Review is an entirely subjective opinion of Bukkake Waffles' thoughts of a video game. Whether you agree or disagree, is up to you. For reference, Bukkake Waffles loves games of all genres, except for MOBAs. -