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Nioh PlayStation 4 Review: A Worthy Heir

Nioh mostly measures up to the high standards set by other Soulsborne games.

Review by John Learned, .

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This review started as a sea of Soulsborne puns.

"Borne-again." "Re-Borne." "New-Borne." On and on, it didn’t stop. It might sound a little callous, but after the initial batch of story missions and a smattering of extra stuff on the side, I childishly thought that idiotic wordplay would be the best way to segue into how the dark samurai semi-period piece that is Nioh pays tribute to From Software’s pitch black series of Action/RPGs. Then I nearly kicked my kid’s sippy cup through my family room window during a boss fight. I think that sentence alone does a better job of things.

Yes, Koei Tecmo’s Nioh is very much a Souls-like, and there’s no escaping it. All of the usual suspects are front and center: the tense and measured combat, the agonizing stat-building, the punitive challenge. If we’re making a checklist, Nioh has those things and even flaunts them. But I’ll save you some time and cut the chase: does Nioh stack up to the Souls games? Sure, for the most part. Does it stand on its own, though? Most definitely.

More than the other imitators so far (like the merely-ok Lords of the Fallen), Nioh gets the Souls games in ways that its contemporaries don’t thanks to combat that is surgically precise and tuned like an orchestra’s piano. When you hit that sort of meditative fugue state of being totally in the moment, attack and defense comes swiftly and cruelly, and the extra swipe of your weapon to behead whatever demon unlucky enough to get in your way is satisfying in ways that only Bloodborne itself could match.

Given the pedigree, it certainly shows that Nioh might only take a nudge or two to push it into full character action game like Team Ninja’s other, more popular output. You can pop enemy mooks into the air for multi-stab juggles if you really want to, but the short, simple combinations that can be unlocked for each weapon type aren’t meant to fight sweeping hordes of foes, just the occasional 3-on-1 when things get hairy. It’s a slower, tenser pace that still forces the player to be keyed in to it, but with several added layers.

The game gives you all of the tools necessary for you to find your own combative play style even outside of the various weapons with the option to change the stance of your character. A more aggressive hold of your weapon drops your defense, but boosts attack, while holding your implement down and to the side (or even sheathed) grants faster striking and counterattacking options. Like the Ninja Gaidens and DMCs of the world, boosting stats and gaining familiarity with weapons also grants various ability points used to unlock special moves, combo extensions, and passive buffs. The skill trees extend to every weapon type, plus magic, plus the various Ninjutsu abilities.

It’s all a bit much, really. I found very quickly that I was comfortable playing a high-damage, high-mobility character build, so the vast majority of my samurai skill list was left unlocked because I couldn’t bother messing with multi-stance attack methods. The game, for its part, does its best to encourage players to nimbly move their thumbs across the controller in a complex series of movements, but I never found it necessary with careful timing and learned execution, so a slowly growing number of skill points accumulated through the endgame unallocated and unaccounted for. Opening up a nice finishing move and the occasional passive bonus is fun and rewarding, but everything else just felt unnecessary.

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But maybe that’s just a byproduct of my own specific way of playing, and I say this as a compliment. Certainly, I had my share of trouble tumbling off of cliffs and getting the business end of an axe to the face, but I made it through the game skillfully and relatively fast (sippy cup-kicking notwithstanding) thanks to my prior Souls knowledge to scaffold how I was playing. But I made decisions on what gear to use –and more importantly, what to sacrifice—very early in the game.

Even now, I’m mulling over how to properly make a magic build, and then a ninja, and then a lightly armored spear-fighter, and probably fifty other things by the time you read this. Nioh’s character building and equipment farming affords you an opportunity for a lot of fun malleability. Copious loot drops mean you’re almost always juggling gear and hunting for final pieces of an armor set for extra passive bonuses, which balances out the the more RPG side of things. The more traditional Souls-like stat allocation and loot grabbing is a nice balancing act, and gives more avenues to make super powered avatars by the endgame.

The game seems to incentivize the loot extravaganza as rewards for repeated runs through missions and sub-missions, which are compartmentalized and chosen via world map. The main story missions are meaty; each took at least an hour or two to complete and are a full of tiny nooks and crannies to rummage for items. Small handfuls of friendly spirits called Kodama are littered throughout story levels and boost drops from enemies dependent on the specific spirit, which adds a nice layer of collectability.

Most stages tend to be fairly linear, all things considered, but alternate paths and shortcuts will give you a clue to their size and scope. They also tend to be more battle-focused than exploratory. Several areas have a sort of gray fog-effect that spawns large demons that tend to be stronger than the average enemy. Killing them at their spawn point means they won’t respawn if you were to die or reset the level by praying at a shrine. It’s entirely possible, though, to just sprint your way through levels and even many fog encounters, but thorough, careful exploration was always safer and more rewarding.

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Comments 23

  • Avatar for VotesForCows #1 VotesForCows A month ago
    I was all geared up for this... but there's something about it that's just not grabbing me. Think I'll pass, for now anyway. I really hope it does well though, we need more games like this!
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #2 kidgorilla A month ago
    One thing that I didn't get a chance to mention in the review is that this is probably the closest and best Onimusha reboot we're likely to get, and I'm 100% on board with thatEdited last month by kidgorilla
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #3 Xemus80 A month ago
    Does the game contain the most annoying part of Dark Souls, where enemies respawn if you use a bonfire? Far more than the general difficulty, the feeling of a "reset" after using a bonfire irritated me to no end. I haven't finished any Souls game because I don't have time for horseshit like that.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #4 kidgorilla A month ago
    @Xemus80 Yes, enemies respawn when you visit a shrine. Gray fog encounters don't, though
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #5 chaoticBeat A month ago
    Thank you for the review John. I just have two questions. Is there a lot of different types of mission environments? The beta areas felt pretty similar even when they featured different bosses. Also, roughly how many hours did it take you to get through the game for review? I think the director said that it would take about 70 hours on average and that seems high to me. I don't equate time with value in games but I was just wondering.

    I already have the deluxe version preordered digitally. I can't wait for Monday night! I'm pretty sure this game will hold my interest for a long time! It will be interesting to compare it to Dark Souls 3 once The Ringed City drops in late March. I am so happy between having these two games to play! All I could ask for now is for Bloodborne 2 to be on the horizon.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #6 chaoticBeat A month ago
    @Xemus80 That is a fundamental shift in thinking that players have to make to play Souls. It's about mastery not just clearing out enemies.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #7 kidgorilla A month ago
    @chaoticBeat The main story missions more like the compartmented Dark Souls-like areas with more open environments, shortcuts to open, and Kodama spirits to find. There's about 15 or so of them in the game, and they usually took at least an hour to learn and then complete. Since you can do them three times over (main mission, hard mode mission, Twilight mission), it can pad the length, so I think 70 hours is based on your interest in recycled content.

    Sub missions run the gamut of arena fights like what you might have seen in the betas to smaller exploration missions to repeated boss encounters. The rewards are usually worth the trouble, though
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #8 chaoticBeat A month ago
  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #9 cldmstrsn A month ago
    @VotesForCows but if you pass then we won't get more games like this! Support your international games company now!!!Edited last month by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #10 VotesForCows A month ago
    @cldmstrsn I know... but I still haven't bought Yakuza 0! That'll be me reaching the limit of what I can afford to spend on myself in any given month, I'm afraid...
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #11 Kuni-Nino A month ago
    Glad to see it get a good review. The demo was pretty awesome. I'll be there Day One and I expect you on Axe of the Bloodgod, John!

    Make it happen Kat.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #12 kidgorilla A month ago
    @Kuni-Nino One never chides the Blood God
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #13 cldmstrsn A month ago
    @VotesForCows nah i feel you. i had to pass on gravity rush 2 AND Yakuza 0 cause I got kingdom hearts and DQ VIII. just to many damn games!
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  • Avatar for AndreasStalin #14 AndreasStalin A month ago
    Another 4 out of 5 score game? Are game reviewers getting lazy or are most games released these days equal in quality?
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  • Avatar for NateDizzy #15 NateDizzy A month ago
    Nice to see Team Ninja is FINALLY back in top form after Itagaki's departure. The string of Metroid Other M, NG3, and Yaiba:NGZ, left me with zero confidence in their ability to craft a good game. Now, all I need is for them to bring back Ryu Hayabusa and I'll be a very happy action junkie.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #16 Kuni-Nino A month ago
    @NateDizzy DOA5 was really damn good too. It's one of the better fighting games out right now. Team Ninja is coming back baby.
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  • Avatar for BigPrimeNumbers #17 BigPrimeNumbers A month ago
    Is there an option to auto-hide the HUD? I really appreciate that in Dark Souls when I'm just exploring and not actively fighting something; it feels more immersive to me.
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  • Avatar for docexe #18 docexe A month ago
    Mmmm… The way you describe it sounds different from what I was expecting. I was expecting Dark Souls in medieval Japan. This sounds a bit more like Demon Souls meets Diablo 3 in medieval Japan, with a dash of Ninja Gaiden for additional flavor.

    I’m not complaining about that though, it’s just that is not quite what I imagined at the beginning.
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #19 Xemus80 A month ago
    @chaoticBeat And it's a fundamental shift I'm not willing to make.
    @kidgorilla Thanks for responding! Alas, I'll be avoiding this one.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #20 chaoticBeat A month ago
  • Avatar for NateDizzy #21 NateDizzy A month ago
    @Kuni-Nino Oh yeah, I know DOA is as solid as ever. Hell, that's the closest thing to Virtua Fighter right now. My confidence lapse in them was strictly in the single player game dept.
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  • Avatar for AndreasStalin #22 AndreasStalin A month ago
    I got the message. I will see myself out.
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  • Avatar for woodynesbitt12 #23 woodynesbitt12 A month ago
    It's a pretty good game but it has one very serious flaw, the closer to end game you get the more 1 shot deaths you will suffer.... This really pisses me of because this is cheap and not difficult. The developer doesn't seem to understand this, or care....
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