If you, like me, have been lying awake at night wondering where the days have gone since you’ve last saved ancient Japan from both a demon invasion and civil war, then buddy, I have some good news for you.
Dragon of the North, Nioh’s first (of a scheduled three) DLC expansion is a no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase sort of experience, so I’ll be fair with you the reader by extending you the same courtesy: it’s good, though not necessarily substantial. Viewing it from above after clearing the new region of Japan that it uncovers, it feels slight in comparison to other regions of the main game. But that’s reductive, really. Nioh was at its best in the moment-to-moment gameplay, which is what Dragon of the North has in spades.
Though there are only two new main mission maps in the game stretched over three story levels, the fresh areas cleverly ease the player into new enemy encounters before letting the game’s difficulty–something that’s become its signature—take control of the wheel. In truth, we’re not talking about a ton of new foes, but their presence is impactful. The first main mission begins in a series of confined mountainous corridors that eventually open to a snowy village with catwalks and suspended bridges. After dealing with a smattering of human enemies here and there, you’ll meet your first new large yokai before crossing the bridge into the village, which is a fight in a wider space. Inside the dwellings, and more so in the next main mission map, the new yokai will be found in more constrained areas to box you in, which are tense and frustrating scrapes. While there are a few situations where the game simply throws more enemies at you for the sake of difficulty, the best fights happen in constricted spaces, and these are abundant.
Outside of combat, the new maps are deceptively large, though in some instances, oddly designed. For the most part, they retain the sense of mystery that the base game had. Where exploration is generally rewarded with scavenged equipment and kodama spirits to help you on the quest. The early goings in these new areas feel very linear, though, with few branching paths. Thankfully, they really open up about halfway through with several shortcuts to lead you back around to safer areas and shrines. The second main level even has something of a hidden secondary objective, which is a nice little plus.
It’s the latter that gets a little odd. In more than one instance, I found a new shrine that was a hard-fought respite after tangoing with crowds of enemies just to find another one maybe 100 feet later. Paths branched around these to side areas, so I can see how they might make sense to a level design team being a little more on the giving side. But this happened in both main story mission levels’ critical path, which seemed like less of a coincidence and more a deliberate design choice, and as such out of place.
This is about the only thing handed to you in the expansion. New enemies soak up a lot of damage, and even recurring foes have their hit points ratcheted up higher than what you’d expect. As always, even a random chump with a spear can be a serious threat in the wrong circumstances, but Dragon of the North is definitely post-game content. One that has an expectation that you've dipped your toes in harder modes and item farming to get strong endgame gear. My damage output never felt as high as it should be given my personal run through the back end of the base game, and a little armor farming from player revenants for stronger sets seemed necessary to lead up to boss encounters.
I found the missions mostly challenging but fair, but the bosses were a different nut to crack altogether. Even after all of that prep work, my heavy melee build was easily stunlocked for quick kills seconds after fights started. There are only three in the expansion, but they all move at freakish speeds, so enemy move sets need to be learned quickly and dodged efficiently.
The first boss, a centipede-like yokai samurai, was stupid hard, really. After moving through the main mission area for about an hour or so only to be stymied for another hour throwing yourself at a boss, the difficulty curve can get every bit as irritating as people found in the base game. Certainly, this is perhaps more problematic for a character build like mine, but since it took me through the main game without too much trouble, I was taken aback at the ramped up challenge of the new bosses. The story beats bookending them add some flavor to what’s going on, but they lack a vitalness that actually finishing one of these duals can grant you alone.
The rewards are worthwhile, though, for both killing bosses and logging into the game if you’ve been away from Nioh for a while. The DLC adds a new halberd weapon type and new guardian spirits from boss encounters. It also grants the new ability to equip two guardian spirits together for added passive bonuses, but this seemed to fall back on the base game’s problem of just throwing too much at you to be necessary. I didn’t find the halberds to be that far removed from spear fighting, even with the added move set, so your mileage may vary. However, new sub-missions in the base game’s maps, a new dojo mission, and the ability to swap character skins on the single player modes to play as a female character were also slid in there without much fanfare, and they make the whole package more robust. A PvP arena was added to the game as well, but I haven’t had the opportunity to dig into it at this point.
You might read this review and still think that two new main mission maps and a handful of submissions are a little on the thin side, and that’s fine. But Nioh excels in its combat, and you’ll find plenty of good scraps in Dragon of the North. A good player can probably knock the whole thing out in an evening of play, but even they should find it a compelling reason to head back to feudal Japan. For the rest of us, it’s just more of an excuse to spend time gathering weapons, working out high-level builds, and finding out how not to get swatted by a giant centipede man.