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.
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.