I’m going to do something slightly different here – normally I’d just be looking at the Dark Souls trilogy itself when doing a love/hate series, but I’m actually going to change it up slightly and include other games in this subgenre that I have played and which I feel could make for a strong comparison. As a result, I’m bringing you the Souls-like samurai game from Team Ninja, Nioh! Having gotten into Bloodborne and Dark Souls from my itching for a new Ninja Gaiden game, could Nioh live up to Team Ninja’s reputation for rich and satisfying combat? Read on to find my thoughts…
- Amazing Combat System – I’ll just come out and say that Nioh has the best combat system in any Souls-like game. Team Ninja really hits it out of the park, nailing a really precise combat system while the game’s speed somewhere between Bloodborne and Ninja Gaiden. The result is a very fast-paced game that is deep, skillful and incredibly satisfying to master. There are also a couple of big innovations which help make Nioh‘s combat stand out so much:
- Ki Pulse takes the stamina regeneration of Souls games and adds in an active-reload system which will allow you to replenish your stamina instantly if you do it correctly. This creates a balancing act where you can risk running out of stamina but get it back quickly in order to keep your attacks going longer. It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the timing down it becomes second-nature and allows you to be incredibly aggressive.
- Weapon stances are also a huge addition in this game. All weapons can be held in high, mid, or low stance, which significantly changes the way the weapon performs. Each stance changes your combat and dodge speeds, and some enemies are best fought in different stances (for example, Yoki are susceptible to high stance sword strikes which will hit them in the head and stun them when they break their horns). While you might be tempted just to stick with one stance, learning to master stance chances makes a huge difference in combat and just further deepens the experience.
- You can see your opponents’ ki meters, meaning that stunning them becomes a reliable strategy should you choose to go for it. I liked using a heavy axe as my secondary weapon for this very reason, with only a single strong high-stance attack I could destroy most enemies’ ki bars.
- Addictive Loot System – Nioh features a Diablo-like loot system. Unlike Dark Souls where each piece of equipment has fixed properties (until you upgrade it anyway), all equipment in Nioh has randomized perks. You can spend ages in the blacksmith just reforging your armour and weapons to get the perfect perks which complement your build and playstyle. It can be addictive just collecting all the loot drops and looking for that one piece of armour or weapon that is better than the one you have already.
- Spirit Guardians Are Cool – Even if it was just aesthetic, the idea of picking the spirit guardian that accompanies you on your journey is awesome (I went with the Paired Raiken, because having two lightning puppies with me is amazing). However, each guardian provides unique bonuses while they are with you which can further optimize your build, while also being able to help in a pinch. However, the trade-off is that when you die, your guardian spirit stays to protect your lost Amrita (this game’s souls-equivalent) and no longer provides you with any bonuses unless you choose to sacrifice your lost Amrita. It makes for a pretty interesting trade-off and makes death just that much more tense.
- Fun Side Content – Nioh‘s mission-based structure allows for the inclusion of various side content for players to enjoy. These are all pretty fun and provide you with more loot, from bite-sized side missions, to challenging duels, to the challenging-but-rewarding twilight missions. This side content allows you to get your equipment and levels upgraded without having to do repetitive level grinding and farming like other Souls-like games tend to.
- Meaty DLC – Team Ninja did a good job with the DLC packs for Nioh, providing players with three expansions with plenty of new missions, weapons and challenging bosses to sink your teeth into. This extends the length of the base game by several hours per pack while also providing an epilogue to the main game’s story. The bosses are also all consistently fun and challenging.
- Builds on the Souls Formula – Nioh definitely cribs many elements from the formula of Dark Souls – stamina-based fighting system, clever level design emphasizing traps and exploration, shrines are this game’s bonfires, etc. However, Nioh also adds plenty of its own elements and twists to the formula, which allows it to stand out on its own and not feel like a ripoff (unlike, say, Lords of the Fallen). Even something simple like the bloodspots in Souls games have been given cool twists – in Nioh, blood spots can be used to spawn revenants, which have the equipment of the player who was killed and which can provide you with amazing loot drops if you risk spawning them into your game.
- Living Weapon Feels Like a Crutch – As I mentioned earlier, your Guardian Spirit can provide you with help in a pinch. It does this by building up a “living weapon meter” over time as you attack enemies. When the meter is filled you can unleash your living weapon, which makes you invulnerable and allows you to dish out a ton of damage in a short time (similar to Spartan Rage in the newest God of War). Certain builds can also optimize living weapon build-up, meaning that you can potentially cheese your way through boss fights. I’d say that Nioh can to be more difficult than Dark Souls, but when you can just pull out your living weapon in a fight it makes battles feel much easier and more forgiving.
- Onmyo and Ninjitsu Skills Feel Like an Afterthought – One of the other different elements of Nioh is that it features a skill tree. Usually this provides you with bonuses to your weapons, but players can also spend them on onmyo magic and ninjitsu skills. In practice, they function similarly to consumable items in Dark Souls where you equip them, select them on the d-pad and have a finite number of uses. The system could have been interesting, but as it is it just feels like an afterthought that you can’t reliably build around, unlike pretty much every other aspect of the combat system. On occasion I’ll bring out an elemental resistance pill for a boss battle or use magic missiles on foes, but that’s about it.
- Loot Management is an Obligatory Chore – Basically every mission in Nioh ends with you spending 5+ minutes just going through your inventory and selling or breaking down all of the useless loot you acquired on your journey. As addictive as it is to find better loot out in the game world, most of it is crap and having to actually sift through it all and dispose of it quickly becomes annoying. The upcoming Nioh 2 needs to find some sort of way to streamline or automate this process because as it is right now it is a major pain in the ass.
- Menu-based World Design – Perhaps the biggest difference between Nioh and Dark Souls is that Nioh is played out over a series of missions and that the world is navigated through menus. The missions themselves are quite good, but this structure makes the world itself feel considerably less interesting and cohesive in comparison. Your mileage may vary, but this makes the game just a bit less compelling and engaging than Dark Souls or Bloodborne for me, despite being by far the funnest in terms of its actual gameplay and mechanics.
- Story Leaves Little Impact – Unlike Dark Souls, the story in Nioh is told in a much more straightforward manner, with cutscenes before and after each mission. Unfortunately, the story is not very well told, seemingly just jumping between scenes with little connective tissue to contextualize everything. I enjoyed some of the characters, such as Hanzo, Edward Kelley and Saoirse, but I quickly stopped caring about what was supposed to be happening around me because I couldn’t follow it. It’s unfortunate too, because a better-told story could have made for a much more engaging game and a more interesting world too for that matter.
- Online Interaction is an Afterthought – Online play in Nioh isn’t nearly as accessible as it is in Dark Souls, requiring you to dig through some menus in order to use it. Without an equivalent to summoning signs, the odds of getting summoned to someone else’s game are pretty low. There’s also a global clan battle system somewhat similar to covenants, but this also feels like a total afterthought and only provides you with some bonus resources if you sacrifice specific resources every few days. I basically didn’t even bother exploring the online in Nioh because it felt so inessential.