For as long as technology allowed for video games to have sword combat and samurai, samurai-themed games have been a mainstay in every gaming console generation. Whether it’s in the form of fighting games like Samurai Shodown, or musou games like the Dynasty Warriors series, as long as a video game is set in feudal Japan and puts a katana in the player’s hands, it will surely enjoy a fair share of publicity and fanfare, and sometimes even win Game of the Year 2019 at The Game Awards.
Nioh is a samurai-themed Souls-like game that was released in 2017, when FromSoftware fans (or people whose idea of fun is repeatedly dying in a video game) were itching for more Souls-like games two years after the release of Bloodborne. Due to the success and popularity of FromSoftware’s Bloodborne and Souls series, the Souls-like genre was born, inspiring a slew of clones on Steam and consoles. A clear standout among these Souls-likes was Nioh, and it’s no mystery as to why it worked so well: it’s developed by Team Ninja, the game studio responsible for the Ninja Gaiden games (arguably the original git gud or die games), and it was published by Koei Tecmo, who are most known for the Dynasty Warriors franchise (and also the Dead or Alive franchise, if that’s what tickles your fancy).
With an experienced development team and a major publisher behind it, Nioh was able to take the Souls-like formula and make it its own, being able to hold a candle to the original Souls games. Now that its prequel, Nioh 2, is coming out this March 13, 2020, let’s look back on what made Nioh such a good game, and why it’s worth giving a try if you haven’t played it yet.
Does anyone remember the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai? The one where Tom Cruise plays a former US Army captain who gets caught in a civil war in Japan and somehow becomes a samurai hero? The story of Nioh is something like that, albeit a little more based on real history and real people.
You play as William, based on the real-life Irish sailor-turned-samurai William Adams, as you team up with Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo against a common enemy. There’s a civil war going on as Tokugawa attempts to unify Japan, and it’s made all the more complicated by Edward Kelley, a British sorcerer who’s brought about a yokai infestation further complicating Tokugawa’s plans. William ends up fighting both humans and yokai, assisting Tokugawa as well as pursuing his main target, Edward Kelley.
Throughout Nioh, you’ll encounter real-life figures as well as creatures from Japanese mythology, adding a sense of authenticity to the game despite its supernatural setting. You’ll be fighting Oda Nobunaga, the Yuki Onna, and even the real-life African samurai Yasuke, among other historical figures.
The gameplay of Nioh should feel familiar to Soulsborne veterans. As William Adams, you’re able to equip different kinds of weapons to suit your playstyle, and just like in Bloodborne, you can switch weapons on the fly. You can also equip different kinds of armor that you collect throughout the stages, and aside from their stat buffs, they provide a visual change to your character (improved stats are great, but they’re not as important as looking cool).
The combat system of Nioh is a little more versatile than the Soulsborne games’ because each weapon can be used in three different stances: the low, mid, and high stances. Each stance has its strengths and weaknesses, and they allow you to get more out of your preferred weapon than even Bloodborne’s transforming weapon system. The stance feature does well to capture the essence of samurai combat, as any martial art is at its core a game of rock, paper, scissors. Knowing the right stance to use against a certain enemy is your first step to overcoming them.
Nioh’s combat system also makes it exciting to play because combat happens just a little swifter than the Soulsborne games. The attack animations for each weapon don’t take more than a second per attack, and you don’t have to be so afraid of getting hit mid-animation, as you regularly would in a Soulsborne game. The drawback is that stagger lasts longer, which means that you need to watch your Stamina (referred to in Nioh as “ki”) meter and dodge before it runs out, or else you’ll get swamped by some bloodthirsty yokai.
The Soulsborne games are known for their difficulty, and it’s not just because of the towering bosses and hard-hitting creeps, it’s also because of the Stamina meter. For those who have yet to play a Soulsborne game, the Stamina meter works as a way to limit the actions the player can commit in a certain period of time. Rolling, dodging, and attacking all consume your Stamina and you have to wait for your Stamina meter to replenish before you’re able to do anything else. The Stamina meter tells you how many strikes you can commit to before you need to back off and do your last dodge to let your meter replenish.
In Nioh, the Stamina or Ki system works the same way, but with two key features (or, ki features… I’m sorry) that differentiate it from the Soulsborne games. The first is the “ki pulse,” which allows you to replenish your ki right after an attack, making your ki meter work as if you hadn’t just committed an action. By perfectly timing your ki pulses, you’re able to attack without having to worry about draining your ki meter, and you’ll find the ki pulse feature to be key (I’m not making that joke again) in defeating many of the game’s tough bosses.
The other feature is that your enemies have a visible ki meter below their HP gauges. It’s a simple but important feature that sometimes makes the game more forgiving than the Soulsbornes, showing that even your enemies operate on the same rules as you do. If they attack or dodge, it consumes their ki, and it lets you know when you have an opening to strike. It’s similar to Sekiro’s Posture system in the way that you’re able to wear out your enemies by drawing out their attacks.
I’ve always had a tough time keeping my Stamina gauge in check whenever I played Dark Souls or Bloodborne, so Nioh’s little tweaks to the Stamina system is a welcome change for me. Nothing beats being able to go all out on an annoying boss, and Nioh lets you do that as long as you master your ki pulses and keep a watchful eye on your enemies’ ki meters.
As a diehard fan of the Onimusha and Ninja Gaiden games as well as the Soulsborne games, I found Nioh to be a satisfying mix of samurai combat and Souls-like elements that does justice to the games that inspired it. I’ve always wished for an Onimusha remake (please, Capcom…), wanting to once again experience Samanosuke’s journey as he fights off a demon army led by Oda Nobunaga, and playing as William Adams going against another demon army allied with Nobunaga felt like a wish come true, albeit through another IP.
I’m glad that new, younger gamers are able to experience something like the demon-infested feudal Japan setting that the Onimusha and Ninja Gaiden games were known for, with Nioh carrying the torch and continuing a strange yet fun tradition of samurai versus demons. There’s something about pitting the two against each other that just works.
If Nioh flew below your radar because you thought it was just a simple samurai reskin of a Souls game, know that it’s no two-bit Souls clone. After all, it wouldn’t be getting a sequel if it weren’t such a good game. Go play it!
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