In 2007, back in the days when print magazines still wandered the earth proudly with little fear for their own extinction, I was tasked with writing the play guide (aka walkthrough) for a PS3 game called Ninja Gaiden: Sigma by talented developers Team Ninja. In essence, this meant I had to play through the entire game over a weekend, and write tricks, hints, and tips to defeat the various enemies and challenging bosses.
The task almost killed me. You see, Ninja Gaiden: Sigma is a malevolent beast that spurns your puny human skills and laughs at your attempts to beat it. I ended up enlisting the help of my flatmate at the time, and over a frankly unwise surplus of coffee and dearth of sleep the task was completed, but at great cost to sanity and the couch cushions, which were the recipient of many a rage-punch.
Cut to: ten years later. The memories of Ninja Gaiden: Sigma are dim, and the ‘triumph over great adversity’ narrative that accompanied the experience has been supplanted by FromSoftware’s “Soulsborne” games aka the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne. Then it was announced that Team Ninja, those responsible for that lost weekend a decade ago, were releasing their own Dark Souls-style action RPG, Nioh.
Just when I thought I was out… they drag me back in!
Nioh is an action RPG, played in a third person POV. It features large, sprawling environments that are filled with hidden shortcuts and treasures and is populated by enemies, any of whom can kill you if you’re not paying attention. As you kill foes you collect Amrita, which you can then use to upgrade various traits (strength, heart, magic etc.) but only if you make it back to one of the shrines dotted around the map. If you die before you reach a shrine your Amrita is left with your corpse. If you don’t collect it before your next death, you’ll lose it all. This is where the Soulsborne comparisons come from, and there’s no question Team Ninja has taken a leaf (hell, a whole branch) out of FromSoftware’s book.
That said, Nioh is far more than a Dark Souls/Bloodborne clone. For a start, the setting is Japan in the 1600s, with the main character based on real-life English samurai, William Adams. Naturally, the game plays extremely fast and loose with the time period, including demons, guardian spirits and magic use as plot devices, which is probably not all that historically accurate.
William will complete main missions, sub-missions and twilight missions on his way through a daft-but-fun story that takes him from England to Japan to the underworld itself. Along the way you can master skills with various weapons, ninjitsu, and magic, improving the frankly dizzying number of combat options and adjusting your stance, armour load outs and consumables on the fly.
Nioh is a game that demands your attention. It’s hard, yes, but it speaks a logical language. It rarely sacrifices established rules for an unfair kill and gives you plenty of options to upgrade and enhance your modes of attack. Find yourself getting too close to your enemies? Why not switch to spear. Blobby things from the deep giving you grief, try imbuing your weapon with fire, or chuck some fire bombs at the sloppy bastards. Bad arse, super-fast demon samurai boss wrecking you hard? Level up your magic and use the Sloth spell to temporarily slow him down. Nioh wants you to succeed, it doesn’t delight in your demise and for those who found the Soulsborne titles crushing, provides a more gradual learning curve.
The one downside to Nioh is the curious lack of variety, particularly in the game’s final third. Once you’ve mastered all the systems and mechanics, you’re essentially repeating the same ‘enter the new area, kill the baddies, maul the boss’ gameplay loop over and over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a damn fine loop, but in your 60-80 hour playthrough, you’ll rarely be surprised by the appearance of a scary new enemy type that changes the game completely, which is something Bloodborne achieved spectacularly well.
That aside Nioh is an absolutely phenomenal title. Engaging story, gorgeous graphics, slick animation (with options to knock it up to 60fps, which is a literal lifesaver in some of the tougher battles) and a genuine sense of accomplishment when you best a tough foe or insidious dungeon. It’s a bit of a one trick pony, but damn if that trick isn’t pretty excellent. If you own a PS4 and are up for a challenge, you need to own Nioh.
Just be ready to punch the couch cushions and drink plenty of coffee.