Nioh

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Team Ninja Pub­lisher SIE For­mat PS4 Re­lease Out now

PS4

Fif­teen hours in, fi­nally some­thing clicks. We’re on a hill ap­proach­ing a sacked Ja­panese cas­tle, steel­ing our­selves for an en­counter that has al­ready gone against us four times, against a hulk­ing, pur­ple, stretchy-tongued gi­ant. Un­til now we have largely played Nioh as if it is a new FromSoft­ware re­lease – un­der­stand­able, given the ex­tent to which this game pays homage to the Souls se­ries and Blood­borne. We have main­tained re­spect­ful dis­tance; we have baited and pun­ished, as is tra­di­tion. It is a tac­tic that has served us well, for the most part, up un­til now – but this gi­ant’s hav­ing none of it. He’s fast, strong and, worst of all, smart. We de­cide on a change of ap­proach, switch­ing from a rangy spear to a sword, from the slow, pow­er­ful high stance to the faster, flight­ier medium one. We dart around con­stantly, get­ting in a few quick slashes and mov­ing again, never let­ting up. The de­mon goes down in sec­onds, and we haven’t taken so much as a scratch. It has taken a while for us to get the mes­sage, but

Nioh has been telling us how it wants to be played from the first minute. The game’s beat­ing me­chan­i­cal heart is the Ki Pulse, an ac­tion-game spin on Gears Of War’s ac­tive reload: tap R1 af­ter at­tack­ing and, if prop­erly timed, you’ll re­gain the stamina (here called Ki) you’ve just spent. While the Souls games re­ward pa­tience, Nioh en­cour­ages you onto the front foot. The Ki Pulse in­vites com­par­i­son with Blood­borne’s Re­gain, which al­lowed you to re­cover lost health by im­me­di­ately hit­ting your at­tacker. That, how­ever, was an op­tion – one of­ten worth de­clin­ing. Yet you ig­nore what Pulse of­fers at your peril. It’s a sim­ple lit­tle tweak to an es­tab­lished for­mula that fun­da­men­tally, bril­liantly trans­forms it.

From that sin­gle piece of de­sign flows a com­bat sys­tem of flex­i­ble, beau­ti­ful depth. The R1 but­ton that per­forms the Pulse is also used with D-pad di­rec­tions to switch weapons, and with face but­tons to change be­tween three stances. Weapon skill trees run sev­eral screens deep, and of­fer up new moves, items and buffs; many are de­signed to fol­low – or can only be trig­gered by – a suc­cess­ful Ki Pulse. When fight­ing demons from the Yo-Kai realm, their heav­ier at­tacks leave be­hind a ghostly pud­dle that slows down your Ki re­gen. A per­fectly timed Pulse will cleanse the area, re­mov­ing the ob­struc­tion. Nioh’s weaponry choice, split into a hand­ful of fixed archetypes for melee and ranged com­bat, may ap­pear scant. The re­al­ity is very dif­fer­ent.

A dip into your in­ven­tory tells a rather dif­fer­ent story, too. Nioh bathes you in loot. It’s a hang­over from an item-degra­da­tion me­chanic that was ditched af­ter its al­pha demo and re­sults in a game that owes as much to the Di­a­blo se­ries as the Souls games. Rarer gear of­fers stat bonuses and el­e­men­tal tweaks; un­wanted drops can be dis­man­tled, sold, or traded in for XP.

The tor­rent of new, in­cre­men­tally more pow­er­ful gear can be over­whelm­ing, and the sight of your swollen in­ven­tory in­tim­i­dat­ing. Find a favourite, how­ever, and it can carry you through the whole game, since a Destinystyle in­fu­sion sys­tem lets you raise an item’s level by feed­ing more pow­er­ful gear to it. A trans­mog me­chanic lets you give one weapon or ar­mour piece the vis­ual ap­pear­ance of an­other. And through­out you’re pick­ing up ma­te­ri­als for craft­ing even more pow­er­ful tools. The re­sult is a game that feels like it wants you to spend as long in the menus as you do on the bat­tle­field, but there are few finer sights in videogames than a boss or big en­emy dy­ing in an ex­plo­sion of multi-coloured loot. That’s sorely needed be­cause de­spite the po­ten­tial vi­brancy of its set­ting, Nioh is dark and of­ten muted. In­stead of a Souls- style in­ter­con­nected world, this is a game of dis­tinct lev­els – which should, in theory, al­low Team Ninja to of­fer a de­gree of va­ri­ety, of dif­fer­ent ge­og­ra­phy, scenery and times of day, freed of the bur­den of craft­ing a co­her­ent world. Yet it’s set largely at night, or un­der­ground, or in the driv­ing rain, or bits of all three. Given that this feu­dal-era Ja­pan is in the grip of both a war and an in­va­sion by un­der­world spir­its, per­haps the muddy, noc­tur­nal, op­pres­sive tone is ap­pro­pri­ate. But when the sun is al­lowed to peek through – a role only re­ally avail­able to it in sub­mis­sions, which of­ten take you back to cleared-out ar­eas at a dif­fer­ent time of day – you’ll wish its pres­ence had been the rule rather than the ex­cep­tion.

Level de­sign, mean­while, is a lit­tle in­con­sis­tent early on, where maps are some­what flat and pre­dictably laid out, par­tic­u­larly to a Souls vet­eran. If we’re be­ing kind, that’s by de­sign, since Team Ninja wants you to fo­cus on learn­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of that mar­vel­lous com­bat sys­tem. Things im­prove as you progress, as you’re dropped into com­plex, corkscrew­ing lev­els that man­age to sur­prise even when they’re seem­ingly go­ing through the mo­tions. The stan­dard-is­sue poi­son level, for in­stance, is based not solely around tox­i­c­ity but on a de­vice that en­ables you to clear the air for a few sec­onds at a time. Else­where, there’s a de­gree of free­dom in how you work through a level – clear­ing out the mines be­low, for in­stance, can re­duce the en­emy threat above ground – while a ninja-in­fested man­sion is the finest puz­zle dun­geon you’ll find this side of Sen’s Fortress.

And there’s just so much of it. Dozens of lev­els, each end­ing with a unique boss fight, await on the main path; there are scores of sub-mis­sions too, and the pun­ish­ingly dif­fi­cult Twi­light Mis­sions for true masochists. Be­fore re­lease it was easy – tempt­ing, even – to write Nioh off, to dis­miss it as a Dark Souls im­pos­tor whose maker hasn’t made a de­cent game in more than a decade. Yet this is a game that takes the foun­da­tions of one of the most in­tox­i­cat­ing RPGs around and builds them into a fast, fluid, sim­ply enor­mous ac­tion game as good as any­thing Team Ninja has ever made.

It has taken a while for us to get the mes­sage, but Nioh has been telling us how it wants to be played from the first minute

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