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