Nioh is a peculiar game.
I can’t think of another title that has taken such an exhaustive look at another franchise, Dark Souls in this instance, for inspiration so unabashedly, while still bringing a fresh notebook for annotation and iteration. Team Ninja has even acknowledged in interviews their thirst for tearing apart and rebuilding the Souls formula. Due to that, this review tries to look at Nioh on its own merits, but through the lens of its inspiration. I think it would be silly not to, because that’s how art is made–a series of stabs in the dark, while still clutching the hand of the person behind you in the cave.
Nioh’s combat is the best thing about it. It’s frantic and fast, but still locked in to the core conceit of ever-draining stamina, dodge-rolls, and timing attacks. It spins itself out into a new, fresh package. Nioh’s Ki-Pulse mechanic actively refills your stamina with a well-timed button press after a string of attacks, allowing you to continue an assault. It feels a lot like Bloodborne’s “Regain” system–it encourages the player to constantly keep up pressure, and that butts up nicely against the Souls game’s insistence to never “get greedy” with your attacks. The speed of combat, coupled with the staggering amount of different abilities your character can be built to deploy, result in something much more developed than the combat in Dark Souls. The combat in Nioh is, at its core, sublime.
Loot in Nioh is even more plentiful than Diablo 3, which translates to “way, way too much.” This has two effects on the game’s sensation of progression: Nioh makes re-speccing your character very easy. You can re-spec in the Souls games, too, but so much of your character is built around growing your weapon’s power with a finite amount of resources. Want to rebuild your character to be good at skill-based weapons? Cool, good luck having enough resources to grow a skill-based weapon that’s on-par with your current one. Nioh allows for that player flexibility by constantly feeding you new, more powerful gear.
That cuts both ways. The loot in Nioh is so plentiful that it robs items the sensation of feeling special. You don’t develop that tight relationship that you have with the Kirkhammer in Bloodborne. You don’t have the memory of whacking the inside of a tent in Brightstone Cove Tseldora for many, many hours to reduce the durability of your Spear of Santier to eventually break off the petrified head stuck to its shaft, which reduced its combat viability (what sort of crazy person would do that…) In Nioh, whatever thing you find on the ground has a good chance of usurping your current weapon, leading to a rotating door of equipment. Nothing feels vital about your relationship with your gear. That lack of vitality is mirrored in Nioh’s environmental design, which leads me to its most tragic flaw.
Disclaimer: I am a Dark Souls 2 apologist.
It has some of my favorite levels in any Souls game and I found the ever-near-sunset Majula to not just be crushingly beautiful, but the first thing I think of when somebody says “Dark Souls.” The most common gripe with Dark Souls 2 is that it lacked the sense of spacial continuity that Dark Souls touted so prominently. There was never the “Oh shit! This door leads me back to Firelink Shrine!” I do not debate that. Personally, while I find that sensation satisfying, it was not core to my experience in Dark Souls. Nioh, is structured more like Demon’s Souls – you warp from a hub (in Nioh’s case, a map) to discreet areas. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is Nioh’s absolutely teeth-clenched insistence to serve you the most painfully bland, boring, and utterly uninspired environmental design possible.
Part of the bizarre beauty I respect about the Souls series is how fucking weird it is. Like the aforementioned Brightstone Cove Tseldora, it’s architecture obscured by dunes of bright white sand, interspersed with cones of curse-laden crystal jutting out at unearthly angles. In Dark Souls 3, the fields of massive spears stuck in the ground in the walk up to Lothric Castle aren’t just aesthetically striking, but force the player to ask “what happened here?” In Bloodborne, the first time I was snatched up and awoke in the abyssal Hypogean Gaol, is one of my most fond memories playing video games.
Nioh’s sense of environment and world building is embarrassing in comparison. I would be hard pressed to tell you much more about any given area than “That was the snow level. That was the spider level. That was the poison level.” It’s not just that it repeats tile sets. From Software’s games do that ad nauseum. It’s the fundamental lack of imagination in how those tile sets were made and snapped together. It’s really bad. So much so that it’s forced me to recollect how much the environmental design in From Software’s games color my experience of it. The reason you fight so hard and die over and over, is to see over that next hill. To open that next door. Isn’t that why we play video games? Because we want to see what’s next? By the end of any given level in Nioh I felt no sense of excitement to see what lay ahead of me. There is no mystery, no sense of grandeur. I never finished Nioh and probably never will, because I simply don’t care about where it takes me.
That the environmental and level design is sorely lacking may come across as a small quibble. In this case, it plagues an otherwise magical experience.
For a game that was in development limbo for roughly ten years, Nioh is strangely focused. It knows what it is, unlike games in recent memory with similar storied histories, like Final Fantasy XV. Nioh is a classic case of “I wish X was in Y game.” If I could rip the combat off of it’s vanilla-flavored bones, and inject it into another game, I would wholeheartedly.
I don’t think Nioh is a bad game. I think it’s, sadly, a fundamentally flawed one. When I first booted it up, I was troubled with how vague it’s sense of place was, but also said to myself “From Software games start in pretty bland places too, it will get better.”
Disappointingly, it just never did.
Nioh, in expanding on the formula laid out by From Software, takes two steps back for every two steps forward. It does a lot right, but as they say, does not stick the landing.