Nioh is the wonderful new game from Team Ninja, who have taken quite a deep look at Dark Souls’ playbook and sought to innovate in places – but mostly to just crush players underneath them with the Souls series trademark difficulty. Join me as I take an extensive look at Nioh and what makes it tick (and what doesn’t).

Nioh has  been in development for  thirteen years or so – only to release a month ago, in February. Pre-orders through the roof thanks to the various demos – in which developers listened to player feedback closely – has only hyped players further. Many things will be familiar to Souls players and fans, the combat is fundamentally the same – with some unique twists and additions to the formula. The most difficult thing was to forget that square was Estus – it’s now your quick attack ! Right next to X being dodge, triangle being heavy attack and circle being your interact button.

Some of the new things to get used to include the punishment for running out of stamina, it all but guarantees a special attack on you from humanoids, or a more powerful one from demons – or Yokai. This is a state in which your main character pants helplessly for a solid 3 seconds or so. Obviously, you don’t want to get to this state too often ! Another thing to watch out for is the Stance system! Each weapon can be wielded of 3 different ways, with each offering unique tactical and combat options.

Specifically, High Stance seems to place emphasis on high stamina – Ki – usage  attacks. Powerful, hard to block, but a bit slow. Your defences are awful in this state. Mid Stance is the middle of the road – average Ki regeneration, attack power, reach and combo ability. As a sword user, I spent 95% of the game in this stance and felt comfortable – but other weapons might do better in different stances as a default. Finally, Low Stance emphasises quick, annoying, low-ki attacks that combo well and do little damage. You can dodge for less Ki and are more mobile in this state!

The attacks and their animations change from stance to stance – one might be a short poke of your sword’s tip, the other a horizontal slash good for multiple opponents.  Certain enemies are so low to the ground that only a few mid stance hits will connect – you are encouraged to swing hard or swing low with high or low stances for those enemies. Stance switching is further encouraged by the new Ki Pulse mechanic. This mechanic allows you to quickly regain Ki expended on attacks by correctly timing a stance change or just pressing the R1 button – but you can soon unlock bonuses that activate on correctly timed stance changes. Fortunately, this is not necessary to beat the game, as regular R1 timing and later correctly dodging will do this just as well.

Nioh also adds new ingredients in the mix such as the Kodama – wood children – friendly green spirits who need to be guided to the Shrines you pray at. That is where you respawn upon death and it also acts as a checkpoint – this game’s Bonfires. Kodama confer various bonuses, and it’s your job to increase the potency and choose one – by finding them and settling on a Blessing. These range from useless to extremely beneficial, such as the more useless +% weapon or armor drop rate increasing ones to the amazing +% Amrita (leveling currency) or Elixir (Estus/ replenishing healing item) drop rate. Kodama tend to be hidden in most levels, indicated on the World Map you use to select your next outing, and must be sought out – often in extremely tricky places, where one must interact with them to render them collected.

I’ve heard odd criticisms from people about Nioh’s graphics. It most certainly won’t blow you away, but for a game intended for the PS 3 originally, there is little wrong with the visual presentation. In fact, artistically, it’s downright CREEPY in places in all the best ways!  The game comes with 3 options out of the box that it offers you – do you want pretty 30 FPS gameplay, less pretty 60 FPS gameplay or…one that’s pretty and it MIGHT go over 30 FPS sometimes. Huh. Well, that aside, you do get enough visual feedback to make educated decisions on your next course of action – and little looks muddied or improper.

Part of the Nioh graphical appeal for me was the entire aesthetic. I’m so used to – and bored of – all the ‘great western’ settings. I adore Dark Souls deeply, but to dive right into Japanese architecture, folklore, history and mythology was an intensely refreshing experience. Expect to see lots of samurai running around, the occasional ninja or two, and even Onmyo practitioners ! The enemies you come face to face with are often  far more terrifying – whether by appearance or in how they came to be – than the usual offerings from similar games. In particular, the first non-tutorial Boss enemy was the amalgamated suffering of brutally tortured victims given hideous form. It was more appealing from a back story perspective than a visual perspective. This trend is swiftly kicked by the 2nd Boss, who is a skin-crawlingly creepy creature, where the visuals definitely made me cringe more than her back story did.

Nioh’s combat, as a whole, is tight and responsive. The weapons offer unique edges and drawbacks – each scaling off 3 stats in differing amounts. There is an Ideal, a Secondary, and a Tertiary stat they gain their power off of. Usually, each of those stats does something else that is beneficial for you even if you aren’t directly wielding a weapon that would gain boosts off that. Swords are the average joes of this game world, performing really well with no drawbacks! Dual swords are fast, needly and excel at more technical gameplay and status imparting on enemies. Axes are REALLY slow and offer high damage but also leave you quite vulnerable here and there. Spears have long reach and have some nice moves, but bounce off walls, they are fairly easy to play. Lastly, the Kusarigama – a ball and sickle sort of weapon – is very technical and takes some  getting used to, but offers a unique play experience even from the other weapons. It can strike many times, leading to a hilariously easy time debuffing enemies with status ailments.

A quick breakdown of stats :

  • Body :  Spears mainly scale with this. By itself, it raises health each level – and it can grant you Samurai skill points, which are spendable on weapon skills.
  • Ki : Grants you minor HP, and is the only stat to increase your maximum Ki – very important for every character but especially important for swordsmen! Bows also benefit from raising this stat.
  • Stamina : Responsible for the amount of armor tolerance you have. With this higher, you can wear heavier armor before you incur penalties. Cannons also scale off this stat.
  • Strength : Contributes to damage a bit. Unless you use Axes, then it’s your main stat – it also helps with equipment load. Not as important as it sounds, though you can get Samurai skill points off it.
  • Skill : A huge stat that boosts dual sword scaling , and Ninjutsu skills power – it can also earn you Samurai skill points. Very important for dual sword or Ninjutsu builds.
  • Dexterity : The main Ninjutsu stat, it also contributes to the damage of some weapons like the Kusarigama. Slap points here for Ninjutsu SP.
  • Magic : Responsible for Onmyo strength and skill points, it can be useful to put a few points in here and get some backup-abilities.
  • Spirit : The ‘everyone should have this’ stat, Spirit increases your bond with your Guardian Spirit, rendering them more effective either through direct usefulness or unlocking beneficial boons listed in their examination menu – you will need a certain amount on a spirit to passively receive all of its blessings, with the final number around 25 or so for end-game ones.

There are some new elements in that table that might puzzle you. Ninjutsu? Onmyo? Guardian Spirits?! Yes, from the outset, you will have a Guardian Spirit who will confer passive bonuses to your main character as you try to survive the hardships of war-torn feudal Japan. This can range from faster Ki regeneration to outright sensing enemies to – in near the end – a spirit that will prevent your death once and trigger its special ability on the spot! And that special ability is called a ‘Living weapon’.  You invoke your spirit to become a part of your weapon and attack with it – during which time you are completely invulnerable to non-fatal damage. Pits and such will still kill you if fatal anyway, but raw damage can not. A depleting bar will replace your HP and Ki bar, signalling the duration of this mode – it’s a good idea to pop healing items before it wears off, in case you were in critical condition when you entered it!

On death, your guardian spirit abandons you to guard your grave. You can forfeit your grave to get the spirit back, use an item to get both your spirit AND dropped currency back, or just reclaim it manually. A spirit not with you confers no boons, nor can it enter Living Weapon mode with you ! The main levelling currency of this game is called Amrita – a corruption of Ambrosia – that is very Soulslike in how it functions. You spend it on levelling, can lose it on death, and so forth. A secondary currency, ‘gold’ exists, but I personally found very little use for it, myself.

Ninjutsu relies on trickery and mostly damage or damage prevention. It isn’t completely going in that direction, but skills will let you pop pills that offer resistance to paralysis, perhaps slow enemies with caltrops, allow you to put paralyzing gunk on your blade for a short bit, and the like. It’s a good backup for those wishing to control the battlefield a bit more closely through distance, tricks and ninja toys. Faster characters benefit from Ninjutsu more as some of the skills and items can rely on positioning to pay off fully.

Onmyo is a special way of interacting with the world that is a bit like magic indeed. Onmyo skills offer buffs and heals for the most part – elemental enchantments for your weapons, resistance, area of effect healing for you and your allies, and different enemy debuffs to Ninjutsu. Some Onmyo debuffs include slowing all enemy actions by 50% for a while, reducing the enemy ‘s Ki replenishment rate, defense or attack, and so forth.

The beauty of Nioh’s combat lies in its fairness. Every single boss and enemy has a Ki bar, just like you do. They are susceptible to most statuses – unless elementally inclined to resist them by design – and , yes, you can tire out even bosses by depleting their Ki! This lets you get in several safe attacks for greater damage, or even situationally powerful special attacks. Some are hulking monsters where depleting their Ki is a bad idea. Some are brittle enough that you can just slash them down before they get tired – but in particular, large executioner skeletons with axes in heavy armor really do not like Ki damage. Triangle attacks and special skills do more Ki damage then light attacks from the square button.

The story is nothing to fall over about, but it does wave Japanese history and folklore into its fabric quite well. It won’t impress you, by any means, but it’s a string to follow as you go from place to place righting wrongs and trying to achieve your goal. The Sound design is quite good – with authentic Japanese voice acting filling most of the game, aside from a few key players English voice acting – one of the first helpful characters you meet speaks appropriately butchered, but accurate English to you, as a Japanese person – it got a smile out of me.

After spending around seventy hours defeating various monstrosities in Nioh‘s world, a New Game Plus option opened up to me with far stronger enemies and challenges. I don’t regret my purchase in the slightest. It was a pre-order, to boot, and the frustrating difficulty spikes are quite few in number – usually optional missions or enemies that them. In particular, a late game optional mission asks you to battle 2 bosses at once, both of which are immensely powerful on their own, and complement the other perfectly. One will constantly harass you in melee range, while the other strikes out of your periphery with lethal ranged attacks. This is the single optional mission I have not yet beaten, and it is BRUTAL.

However, challenges are constant – and one can opt to perform Twilight Missions, once unlocked. These can range from scenario-reshuffling harder versions of maps to simply harder re-treads of earlier maps. It replaces and moves enemies, while beefing up the level boss, if any, slightly. The enemy variety is good, they each have their own quirks, gimmicks, weaknesses and sweet-safe-danger spots for fighting them. Variations on early enemies show up later with additional attacks, more damage and even some devilish tricks to make you think twice!

Nioh’s bosses themselves are quite entertaining and sweep the full gamut from big, slow and dangerous to insanely fast , acrobatic and lethal! From 12 feet tall, iron ball chucking monstrosities to a highly trained and skilled assassin with many daggers and Ninjutsu items, I’ve only found one, perhaps two bosses out of a stock of perhaps 30 to be ‘easy’. You can re-fight some in Optional battles , and in almost all such instances these once easy or manageable bosses have received a brutal power up – that is, unless you are over-levelled. For instance, early on in the game , a famous figure is impersonated, and that impostor does battle with you. Slow, easy, after a fairly long level. Then you get the re-match option against the actual person who was being impersonated Way harder, the proper character in question is much faster and more aggressive, with twice the move pool and various power ups.


Finally, Multiplayer. Across the world, other players’ graves are visible – you can challenge an AI version of the character who died to a fight – upon winning which you can maybe get an item the actual character was wearing, as well as items to co-operate with fellow players, called Ochoko Cups. Mid-game unlocks Factions to join so slaying these , as the game calls them, ‘Revenants’ unlocks greater potential rewards – points that can be redeemed for cosmetic options, gestures, or a chance at a powerful weapon. There is currently no direct player versus player PVP in the game, as all Revenants summoned are AI controlled. Co-operative play however does include another, live player.

In conclusion, if you fancy a long romp through Japan immersing yourself in the demons and lore of the world with some familiar, if expanded Souls game play, Nioh is absolutely for you. I can find no glaring flaws with it, but those inclined for less intensive or punishing games might have to look elsewhere. For those that relish the taste of challenge and live for split second timing, Nioh is the game to play.