Nioh review: A brighter Dark Souls

'Nioh' Vs 'Dark Souls' And 'BloodBorne:' Here's What You Need To Know

Team Ninja’s excellent action-RPG Nioh launches this Tuesday on the PlayStation 4. It’s been widely compared to games like Ninja Gaiden, Bloodborne, and Dark Souls.

These are apt comparisons, and Nioh is nothing if not derivative. But it’s a good kind of derivative, proving that Team Ninja has taken inspiration from these games and spun it into gold.

Here are some of the things that make Nioh different from Dark Souls, for better or worse.

Combat

Combat in Nioh feels a lot like a Souls game. It’s rarely, if ever, as slow as the original Dark Souls, however, and would be better compared to either Bloodborne or Dark Souls III.

The basics are very similar. You have magic, melee and ranged options when you go into battle. Clicking the right thumb-stick locks you onto an enemy, and flicking that same stick allows you to switch which opponent you’re locked on to.

You can then attack with light or heavy attacks, or string these into various combos (that differ depending on how you’ve leveled up.) You can also block or dodge incoming attacks.

Where combat differs the most is in Nioh’s clever ‘stance’ mechanic. You can choose between the very fast ‘low’ stance, the slow-but-strong ‘high’ stance or the balanced ‘mid’ stance. You can change stances on the fly, and each one results in completely different moves for each type of weapon. Depending on your play-style and the enemy you’re up against, experimenting with different weapons in different stances could mean the difference between life and death. Or you may find you simply prefer one over the other.

I really like playing with a Kusarigama in high stance. This is a long chain with a blade on the end that has both very short-ranged and mid-range attacks, and in the high stance it packs a series of fast, hard hits but can also be used to snag enemies at a distance. However, on some enemies and especially on some bosses, the high stance’s warm-up is too long with a Kusarigama, so I’ve had to switch techniques in some situations.

This differs from Dark Souls quite a bit. The Souls games have no ‘stances’ to speak of. However, they have a lot more weapon variety. Nioh has just a handful of weapon types. Within those types you may find dozens of different weapons, but they all operate more or less the same. The real move-set variety comes from stances rather than from each weapon.

Armor is varied in similar ways. Rather than dozens of unique sets, there’s different types of armor that then varies in quality. The loot is almost a mix between Souls and something more along the lines of Diablo. You regularly find items with better stats that aren’t all that different from what you’ve been using, and are constantly changing up your gear.

There are some other small differences. You change stance by holding the R1 button and then pressing one of the shape buttons (triangle is high, square low, etc.) By holding R1 you can also switch between two melee weapons or two ranged weapons using the D-Pad. Holding R1 and pressing R2 swaps out your consumables, meaning you can have eight different items/spells mapped to the D-Pad. Having four weapons and eight items/spells mapped at once is extremely useful, though it can be a little overwhelming in a heated battle. I’ve accidentally consumed the wrong item a number of times because I forgot to swap back to the first four items.

There’s also a similar stamina mechanic to the Souls games, though it’s referred to as ‘Ki.’ You use this up by running, blocking and attacking and it recovers more slowly if you’re defending—all very similar to the Souls approach. The twist is the Ki Pulse, which allows you to press R1 quickly after an attack to more rapidly recover Ki, extending your ability to keep fighting without losing your momentum. This is similar to the Rally mechanic in Bloodborne though less risky. Rallying restores health in that game by quickly returning a blow after receiving damage, which in turn exposes you to further damage. Successfully landing a Ki Pulse can also banish demonic magic that slows Ki recovery.

Accompanying you in combat is your Spirit Guardian. Each Guardian has different powers, and when you fill a special meter through combat, you can unleash your Living Weapon on an enemy. This is a powerful attack based on your Spirit Guardian that is an effective way to take out more difficult enemies.

Finally, there’s a basic health bar. Various consumables will fill this back up, but Elixirs are your basic healing item and replenish (up to a certain amount) when you pray at a shrine.

All told, combat in Nioh feels a lot like Bloodborne but it has enough of its own mechanics to feel fresh and unique at the same time. It’s clearly using many of the ideas in the Souls games and making them its own.

Magic

Magic in Nioh is more limited than in Dark Souls, but more expansive than Bloodborne. It basically boils down to two types of magic—Onmyo magic and Ninjitsu, or Ninja skills.

Onmyo magic is largely supplemental. You can use Talismans to imbue your weapons with elemental damage, for instance, or to serve as powerful resistance wards.

Ninjitsu is really not magic at all. It allows you to create poisons, shurikens and various other items that help you in combat and renew each time you pray at a shrine (unlike regular consumables which are used up and have to be replenished.)

While magic and Ninjitsu skills are important parts of your character’s build, they never figure in as largely as magic in Dark Souls. There is no mage build option in Nioh. It’s much more like Bloodborne in this regard.

RPG Elements

In the Souls games you gather souls up and use these to improve stats, weapons and so forth. When you die, your souls are dropped and you have one more chance to go retrieve them. If you die on your way, the souls are lost.

In Nioh souls have been replaced by ‘Amrita.’ That’s the Sanskrit word for ‘immortality’ and functions almost identically to souls in the Souls series. You use Amrita to level up and each level becomes more expensive. When you level up you level up individual stats which then impact various other qualities of your character.

When you die, your Amrita drops and you have to return to your grave to find it. Like in Souls, you have one chance. If you die, the Amrita is gone.

One of the big differences here is that your Spirit Guardian also drops with your Amrita. You retrieve it at the same time and can start building your Living Weapon meter again. If you die the meter resets to zero as well.

Spending Amrita levels up stats, but spending Samurai, Onmyo and Ninja points improve your range of special moves, items, magic and so forth. This adds a whole layer to leveling up not present in the Souls franchise.

In terms of actual roleplaying rather than leveling, there’s not much to speak of. Nioh is an action game, and your choices are all about character build and not narrative outcome.

Level Design

Levels are built in a similar fashion to the Souls games. You progress from a starting point to the boss. On the way you’ll find shortcuts and secret passages, and you’ll fight a bevy of foes. Each level has at least a couple of shrines that serve as the rough equivalent of a bonfire in the Souls games.

At a shrine you can summon help, level up, switch out your spirit guardian, ready your magic, and so forth. Praying resets the level, returning all the enemies that respawn to life.

The biggest difference between Souls and Nioh is in the world design rather than level design. Whereas Dark Souls and Bloodborne weave levels together into a larger, interconnected world, Nioh’s levels are detached from one another. There’s an over-map that unlocks missions as you progress. Main missions are replaced by sub-missions with a different objective after completion. Twilight missions are difficult optional missions that unlock along the way. None of these are connected physically to the others.

This is perhaps where Nioh is at its weakest and where Dark Souls and Bloodborne shine the brightest. While individual missions are well-designed in Nioh there’s never that sense of wonder you experience exploring From Software’s games.

Boss Fights

Boss fights are very similar to Dark Souls and Bloodborne in Nioh. Bosses are hard. They do a lot of damage, have special attacks that can paralyze or one-shot you (etc.) and take a long time to bring down.

Like in Dark Souls, finding the boss’s weakness is crucial to success. There’s almost always a vulnerability, and exploiting that vulnerability is key to winning. When you’re killed over and over again by a tough boss and then finally, finally kill it, you have that great sense of satisfaction that you feel in Dark Souls.

Bosses vary in both difficulty and creativity, but I found them on par with many of the boss fights in the Souls games.

Difficulty

This is a hard one to really gauge. I’ve been playing these games for a long time now, so I’m a lot better at this kind of gameplay now than I was when I first played Dark Souls.

I will say this: The Nioh alpha was a lot harder than the Nioh we have now. That first demo was a huge struggle, with much more punishing penalties for depleting Ki. Having played the game a lot since then doesn’t hurt, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the difficulty was dialed down a bit since then.

Nevertheless, it’s still a hard game. Enemies can be brutal, and facing a mob can be incredibly challenging.

Boss fights are easily the most challenging aspect of the game, while missions themselves seem somewhat easier than those in Dark Souls or Bloodborne.

Story and Setting

While missions are generally short on dialogue and focus more on the action than anything else, the game’s story plays out in both Amrita memories (basically some dialogue you hear when you search some bodies) and in cut-scenes between missions. There’s not a huge or detailed story here, but it’s still less sparse than the Souls games, and much, much less cryptic.

You also aren’t a blank slate in Nioh. You’re William, an Englishman who’s fled his homeland. I won’t go into any spoiler territory here. Suffice to say, the main character talks and there’s actual scenes that play out during the game that flesh out the world and the story. It’s a very different story-telling method than what we find in Dark Souls.

The setting is also quite different. Whereas Dark Souls and Bloodborne are both Japanese visions of Western fantasies, Nioh is a Samurai game set in a demon-infested Japan. You actually start out in England, replete with broadswords and knights in plate mail, but the vast majority of the game takes place in a dark, demonic Samurai world.

It’s a wonderful change of scenery, as strikingly different from Bloodborne as that game was from Dark Souls.

Graphics

Nioh has excellent graphics and a great, distinct art-style. It also has options for graphics on the PS4 and PS4 Pro, prioritizing either graphic fidelity or frame-rate (you should pick the latter given how important frame rate is in an action game like this.) Here are all the options on PS4 and PS4 Pro.

PS4

PS4, Option 1: “Movie Mode”
This mode focuses on resolution over frame rate, offering beautiful high resolution graphics with stable 30fps

PS4, Option 2: “Action Mode”
Here the emphasis is on frame rate, providing a stable 60fps

PS4, Option 3: “Movie Mode (Variable frame rate)”
Finally, this option provides high resolution graphics with a variable frame rate that may go over 30fps.

PS4 Pro

PS4 Pro, HD display. Option 1: “Movie Mode”
Stable 1920×1080 resolution with high quality anti-aliasing at 30fps

PS4 Pro, HD display. Option 2: “Action Mode”
Stable 1920×1080 resolution at 60fps

PS4 Pro, 4K display. Option 1: “Movie Mode”
Stable 3840×2160 resolution at 30fps

PS4 Pro, 4K display. Option 2: “Action Mode”
Stable 1920×1080 resolution at 60fps



It's impossible for a fan of From Software’s Dark Souls or Bloodborne to not see Nioh so clearly mimicking those games’ distinct styles. But the franchises Nioh cribs from rely so deeply on repetition, muscle memory, and hundreds of total hours of perseverance that even the smallest changes in dodge timing or invincibility frames are incredibly obvious. And Nioh changes a whole lot more than dodge timing.
One immediate difference Souls fans will notice after booting up the latest from Team Ninja (Dead or Alive, Ninja Gaiden) is that it's not set in some ashy, dying Western fantasy world. While the tutorial starts in the Tower of London circa 1600, it's less than an hour before you wash up on the shores of a very vibrant-looking Japan. Don’t let the looks fool you, though—this locale is no less hostile than From Software's Lordran or Drangleic.

The time period places the game right at the tail end of Japan's Sengoku period, which is more important than you might think. Another of Nioh's departures from the Souls games is a plot that’s plainly presented, if not exactly straightforward.

You play as The Witcher's Geralt of Rivia "William," a character based on the real-world William Adams—the first Western samurai and one of only a handful to ever exist. Circumstances draw him to Japan, where he becomes embroiled in the war-torn politics of the era. The oddly descriptive, intricate plot is told partly through encyclopedia entries on the fictionalized historical figures William does business with, interspersed with dramatic shots of shoguns staring each other down in council chambers.

The story has little to do with William personally, though. He's only in Japan because a Celtic bird wizard stole his fairy friend, who can sniff out philosopher's stones. Of course, this leads Will to work for famous ninja Hanzo Hattori, fighting ghosts in order to secure political favors and alliances. All so they can fight the wizard that has William's fairy.

I couldn’t make that up if I tried.

Most of these fantasy bits are played just as cut-and-dried as the politicking. Nioh even respects and addresses little historical niggles—like the fact that an English sailor probably wouldn't speak Japanese in 1600. Dense history lessons rub shoulders with wizards, yokai, fairies, and swords made of lightning, and Nioh doesn't bat an eye. The bland acceptance of the surreal actually calls to mind the magical realism of Dynasty Warriors (or its Sengoku-based sister series Samurai Warriors) rather than Dark Souls.

Monster mashed

The moment-to-moment monster murder is all Souls, though. You have a stamina meter, and you'd better watch it at all times. You have a health meter, and Nioh's nigh-indestructible, poisonous, hit point-drinking bosses think it's just adorable. Make no mistake: you will die a lot playing Nioh, and you will drop whatever experience points you were carrying at the time when you do. Enemies will ambush you around corners and knock you into a bottomless pit, too.

That should sound incredibly familiar to any Souls fan. Having played all of From Software's punishing RPGs, I'd say Nioh is even harder by comparison. You notice it in the obvious, fleeting ways. The game's second proper boss, for instance, can paralyze you, steal your health, fly out of range of melee attacks, and create pockets into the netherworld that drain your stamina faster than normal.

Amid the similarities, though, there are some smaller, more esoteric tweaks on the familiar battle mechanics. Blocking or getting hit when Will's stamina reaches zero stuns him for significantly longer than in Souls games, leaving him wide open to follow-up slams, slashes, venom, and paralysis. In one boss battle, a single stunning mistake can lead to an instant, one-hit-kill "screw you" attack.

Nioh uses a thoughtful trio of "stances" for each of its major weapon types. High stance puts out more damage, mid stance grants greater defense, and low stance puts less strain on William's stamina. Flitting between the modes of attack on the fly grants a dance-like quality to combat. You weave between enemy attacks, learn the intricacies of spear and sword animations, and deduce how many strikes you can get away with before reprisal.

The pain train

At its best, there's a grace to it that even Dark Souls and Bloodborne can't match. But the dance feels awfully futile against the dread locomotives Nioh calls bosses, as they simply charge straight through you at full steam. That would be a bigger problem if William wasn't such a pain train himself. The samurai has an intimidating arsenal of agonizing tricks to compensate for the game's higher difficulty. The onus is on the player to actually remember and use them all, though.

Nioh might just be the most mechanically dense action RPG I've played in years. Besides dumping experience points into ever more costly stats, a Nioh player has to deal with individual skill trees for every class of weapon, every bonus magic spell, and every bit of ninja trickery. Then there are two more progression charts that provide flat bonuses to things like stamina for earning in-game achievements.
Even the semi-randomized re-forging of weapons at an in-game blacksmith between missions is fraught with strategic choices. Do you like a particular skill tied to a particular weapon? You can level the weapon up and pass its bonuses on to a new one. Or you can essentially feed a higher grade weapon to the one you like to raises its overall stats. Don't like a specific skill on a helmet you really want to keep? You can re-roll it for a chance at something better (so long as you have enough resources). Just like the look of a particular pair of double blades? You can transfer its appearance to something more effective. Even the blacksmith herself can be leveled up after a while.

You'll spend a lot of time smithing in Nioh, too, if you know what's good for you. Unlike in Dark Souls, missions and boss fights are infinitely repeatable. That means you can grind through extra stabs at getting rare, semi-random loot drops. In fact, if you want to play cooperatively with a friend, the pair of you can only repeat missions that the host has beaten before. This means the only way to duet your way through unbeaten bosses is by summoning strangers mid-match. Whichever way you do it, though, most of what you earn will be fuel for the smith's many complex functions.

An ace (or four) up your sleeve

All that doesn’t even touch on the minuscule demigods hidden in levels that grant you higher item, gold, experience, or healing item drop rates. Then there’s the menagerie of guardian spirits that bestow unique stat bonuses, and the quick time event-like ability to win back some of William's endurance after every attack. At some point, you unlock so many cards to play in any given situation that Nioh's greatest challenge becomes remembering your whole hand.

Basic survival skills like Will's "Ki Pulse" (the character's second wind) feel almost mandatory quite quickly. It took me quite a while to make this essential skill second nature, especially since my muscles remembered the very specific and different rhythms of Souls games.

It's the less ubiquitous skills I had to keep reminding myself about. For instance, I might slap my forehead in disgust when I remembered, after a boss beat me into cat food, that William can turn himself invincible for short periods. The frustration of dying in one of these games is a lot worse when you remember that there were a half-dozen ways you could have prevented it.

To its credit, Nioh does an honest job of trying to prevent that frustration. Nearly every tutorial lesson can be accessed from the same hub as the blacksmith for reference. The blacksmith herself lets you select items for deconstruction in bulk and even lets you adjust in last chance messages asking, "Are you sure you want to destroy this item?" according to the equipment's rarity. The story, character biographies, and cut scenes can all be accessed for future reference from the in-game encyclopedia. And every wonderfully rendered, slavering, and/or chitin-covered Oni comes with its own bestiary entry based on Japanese folklore.

The extra flavor is so dense that it's almost discouraging, depending on how much you want to read about "modified" Japanese history and mythology. It's all there, in any case, if you find yourself getting lost in a plot that sometimes seems to assume you already know who Tokugawa Ieyasu was.

Rinse your blade and repeat

The story can largely be ignored, though, in favor of something else From Software fans are likely already familiar with: the brutal grind of lived and fictional experience. The same way William gets hale and heartier mathematically, you yourself become so intangibly. Like Demon's and Dark Souls before it, Nioh finds ways to reward the repetition and memorization inherent to all games with tiny, hard-won signs of congratulations. Nioh just happens to have 10 times the number of ways to show that congratulations, with more skill trees, randomized loot, and collectibles than all of Team Ninja's obvious source material put together.

At points, that accumulation of disparate parts starts to feel almost too eclectic, especially when the heat of a boss' burning blade is at your throat. Thankfully, the game is so polished, and the play experience so smooth, that the dozens of hours you'll need to master all these skills never feels like a chore. Meanwhile, it doesn't hurt that the game's tone and setting keep it at least one step separate from direct Dark Souls comparisons. That makes it that much easier to fall under and appreciate Nioh's unique trance, brought on by glinting blades and enormous, mystifying enemies.

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