Review – Nioh

Irish Blood, Japanese Heart, This I’m Made Of

That Dark Souls game was good, wasn’t it? Ever played Bloodborne? Oh, you did? And you think it’s the best PS4 exclusive (by a country mile), too?! Let’s be friends…

How about Dragon’s Dogma? Clunky, unfinished, yet ambitious… Lords of the Fallen? Challenging – sure… but also uninspired and dull. Salt and Sanctuary? Quaint, deceptively deep, but ultimately derivative… Oh dear.

Despite the cult-like fervor that the Souls games have fostered over the best part of the last decade, has the series really failed to inspire anything more than average to poor, bargain bucket destined knockoffs? A couple of weeks ago  the answer was undoubtedly a resounding – yes. Then? Then came Nioh.

Nioh is an action role-playing game developed by Team Ninja (Dead or Alive / Metroid: Other M) and published by Koei Tecmo, in conjunction with Sony Interactive Entertainment. Despite being announced back in 2004 (Janet Jackson’s areola / Shrek 2), Nioh persisted through several embarrassingly missed release dates, and, assumedly, multiple reiterations. This long awaited game was finally and triumphantly released earlier this month, in the year of our lord 2017.

So that’s thirteen years from being announced to being released… To put that in context – Final Fantasy XV took ten years. The Last Guardian? Eleven…

As an original IP, Nioh has escaped much of the scrutiny that these two landmark projects quite rightly endured. That said, the narrative leading up to release became almost solely defined by the stark similarity of Nioh to the Souls games, despite being conceived several years prior to the hugely influential PS3 cult classic – Demon’s Souls. The promotional demo release of the game did little to quell this sentiment…

Precise melee combat, separated into light and heavy attacks? Check. Formidable enemies who punish any and all displays of impatience and/or overconfidence? Check. Intricate level design that encourages forensic, if often desperate, exploration that ever so gradually burns a permanent schematic into your cerebral cortex? Check. A core gameplay loop centred around the slaughter of man and beast alike, who then share the grim fate of seeing their very beings converted into a precious, if somewhat macabre, upgrade currency? Check. Seemingly insurmountable boss encounters designed to break your will and heart to such a degree that when you do finally overcome them – the euphoria you feel puts most Class A drugs to shame? Check ad infinitum. So far, so Souls

It seems safe to say that Nioh includes many of the staple elements that made its predecessors worthwhile endeavours… But what does Nioh do to stand out from the crowd? When considering this point it’s important to keep the philosophy of evolution over revolution in mind. Yes, the core of Nioh is unapologetically a direct descendant of Dark Souls. Everything from the UI aesthetic to strategically implemented invulnerability frames during dodge rolls. From the wickedly placed item pickups to the sense of sheer exaltation when you finally unlock a long-teased shortcut – making the time between boss attempts infinitely more bearable.

And the nigh-on plagiarism doesn’t stop with Souls. Nioh’s tortured development cycle allowed plenty of time for analysing the current state of the industry, which resulted in a Frankenstein of game design that has no right to feel as unique and inspired as it does…

Take the Souls fight, die, fight again, upgrade, fight further philosophy. Add Diablo 3’s colour coded loot pornography. Sprinkle some of Destiny’s difficulty scaling and heavily rewarded daily challenges. Finally – add a finesse for third person combat that Team Ninja have shown in spades previously (see Ninja Gaiden) and you have a recipe for something truly special, if somewhat familiar. Nioh has taken inspiration from some of the best that games have to offer currently and used a robust development cycle to layer on some extremely impressive layers of mechanical depth. A depth that not only outclasses its inspirations but also makes progress within the game an unadulterated joy.

At this point, I’m comfortable to lay my cards down and admit – I’m a huge fan of Nioh and consider it to be one of the most impressive games of this generation. No mean feat considering some of the titles that it stands alongside, three or so long years into the PS4’s lifecycle. But I’d be doing a disservice to Hidetaka Miyazaki’s (creator of Dark Souls) transformative series of games if I didn’t highlight where the comparisons are not so flattering for Nioh…

The most obvious element of Nioh that comes up short when compared to Souls (especially Bloodborne, in my view) is in its story and narrative style. Where Miyazaki told a complex, mesmerizingly grim, depressingly human tale in Bloodborne, purposefully obscured from anyone who didn’t want to invest the time to uncover it; Nioh relies on the standard cut scenes that punctuate 99.9% of other video games to tell its ultimately forgettable yarn of tribulation and revenge. In Nioh’s defense – most games will never come close to rivalling the scope of poetic sentiment that Miyazaki and FromSoftware have conjured up in order to enchant their beautiful yet dying worlds, and Team Ninja were probably wise to avoid that particular showdown. Nioh’s story is more than capable when considered against its peers in general, and an unexpected (at least in my case) twist towards the end does add an additional, and welcome, layer of narrative depth for consideration.

The game’s main protagonist William, a blonde-haired Irishman who finds himself battling, and ultimately prevailing, against the most formidable warriors and demons that 17th century Japan has to offer (seriously – how did this game escape the wrath of social media’s whitewash triggered, PC brigade echo chamber?) does little to make any lasting impression on the player. Equal parts Geralt of Rivia, Big Boss, and John Major – William serves as a utilitarian yet ultimately disposable avatar via which luscious pixel genocide can be oh so elegantly committed.  

So, is Nioh better than Dark Souls? Not by a long shot. Does that fact make the game any less great? Absolutely not. Nioh is a finely tuned riff off the now classic Souls formula that favours a consistent gameplay experience, along with considerable bang for your buck, over pretension. The game may not share the sheer scale of ambition, or the absurd attention to level and art design that we’ve seen in titles past, but – it’s a technical tour de force that makes its target hardware sing (especially the PS4 Pro), and the pragmatic refinements to online play and character levelling mean that there’s literally hundreds of hours here to enjoy for those with the appetite for it.

Cliche dictates that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nioh is a game that deserves flattering for years to come.

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