Nioh is unabashedly a Dark Souls clone. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. From every pore of its body, it oozes its Dark Souls influence. From its difficulty, to the numerous systems which it simply graphs and renames from the Souls series, there are no escaping the comparisons. While these similarities could be met with disdain, in my adventures with Nioh, I found these parallels doing nothing more than adding to what is a fantastic, expansive take on the Dark Souls formula. By using the systems that the Souls franchise laid before it, Nioh is able to elevate the Souls blueprint to new heights.
Nioh, justly or not, assumes that you’ve had some experience with these types of games. The opening level sees you in fighting your way out a castle with no tutorial or meaningful guide to help you through its winding hallways. The level design perfectly encapsulates the joy of improving on and honing your skills. Enemies which at first are intimidating soon become a piece of cake until you find yourself double teamed or a new variant is introduced. This formula stays in the game throughout, as it flawlessly recreates the addicting nature of the Souls series. The combat is engaging and fair, as you work your way through levels that, the majority of the time, are designed to instill a constant sense of motivation to go on, but that will punish you at every turn if you ever get too overly ambitious.
Weapons in Nioh work a lot more like the Souls series than From Software’s Bloodborne. Constantly finding new, more powerful gear puts added emphasis on inventory management and fleshing out your character to exactly which of the five weapon types you choose to pursue. This works the same with armor, which also carries weight that leads to over encumbrance. This then affects your stamina and in turn make every armor decision a real choice rather than just sticking with whatever piece of equipment has the highest number attached to it. This focus on equipment left me shuffling through menus quite frequently all of which were properly streamlined and effective at getting me where I needed to go.
This where the direct Souls comparisons end and the areas where Nioh builds upon the foundation laid by the Souls series begin. To start, Nioh’s version of bloodstains don’t just function as a heads up that a section of a level is extremely dangerous. They instead offer you the option to fight a NPC version of that player’s character called Revenants, which if defeated, give you the chance to obtain copies of your fallen comrade’s gear. This system is incredibly useful in gathering new items and provides a tough task and a way to hone your skills against enemies that react and operate under similar rules that govern you.
Combat in Nioh takes a lot more from Bloodborne than Dark Souls. You’re presented with a high, middle and low stance for holding your weapon each of which affects your quickness as well as your offensive and defensive abilities. While a high slice might do more damage, it will cost more stamina to pull off meaning you have less energy to quickly dodge an oncoming attack. This is even more risky due to the fact that if you’re hit with a low stamina bar you’re stunned leaving enemies free to tear you apart how they see fit. This risk reward system that goes a step beyond even what the Souls series offers and adds a fantastic sense of danger to every exchange.
Nioh’s world is one of its biggest differentiators between itself and the Dark Souls series. Where Souls games have a vague story with item descriptions and flavor text adding substantial world building elements, Nioh has a full-fledged, cutscene driven story to tell. It’s not exactly a compelling narrative by any means but it does add a bit of zest when it shows up. It never felt like it was beating me over the head with the lore and never forced me to dig too deep to comprehend what exactly was happening. The central protagonist, who’s loosely based on real life samurai Irish William Adams, is a bit of a wet blanket and never does anything compelling enough to get you to care about him. There are a few characters who, through their voice acting and mannerisms, sort of weasel their way into getting your good graces, but broadly speaking, there’s nothing revolutionary about the tale about 17th century Japan that Nioh tells.
Difficulty as with any of the games in the Souls series is a valuable and important part of the experience. Nioh’s levels are punishing but fair for a majority of the game but a few difficulty spikes are a bit eye rolling when certain bosses have more health than really seems fair. Boss designs on the other hand are exquisite. Each boss feels incredibly distinct and throughout testing your skills in new and compelling ways. Their designs might not be on par with Bloodborne in terms of their overall sinister factor, but they are still haunting in their own way.
Online play in Nioh works smoothly, but did leave me wanting a bit in terms of its balance issues. Levels are buffed up a little when playing cooperatively with another player but they don’t always find the goldilocks zone in terms of their difficulty. Far too often levels can be run through without much a challenge and bosses can be stunned into submission without even seeing the fullest of their abilities. This makes the game a bit of a cakewalk if you plan on co-oping with a friend who’s already beaten the game. The lack of online PvP is also a bit of a bummer but developer Team Ninja has promised to add that feature post launch, meaning that the community still might have quite a bit of vibrancy down the line.
With all of this being said, there are a few areas in which Nioh lags behind its inspiration. While the world in games like Dark Souls or Bloodborne are incredibly complex and interconnected, the hub world that divides levels in Nioh leaves a bit to be desired. The feeling of finding a shortcut in Bloodborne is amazing, but exiting out of and coming back into a new level in Nioh sadly takes you out of the experience.
The designs of levels also don’t quite stack up the varied and unique locales in the Souls games either. Far too often in the early portion of the game you’re stuck in endless cave after endless cave that never really open up until the end. Enemy variety is also lacking the deeper into the game you go. Latter monsters end up being just more beefed up versions of previous monsters whose move sets are exactly the same with slight elemental differences to separate them. The argument could be made that this provides a nice bit of added content to the game, repetitive side missions that don’t add anything special and make the last two areas feel a bit bloated.
Despite these minor critiques, Nioh solidifies the status of roguelikes and their relevance in today’s gaming landscape. Never in my countless hours with the game did Nioh feel like the knock off Bloodborne it might look like at first glance. Instead it enhances and develops the genre in new and interesting ways, building and adding a fresh layer of varnish on a previously-established framework. Although it doesn’t carry its charm completely in its later stages, developer Team Ninja deserve a mess of credit for making a game that goes about enhancing a beloved genre without tarnishing the work it’s emulating.