I was genuinely unsure if I was going to like Nioh. The developers, Team Ninja, let me down immensely with Ninja Gaiden 3, the last installment in what is otherwise one my favorite series of all time. Then the fact that it was clearly inspired by Souls further added to my hesitation. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Souls games, but playing through Dark Souls 3, technically the fifth game by that team in the same style, I was beginning to get at least temporarily burnt out on the concept. It’s a testament to the quality of Nioh that it not only redeems Team Ninja in my eyes, but that it also got me addicted to the Souls formula all over again.
On the surface, Nioh maintains the basic Souls-like structure of exploring areas, finding secrets and shortcuts, and falling prey to punishing traps and enemies. What made the difference for me was that Nioh flavors that experience more traditional character action-esque elements that would be right at home in something like Ninja Gaiden.
The combat system feels fluid, yet still feels safely in the confines of a Souls game. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily like Ninja Gaiden mixed itself with Souls, but rather it’s like Souls combat that kept the principles of Ninja Gaiden in mind. There’s less delay when a button is hit, hits require less commitment thanks to a generous and adjustable dodge, both the character and enemies move quickly, and variety in approach is encouraged by how easy it is to switch weapons, items, and methods of attack.
At the same time, things are kept measured by Souls-like conventions such as a Ki bar which limits how many actions can be done at a time, and a lock-on system that works best with one-on-one encounters but often gets complicated by disadvantageous encounters with multiple enemies encountered at the same time. Most importantly, despite how powerful the combat makes you feel, death is never too far off after making one or two mistakes.
Much of this can be attributed to some smart mechanics and adjustments. There’s an impressive amount of variety when it comes to attacking, thanks to the ability to quickly switch between a variety of weapons like axes (my personal favorite), katanas and spears. Each weapon gets a defined moveset which can be expanded greatly by the ability to switch “stances,” which effectively triples the moves a weapon can do.
Defensive options come across as very strong in Nioh, which while initially may cost a lot of stamina, it quickly evens out to encouraging blocking and dodging virtually all the time. It’s almost strange to describe about an action game, but being defensive feels just as good as slashing things. While technically limited by the Ki system, I can’t help but be reminded of Ninja Gaiden when I’m quickly switching between blocks and dodges in order to outmaneuver the many beasts of Nioh.
What I enjoy most about Nioh’s combat is how the balance between attacking and defending gets reinforced by the Ki Recharge system, which with a well-timed button press allows one to immediately replenish the Ki just used after an attack, which is perfectly for immediately switching back to defense. Pulling off consecutive perfect Ki Recharges while avoiding hits and doing damage creates a flow while fighting that is immensely satisfying.
More than the feel of the combat and movement, what really drew me into Nioh was its structure. Nioh separates its levels out into separate missions with set areas to explore. culminating in a boss to complete the area. There are main missions that are longer and more likely to introduce new enemies and level gimmicks, but there also a variety of side missions that are shorter but focused on giving challenging scenarios that build upon what you’ve learned. Coming from something like Dark Souls, it may feel limiting that the game doesn’t take place in a relatively open, interconnected world. For me, however, this approach added a very positive spin to the experience.
The structure feels like a doorway into classic, almost NES-like game design. For a game like Nioh which already harkens back to that era of design where the focus was largely on challenging the player, it works very well. Breaking down the game into clear chunks puts the focus on the challenge at hand rather than where I could go instead, and overall it made the game very addicting for me to digest. I constantly got the “just one more” feeling of completing a side mission before going to bed, and I was always anticipating the next fun idea that a main mission would introduce.
Nioh actually makes me feel nostalgic for older generation of games simply because of all the ideas and details surrounding it. It’s a bit hard for me to believe, but Team Ninja’s first attempt at Ninja Gaiden came out near thirteen years ago. While the team had a completely different leader and likely a different staff in general, it’s easy for me to see how much of its DNA has bled into Nioh.
It’s in the sounds weapons make when you slash things, the decapitation and excessive body mutilation that happens when finishing off a weak opponent. It’s in the locales like the burning Japanese village or the dimly lit cave full of demons and undead. It’s in the enemies like the random obnoxious bats or ninjas flipping around all over the place. Most of all, it’s in the same design philosophy of challenging enemies and bosses that are just fair enough to make me think I can definitely win next time.
If you’re at all like me, whether that means having a soft spot for Team Ninja’s earlier work, enjoying the kind of challenge that older eras of games represented, or you just appreciation fun game mechanics, then Nioh will likely be a special game for you. I started playing it unsure if I was even going to like it, but by the end I couldn’t believe how much I loved it. Nioh takes a lot of inspiration from what came before it, both Souls and Team Ninja’s prior work, but it takes all the right lessons to be something interesting and fun on its own terms.