While Nioh follows the Souls game formula in terms of level design and mechanics, its approach to storytelling is quite different. In Souls games, players are quickly put into roles like the Chosen Undead or the Ashen One, with the rest of the plot being vague until you progress much further and pay attention to all the NPCs and items. The overall story ends up being more about discovering things about the world rather than a traditional arc for the protagonist to follow.
In a way, Nioh is similarly about the world, but with a different approach. Instead of creating a world from scratch, the world of Nioh is heavily based on Japanese history, with the main character being based on William Adams, an Englishman who ended up being considered the first western samurai. I actually really took this approach, as I have been recently studying Japanese history and the development of its legal system so playing Nioh tied in nicely. Seeing historical figures like the ninja Hanzo Hattori added a lot to the experience, even if he should technically be dead around the time the game takes place. Of course, there are some other embellishments here and there too, like magical fairies and hordes of yokai, but at least it spices up the setting.
Not only is the setting (slightly) more defined by reality, but the storytelling itself is much more overt. Unlike a Souls game, William is, at least in theory, an actual character with his own motivations, and along his journey he meets a wide variety of various historical figures who give you clear objectives. Nioh doesn’t give the same impression of backstories and lore waiting to be uncovered, instead it feels like characters were written through basic cliff notes on history with occasional twists due to the supernatural presences throughout the game. It’s all face-value without much mystery.
Nioh’s world steeps itself in history, but you could be forgiven for not totally recognizing it. While I may have heard about a good chunk of people who appear in the game, I imagine the average person likely will not have, and the game doesn’t go out of its way to explain. Even if one does have some basic familiarity with the era, the world is also steeped in a layer of magic and demons that blurs the line between fiction and reality. Throughout my time with Nioh I ended up feeling like walking this line made for a great setting but a rather weak and confusing story.
Although much of the focus is on that setting, Nioh also tries to tell the story of a defined protagonist with William. William in Nioh is based on William Adams, but he’s not really the William Adams you might read about in a history book. Instead, this William seems to be immediately adept at a wide variety of samurai, ninja, and magic skills despite not setting foot in Japan prior to this game’s events. The natural question, then, is who is this version of William and how did he become so awesome?
But only a few aspects of his character are explained, and not particularly well. Throughout the game I could never think of William as an actual character, instead he feels more like a weak attempt at a Ryu Hayabusa – a guy who doesn’t say much but is basically like an unstoppable superhero who knows how to do amazing combos with any random weapon he finds lying around. Which makes sense, because Team Ninja has had plenty of experience with that character from the Ninja Gaiden series, but then I thought about why William seemed to fall short in my mind. The difference, I think, lies in the basics.
In Ninja Gaiden, Ryu’s story is fully explained to you after the tutorial level and first boss: he’s an important member of his ninja clan and he’s in charge of protecting his village along with their selection of magical swords, explaining both why he’s strong and what he does with his life. Immediately after you learn this, it turns out that village is under attack. Ryu fails to protect the village, an important sword gets stolen, and he loses the fight with the bad guy. From then on he swears to get both the stolen sword and his revenge, thus setting up a satisfactory if a bit generic motivation for the rest of the game.
In Nioh, William is briefly explained to be a western pirate who got imprisoned. He breaks out thanks to his pet fairy then slaughters his way up to a roof where he meets some kind of mysterious evil-looking individual. William seems to recognize him, but I don’t. William says something about how he can’t die because then the bad guy can’t find some stones, and I still have no idea what he’s talking about. William’s fairy gets stolen by the evil guy, and I’m not sure if I should care.
The rest of the game loosely follows the idea that William is tracking this evil guy in order to get his fairy back, but it’s unclear how exactly he expects to accomplish that. Muddling things further, the plot progression feels more like he’s doing random demon-killing errands for people and he just happens to run into what he’s looking for on the way. The plot comes off as unfinished, like it was an adaptation of an outline of a story rather than a script of story.
Considering the ratio between gameplay and cutscenes, it’s hard to be too upset by how off the story feels, but I still found it disappointingly hard to get invested by how unclear and aimless William’s story seemed to be. It’s a shame, because I love the setting and ideas behind the world he inhabits, and that may in fact be on of Nioh’s greatest strengths. It was certainly one of the aspects I appreciated the most about the game.