To start off, I have a confession to make. I’ve never played Dark Souls. I have made an attempt at playing Bloodborne but I never really got into it. I don’t know what it is, but I guess I just wasn’t as enthralled to it as much as I thought I would be, especially when I went in knowing that it was going to be a long, hard and thankless slog all the way through. I had wrote it off, in my mind as, ‘not my kind of game’. In reality, I suspect that it never really appealed to me as a gamer; my background is mostly in JRPGs like Star Ocean and Final Fantasy, with a few Action-Adventures on the side, so the masocore (masochistic hardcore for the uninformed) never really entered my gaming stratosphere until Bloodborne, which I didn’t enjoy… and then Nioh came along.
A lot of gamers will probably make the comparison between Dark Souls and Nioh, but honestly I think Nioh is one of those games that eases you in before tearing you to pieces. Yes I know that the introductory level was designed to throw you into the deep end with very minimal hand holding, and even that level’s boss took about two attempts for me to defeat (mostly through player stupidity on my part rather than the boss’ movements being difficult to predict) but what stood out for me compared to Bloodborne was that, before setting into the game proper, it will ask if you want to proceed to the tutorial level.
Tutorial?! In a masocore game?! Sign me up!
In a game like Nioh, a tutorial to help you get to grips with all the mechanics it has may take out some of the trial and error that set the Souls series apart, but what it does is that it makes the game all that more accessible even to total noobs (like myself). As a result, you’re more than adequately equipped to take on the horrors of Zipangu (aka Japan), if only mentally prepared for the battering you’re about to put yourself through.
Mechanics-wise, it actually amazes me that for a complicated system, it is incredibly sophisticated and easy to get your head around it. What I like about the system is that it adapts to your changing play style, particularly with the introduction of the stances: the high stance, where the melee weapon of your choice is held above your character’s head, has a high damage output but at the cost of a lowered defence and a high stamina cost, the low stance has a small damage output but the defence is heightened with a low stamina cost, and the mid stance is a happy balance between the high and low stances. On top of this, you can change between the stances during combat, adapting to the situation when it calls for it – or in my case, when you’re in a panic and get the stance/weapon change button confused for the defend button. Nioh is a game where panic and adrenaline can either get you killed or help you win with style after all, with the added bit of frisson of the main menu not actually being the de facto pausing of the game. In fact, you can’t pause it at all; if you need a breather, you better get yourself to a shrine or to a quiet spot that no one can see you while you’re in a mission.
However, what it has in accessibility, style and an intuitive and engaging combat system, it lacks in scale compared to Bloodborne and indeed the Souls series as a whole. Levels, while riddled with alternative routes and hidden passages to the end goal, are small and separate compared to the maddening labyrinths of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, connected only by a seperate “world map” that is, in essence, just another menu screen. Not to mention that more often than not you find yourself going through the same pathways over and over again in the grind to get William strong enough to go toe to toe with an end level boss to a maddening degree once every dead end is discovered, every breakable is broken into tiny pieces for precious precious loot, and every corpse and enemy is skewered for equally precious precious Amrita, the experience point currency of the game. Having said that, there have been moments where the game still surprises you; I’ve found since completing a few levels that I hadn’t been as attentive as first thought when I went hunting for the few errant kodoma I had missed the first time around, you don’t always have to fight the demon doors that are hiding treasures and alternative routes, and if in doubt, train up in a sub mission where you can witness the nighttime missions during daylight hours. Once you’ve finished the objective in a sub mission, there is a little sense of smug triumph as you watch human enemies bow down to your superiority in terror, leaving you to just explore the level without bother. Its little things like this that keep the intrigue up even when you’ve hit a wall in the story missions.
As for the main meat of the game -the bosses of course- they truly are the tests of skill that one would expect. Even though Derrick the Executioner was more or less of a tutorial boss fight which you could, probably if you were more skilled than me, defeat within a minute, its your first encounter with the Onryoki that is the true test of all you’ve learned. If anything, the bosses you face in this game are of the same calibre as any boss of the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games, though it will click in your head that this is not a game that only rewards you for baiting and hacking away minimal damage at a time before retreating. This is also a game that punishes you for not taking initiative or being bold, for some enemies, even some bosses, will chase after you even after you retreat. It’s in these fights that Nioh’s key component truly shines, the Ki Pulse replenishing your spent stamina if you’ve timed it correctly. This, in comparison to Bloodborne’s optional tactic of countering an enemy that’s hit you in order to regain the lost health, is not something you can decline; stamina is everything in Nioh, and I can tell you, from my experience, my own stupidity in spending my stamina until I’ve drained William dry has had my ass handed over to me, sliced, diced and lightly seasoned with yokai ash.
So why should you play this game? It’s obviously a Dark Souls/Bloodborne clone, right?
Underestimate Nioh at your own peril. While its happy to offer a helping hand and you get more breathing space between dark descents and general yokai slaying than your average Souls game (you could spend ages in the mission/sub-mission screen; you probably will do that given how much inventory purging you’ll have to do thanks to Nioh’s tendency to get trigger happy with rewarding you new gear for nearly every encounter you have), Nioh is equally happy to deploy the tactics of the school bully by showing you where a really strong yoki is going to appear and then blindside you with a nurikabe (aka the illusory wall aka the demon door) mid-fight. Or indeed lull you into thinking there’s a hostile NPC waiting for you down a side path… only to find a blissfully empty shrine cavern with the ominous harakiri sword item waiting for you to pick up. It rewards and punishes you in equal measure for patience, boldness, timidness and bravery, teaching you that sometimes there really is no shame in retreating if you feel you’re in over your head. Most importantly for me though, this is the game that taught me to love the masocore genre in a way that Bloodborne had not. This is the game that has made me seriously consider trying out Dark Souls after years of writing it off as ‘not my kind of game’.
And that is why you should play Nioh. Because it is not like Dark Souls or Bloodborne at all. This is a game that can easily stand alongside them, watching you squirm as you try to progress through it. Nioh can stand on its own two feet by it own glorious merit, battered, bloodstained and still ready to squash you like a bug.