Thursday 4 May 2017

Sour Crouch's Spoiler-Free Review: Nioh

To say this’ll be a spoiler-free review is an understatement. Truthfully, I’m not even sure what happened in the story. Oft times convoluted, sometimes absent, Nioh is a game less concerned with what’s happening in the background and more concerned with the many-toothed yokai bearing down on you with three of his skeleton archer friends.

This is unfortunately an aspect I felt was most lacking whilst playing Nioh, and perhaps I’m spoilt by the storytelling of the game that I think you know I’m about to compare Nioh to. *Yawn* Yes, of course it's Dark Souls. I’m not saying that the story is absent, because it’s there. It’s just not that interesting, ultimately, which is a shame because I feel like more time spent on making me care about the characters would have soothed this complaint. Sadly, we don’t get that time.

In fact, it’s in Nioh’s very operation that things go a bit wobbly and disjointed. The limitations of Nioh’s setup are what hampers the implementation of a more ‘find it yourself’ story that makes the Dark Souls series so compelling to uncover. Instead of one large sprawling map filled with many secrets for you to discover, we get stages. Unfortunately, what having stages also brings to the table is in affording the player a break, thus losing the tension and feeling of dread present in the Souls series.

But this isn’t Dark Souls, this is Nioh, and If I could make one suggestion for Team Ninja, it would be to focus on making the player care about the stakes and the people you slavishly inhabit your world with. Perhaps it’s because my knowledge of Feudal Japan is on the thin side also, but save for kind-of-knowing who Nobunaga was I found myself feeling like there was a joke I wasn’t part of when newer characters were introduced. Thankfully there is a detailed section in the menus that discuss the historical significance of these people in greater depth, otherwise I would have been completely stumped.

My one complaint over with, then, if you’re okay with the plot being a bit ‘meh’ then you’ll actually be rewarded with a slick slice-em-up that takes cues from the Souls formula and puts incredibly interesting twists on the ‘genre’. Let me start by saying that the combat here is intense, and Team Ninja have excelled themselves in nailing the inherent tension of a Samurai duel. Every fight feels in some way meaningful, because one slip up on even the smallest of foes can spell your doom. It’s no surprise that Nioh was once based on an unfilmed script by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa - Nioh just exudes cool.

In fact, Nioh is at its best in these smaller moments of combat. Pensively studying the slight movements of your foe, assessing their stance (high for strong attacks/slow movement, low for weaker attacks/faster movement and mid, which is, well, mid), and identifying what stance works best against him. It’s this balance, coupled with the already fantastic stamina system brought over from Dark Souls and amplified here to now royally leave your backside exposed if you stress your character too much. It’s a much more cerebral way of fighting than Dark Souls, and in fact, I enjoyed it a lot more in most cases.

Thematically, Nioh absolutely nails its setting and I was pleasantly reminded of playing Tenchu (at a ridiculously young age I might add) on the Sony Playstation. Perhaps it was the inclusion of Hatori Hanzo that made me pine for Ninja Master Rikimaru, or Hanzo’s assistant Okatsu who strangely, appears to have had the most work done to her character model (seriously, check her out and compare it to the main character, they’re worlds apart!), who reminded me of Ayame. The comparisons run a little deeper than just characters though. The mission structure seems totally ripped from the obscure Tenchu Z and to be honest, if you mix in Team Ninja’s mainstay game Ninja Gaiden then you wouldn’t be far off in Nioh. That’s probably why the combat is so refined here. Speaking of combat...

Combat is satisfying. Read that again. So often do we have to slog through a game that doesn’t provide that hit of endorphins when you finally do something right. Performing a perfectly timed Ki-burst is an incredible feeling, even well on your way to endgame. Think on the satisfaction granted by achieving a perfect reload in Gears Of War and you’ll be close to what I’m trying to describe. The variety of weapons also serves to open the game right up to allow different play styles, with Swords, Duel Katanas, Hammers, Axes etc, whilst also offering you up the chance to use Onmyo magic or Ninjitsu to further bolster the creative ways in which to dispatch your foes.

Boss fights here are fitting for any Souls-like, and most of them are enough of a challenge to keep you scrambling about for a few tries before you finally best them, though there are a few here that were beyond easy, even with early gear sporting lower than advised stats.

If, at the end of this writing, you feel like overall I seem a little down on Nioh, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. I am disappointed that the story wasn’t as inviting as I’d hoped. Ultimately, this is a complaint that doesn’t matter in the face of what Nioh does incredibly well in terms of combat, variety, customisation and online play. For a first entry (in hopefully a series) I feel as though I would not judge it as harshly had I not been living in a reality where Dark Souls came out first. Having said that, Nioh is at least more accessible to players, at least enough that they can complete the main campaign (but seriously, those extra boss battles that pop up when you complete the game - they can go fuck themselves!).

Luckily though, that means there’s an endgame and the freedom to go back and further explore the maps facing greater challenges and acquiring better gear. What with the gameplay being so moreish it’s even got me contemplating jumping in for a second or third time, not to mention the likely inclusion of DLC later on in Nioh’s lifespan, which seems to add a whole lot of the stuff I enjoyed. Fighting!

When it comes down to it, Nioh is just fun, and you’d be surprised at how many games out there fail to achieve even that for me. Sure, the story isn’t amazing, but the gameplay is as refined and addictive as can be, and in some ways surpasses that of Dark Souls. I can heartily recommend this to fans of Souls-like games, fans of Ninja Gaiden, Tenchu, or any Weeb obsessed with Japanese culture. So what are you waiting for? Those Yokai ain’t going to kill themselves.

Joe "Sour" Crouch is a crusty mollusc with delusions of grandeur and pretensions of artistic endeavour. His tea is served between two and four. He tweets infrequently and Instagrams his food. He has also noted his musings on various media at The Werd, where he co-hosted the "Werd Bugger" podcast with fellow Team E14 member Spike Direction.

Check out Sour Crouch and the Xenophobes, a band starring Crouch himself, along with Blake and Spike on Bandcamp!

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