It's not what it looks like! Some thoughts on Nioh and its context in gaming.

Uni /

A frequently discussed topic in gaming is if you can fault a sequel for being radically different from its predecessors. Symphony of the Night, Fire Emblem Awakening, and Fallout 3 are still described with "It's a good game, but not a good game in the series" regardless of their positive reception as individual titles, highlighting the lasting influence of context. With quality being so subjective, managing the perspective by which quality is judged is crucial to framing the experience as whole, guiding players into understanding the intended experience before they even start the game. This is what makes creating iterative sequels easy compared to revolutionary ones, running with a series' popular momentum instead of against it. Accurately communicating the goals of a game when it's only a spiritual successor has the problems of both, building upon the expectations of a prior franchise while morphing the goals significantly enough to create something new. Unfortunately for Nioh, its spiritual predecessor is a franchise linked with extreme fan expectations: Dark Souls.

Comparing action games to the Souls series has lost almost all meaning in the last few years, but when playing Nioh it's easy to see why the comparison is deserved. The repetitive structure of open areas punctuated by boss fights is a recognizable carryover, along with similar weapon movesets and a familiar bloodstain system. With those core features shared so directly, the knee jerk reaction is that Nioh is an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a bigger series, while just dressing it up with Japanese aesthetic and a randomized loot system. However, looking at the game in this perspective maligns the game by implying the goals of Nioh are similarly duplicated. This is not the case, and the difference between them can best by summarized by their perspectives on difficulty and how it impacts the player's interaction with the world.

Difficulty has become a marketing buzzword partly thanks to Dark Souls' popularity, but fans will tell you that its difficulty was never the point, instead being a way to engross players in a compelling atmosphere. The world was the real focus, and fortifying the moody inhospitality of the visuals with punishing gameplay was an elegant design choice to make the world feel fully realized. This is the same quality that lead to Bloodborne's overwhelmingly positive reception, and is the prime example of how spiritual successors can achieve these design goals, even when so much has been changed from its predecessors. Nioh on the other hand doesn't even try to establish its world in this way, which can easily be mistaken for a failing when its goal to do so is only assumed. The levels are smaller, they aren't interconnected, and the difficulty of common enemies is a function of high stats instead of unique behavior, which seems like a general downgrade until consideration of what the game is really trying to accomplish. In Nioh, difficulty actually is the point of the game, and learning how to mitigate that difficulty in the way that suits you best is the experience the game is designed around.

Weapons and their customizable movesets are the most obvious example of this expanded freedom of choice. Each weapon has three attack styles with unlockable skills and buffs, some of which work passively and allow for synergy between multiple types of weapons. Ninjutsu utility skills and magic talismans are available without stat investment, and the skill points you use to upgrade them are separate from the ones used to unlock abilities for your primary weapon. While there are foundational skills almost everyone will take for each weapon type, such as the ones allowing you to do a stamina-regenerating ki pulse by dodging, the choice between gaining active skills for your primary weapons or passives in other trees leads to significant build diversity. Stats gained through leveling also grant weapon, ninjutsu, or magic skill points, adding another layer of strategy to character building and demonstrating just how important they are to Nioh's central goal of player choice. While a point in your weapon's primary damage stat may be the most useful overall, leveling up magic to unlock talismans is an equally valid choice when up against a particularly difficult boss. The most admirable part of all this is how almost any mix of approaches is viable, including ones that would normally seem like a joke. Most high-level players use a mix of magic and melee, but even ninjutsu, which is usually relegated to a secondary roll, can be honed enough to burst late-game bosses with ease. Armor skills help make this diversity possible, with bonuses boosting a variety of effects which players can specially seek to compliment their character construction. To help mitigate grinding associated with finding a player's ideal gear, the crafting system allows for boosting an item's gear or rerolling its skills, allowing even for rigid sets to be customized. On top of that are unlockable guardian spirits and milestone bonuses, making for a truly impressive amount of player choice, an idea which extends into the levels' flexibility for different strategies.

In a game centered around its world building and atmosphere, sprinting past all the normal enemies directly to the boss is an unfortunately common strategy. When a boss fight requires healing resources and multiple attempts, it's natural that after the first few runs, players will favor getting back into the action quickly and circumvent the intended methodical experience. Nioh instead embraces a flexible approach, with small but broad maps which allow players to run to the boss quickly even from the starting shrine, or instead take the time to exploring to thoroughly prepare. Naturally, there are downsides to the fast approach: failures are punished with a longer run back, you'll miss the experience points held by enemies, and you won't have as many healing items in the subsequent levels. The healing system in Nioh is one I initially misunderstood, where you need to find hidden spirits throughout each level to increase the amount of healing items granted at shrine checkpoints. This increase is shared among a cluster of levels, with each new region requiring collection of a new set of spirits. At the start of the game I found this to be pointless busywork, but after trying the game without actively searching for them, I discovered that they aren't as critical as they seem. Bosses may be fast and brutal, but their moves are well telegraphed and the hitboxes are fair, with most attacks being easily avoidable even without the use of the invincibility frames provided by dodging. Bosses can also run out of stamina, be parried, or weakened by magic just like you can, providing players of all play styles with tools to intelligently exploit weaknesses and circumvent the need for healing items. If those options fail, spending the time to get a full set of elixirs at least represents a grind-free way of increasing your chances. In general, the game accounts for how players choose to engage in or ignore certain mechanics, allowing progression and backup strategies regardless of how they've chosen to play.

All of that sounds very complimentary, but Nioh doesn't always succeed in these ideals it lays out. Before going into it however, I feel the need to frame my perspective, given how much the game revolves around player choice.

  • I solely used a katana when attempting missions for the first time, but replayed a mission using each weapon type at least once
  • I used medium armor, first an early game set with close combat damage then a late game set based around skill damage
  • I used no ninjutsu or magic past in my first playthrough, but respecialized into ninjutsu and magic afterwards to test them out
  • I never summoned help or used a guide
  • I frequently skipped finding Kodama to gain healing items, never specifically seeking them out
  • I only did side missions which interested me, mostly being ones which didn't retread a map used in a main mission

This approach follows what most players call a knight archetype, focusing on the fundamental melee mechanics while balancing speed and defense. It's what players often choose when looking for the most consistent and balanced experience, but Nioh fails in delivering such an experience in the first place. Almost every boss has a one-shot-kill move, and many get powered up in later phases of the fight. You may go against a boss once, get clipped by its laser, then restart only to get clipped by it again as the boss sweeps it around in the second phase of the fight. Not only is this poor boss design in the first place, it also homogenizes armor choices. Increased protection may seem worthwhile in the exploration stage of a level even if the boss is going to one-shot you, but the low enemy variety means you've solved each enemy's pattern relatively early in the game anyway. The other consideration for your armor is how stamina usage increases with weight class, which would be worth attention if not for set bonuses. These bonuses are incredibly strong and override any other priorities, with a good example being how I entered the final mission more than 50 levels beneath the recommended number but killed the final boss in four attacks. Armor becomes less about player choice and more about picking an optimal solution as you progress towards the end of the game, when players should ideally be appreciating the diversity which comes from higher level equipment. The crafting system becomes tedious as a result, not being as much about blending effects to create unique solutions as it is repeatedly crafting the same set items as you level to keep your gear up to date. It can actually feel more efficient to not update your gear at all when set crafting requires items dropped from bosses, and defense numbers don't mean much when bosses one-shot you anyway. This might be bearable if the open stages at least let build creativity flourish somehow, but the aforementioned lack of enemy variety doesn't entice players to engage with them except as a function of fighting and preparing for bosses. This is where players will be split on their reception of Nioh even after accepting its differences from Souls, hinging on whether they can accept repetition and samey level design in favor of solid mechanics and unique boss fights.

Nioh's problem isn't that it wandered from a proven formula, but that it didn't polish its own vision of focusing on player choice. The bottlenecks imposed by the limits of the gear system and imbalanced bosses, combined with repetitive usage of enemies and maps, makes the game commonly feel sufficient rather than excellent. It does occasionally hit those peaks of excellence, with some bosses being so beautiful or with such fun AI that the repetition can be enjoyable. Notably, the humanoid bosses are some of the most fun I've ever fought, falling back or pressing their advantage based on your relative amounts of stamina in a way that feels realistic and intense. Even against the bosses designed to counter melee-focused players, I was able to beat them much more consistently than I could in the Souls series, highlighting how the combat has been polished enough to step out from the shadow of its predecessor. There really is a lot to love in Nioh despite its shortcomings, and it's well worth experiencing for its innovation and lovingly crafted aesthetics.