The mystical world of yokai and Japanese mythology is a well documented and well defined world surrounded in ritual, prayer, culture, and entertainment. We have yet to see a game do it justice since the Japan-only release of GeGeGe no Kitaro on the Super Famicom. Does this game set in historical fiction showcasing the first western samurai have what it takes to bring the world of yokai to the 21st century, or is it oni food?
Publisher: Koei Tecmo, SIE
Developer: Team Ninja
Platform: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed)
Release Date: February 7, 2017
This is a review coupled with a supplemental video review. You can watch the video review above, or read the full review of the game below.
Nioh is simply a visually impressive game. Lighting, rain and water, character model details, and character movement are all standouts in this visual extravaganza – and Team Ninja knows it.
The studio even gives you the option to look back at slain yokai, acquired spirit, and important figures you meet throughout your journey via a journal type character model viewer that gives you huge descriptive entries unlocked after select points in the game.
This allows you to gain a deeper appreciation for the level of detail they added to this game, as when you see the models normally, they are after your head and you will need to move quickly to avoid certain death.
Unfortunately, level layouts get reused with slight alterations quite a bit, but they are so massive it’s understandable.
The level of detail does not stop at the character models or effects, as the maps are beautifully done as well. There is always something to look at a bit more and the player can really get lost in the world they’re exploring.
Now while players will all be playing as the main character William, there are many ways to customize their character, be it a hair cut, crafting your armor to look like other armor you have acquired in the past, or full scale character remodeling to change into non player story characters you meet along the way.
Cutscene animations are also well crafted and animated, pushing the PlayStation 4 hardware to the max and giving the PS4 Pro room to spread its wings. Facial animations are well rendered, and shows Team Ninja still has some tricks up its sleeve.
When it comes to gameplay, Nioh can be hit or miss with some aspects of the game. Much of your experience will depend on your item drops and weapon of choice. New players will have to take a good moment to look over every character stat to really understand what they do, and what weapon they are linked to.
The equipment and weapons in this game tend to work best in “sets,” but it is extremely difficult to maintain the level of a set you like or one that works well with your build. This stems from the soul matching mechanic, which helps you keep your gear matched to the level you’ve reached.
This mechanic is so expensive in the game’s currency that keeping up with it on your first, and for many players, only playthrough, becomes impossible. This leaves you to abandon gear you like for the gear you need so you don’t get an instant death from a well placed poke.
General movement and attacks feel solid and rewarding when mastered, but much of the optional attacks in the Ki system feel wasted and unintuitive.
Most of the time the game wants you do have pixel perfect timing to pull off deflection moves or even Ki purification, which in all honesty is bad game design, and downright frustrating. You can tell this was to make artificial difficulty when the game was difficult enough as is.
One thing I hate to do is bring up other games when doing a review, but in the case of Nioh it has to be done. The “Soul-like” gameplay term is tossed around a lot when talking about Nioh, even with pre-release and pre alpha builds that were shown, but the game really does not compare.
As someone who got the platinum trophy in Demon’s Souls, I can tell you without a doubt that that was only possible because of the extremely well tuned controls and mechanics that set the standard. They gave you the tools to be good at the game, and it was up to you to use them effectively.
Nioh, on the other hand, does not do this. The gear has random number generations associated with it, making the same item wildly different depending on the roll, not giving clear cues for when to activate counters when the game absolutely needs it.
When you add in random critical hits that can instantly kill you, this leaves the player to abandon counters altogether, forcing them to focus on dodging everything that could possibly hit you.
Its actually tragic that this is the case because there were so many possibilities here, but because they wanted to artificially make this a “hard game” they just made an inferior product.
Most players will either turn the game off here or keep going, learning this lesson, and for those that do the game then becomes immensely more enjoyable.
When you get into a grove and the game finally clicks, the game becomes an amazing exploration of 1600-era Japan including both the stories and lore of the time. Combat becomes a fun experience, and the ducks start lining up for you to knock them down.
The game incorporates a “blood stain” mechanic that tells you where someone died and of what their cause of death was. However, you will be able to fight said character and earn some drops that consist of the armor they are wearing.
So if you feel like you are under-geared, you can use this as a method of boosting your gear and weapon levels if you are finding yourself out matched. At times this can be a lifesaver when you find yourself fighting a boss that is just out of your reach.
It should also be noted that there are some clipping and bug issues with a couple of areas that are fully enclosed, causing enemies to fall through the map that you need to kill to complete the mission.
Luckily, if that happens you can restart the game and load from the last checkpoint in the level without real issue. This happened three times in my 40 hours of play. While this wasn’t a major issue and can be easily recovered from, after a long tense battle, the last thing you want to do is to do it again.
Matching the visuals, the sound department knocks it out of the park, giving levels a moody atmosphere, filled with dread about what is right around the corner. Yokai and human movements are unique and savvy players will learn to distinguish all the particular sounds they make in order to move accordingly.
Impressive sound design extends to weapon effects, as well as character voices. Voice acting feels clear and refined, which for a game like this could have ended up in a campy mess with the exception of the main villain Edward Kelley, who is played up to be a campy and mentally ill alchemist touched by Cthulhu.
One of the strongest aspects of the game is the story, with the world of Nioh being well defined and well presented in the context of itself.
Nioh brings the Sengoku era of Japan to life. This was a time in which Japan was in a massive and bloody civil war, leading to the Tokugawa shogunate. The game is very much historical fiction with the player taking the roll of William Adams, who would later be known as Miura Anjin in Japan.
He was one of the first and few Western samurai, and is remembered as one of the most influential foreigners to ever come to Japan. The game really captures this, but of course, with a fantastical spin.
The story is a solid piece of writing, filled with bonus material to give more to those who get deeply invested in the narrative. There is a masterful mix of storytelling elements presented to the player that Japanese historical buffs can get a kick out of, but average players will still greatly enjoy.
The game does exceedingly well when defining what the yokai are, and why they came to be. Every yokai enemy becomes a sympathetic villain once you see what’s behind the veil, and while cliche, shows that humans can be the real monsters.
Nioh is a near perfect game that was dragged down by what can only be described as idiotic inflation of difficulty proven by the way they marketed the game.
The game is still amazing, but it really throws much of its potential core mechanics out the window. This can be especially frustrating to anyone who took the time to invest in them.
Once you get past this issue, the game takes you on an amazing journey through Japan filled with lore, action, and intrigue that most players have never experienced before. Nioh is definitely worth the early frustration and the money to play through.
Nioh was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a download code provided by Play-Asia. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.