Review by Matt S.
For all its success, very few developers have attempted to emulate From Software’s “Souls” franchise (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne); perhaps because developers realise what a monumental task these games are. It’s easy to chalk them up as just super-challenging action RPGs, but in reality it’s not just that they’re difficult. What makes the Souls games so masterful is that they are difficult for all the right reasons: they feature intricate level design, intimidating (but fair) enemies, and are punishing on mistakes; but at the same time, they give observant players plenty of forewarning about their dangers.
Related reading: The main competition to Nioh is Dark Souls 3. Matt's full review of that game.
The “Souls” games are masterpieces, and unusually for masterpieces, there are precious few attempts by other developers to crib their style. There have been some decent indie attempts to streamline the Souls formula down to something that small teams can handle; consider how Salt & Sanctuary is a 2D Souls-like. Aside from that, you only need to look at the quite dismal Lords of the Fallen to realise that it takes a special kind of creative vision to understand what makes a Souls game great.
Nioh is that game. And I would happily argue (although this will likely get me piled on by fans of From Software) that Nioh is a better game than what From Software has achieved.
Just to give you an idea of how difficult Nioh is; My first boss from yesterday. #PS4share https://t.co/pvmlGlaCRM pic.twitter.com/Lu722ZoTth— Miku McMikuFace (@DigitallyDownld) February 7, 2017
The Souls games were each based on a Gothic medieval setting. Bloodborne placed itself in a Victorian-style nightmare. Nioh kicks things off with a “tutorial” set in the Tower of London before moving the action to a far more interesting, and vibrant, medieval Japan. I’m quite sure that the development team at Koei threw that Tower of London level in as a subtle barb to the developers at From Software for ignoring their own heritage, for the Tower of London is derivative in its dungeon-like layout, patrolled by knights wearing dull, plain, metal armour (and a really dapper top hat, which is surely wry humour). Once you move through that introductory level and your hero travels to Japan, though, you’re greeted with a rich tapestry of elements pulled from one of the oldest settled cultures in history.
The sense of Japan’s unique Shinto mysticism is strong in this one. Shrines, dotted around the environments, are the rest areas and save spots, and these shrines are attended by kodama, small spirits of the natural world which are a core tenet of Shinto belief. These little fellows are the friendly sort, and you’re tasked with finding lost kodama around the world and guiding them back to the shrines, at which point they’ll provide you with boons. Other elements of Shinto folklore are less pleasant. You’ll often have to battle super-powered monstrosities that are yokai - the nastier side of Shinto’s natural spirits community. Dozens of hours into the game, and I would still worry about whether I was properly prepared for an encounter with the yokai.
And then there are the bosses. Whoo boy .... the bosses. On a purely mechanical level, these creatures feature incredible design, with attack patterns that should shake up even the hardened Souls player. Once again, they’re fair, but learning how to defeat them can take time, and then actually defeating them can take a lot of practice. What I found really interesting about these bosses is how many of them reference the Sengoku period of Japan. That same era that gives us all the heroes from the Samurai Warriors series has its impact on this game too, with many of the bosses sharing names with characters that fans of Japanese history will be intimately familiar with.
There’s a reason for this. Nioh has had a very long and protracted development cycle, but initially it was based on an unproduced Akira Kurosawa film script. The yokai and monsters were embellishments brought in by the game development team, but the script itself was loosely based on William Adams, the “Western Samurai”. The nature of the game means that it’s hard to see the historical authenticity in it at times, but in a very subtle way that authenticity is there and lends gravitas to the overall experience. From the architecture to the environmental design and the interactions between characters, right through to the iconography, there’s a real sense that the narrative context of the game leverages off centuries of aesthetic and cultural heritage. This is, fundamentally, why I prefer Nioh. While I love the Souls games, the creative team at From Software needed to start their understanding of the gothic and European medieval world from an outsider’s point of view in order to give us a believable setting. Nioh references come from people who are fully immersed within the culture they’re representing in the game, and the difference, though subtle, is that in Nioh we have a deeper, richer, and more natural experience.
All of that would be for nought if the game didn’t play well. Nioh plays well. It eschews the control setup that the Souls games popularised for something a little more like what we’re used to from Koei Tecmo - face buttons to attack and so on. Indeed, in playing it, it almost behaves more like a methodically-paced Ninja Gaiden, and as someone who never quite had the reflexes to really enjoy the Ninja Gaiden series, it really hit that sweet spot. I also appreciated the ability to choose between 30fps in ‘cinema’ mode, and 60fps for the ‘action’ mode. As someone who likes his games cinematic and doesn’t really notice the difference between 30fps and 60fps, the game is perfectly playable, and very artful, in that ‘cinematic mode.’ For people who really care about that fps, though, it’s a class act by Koei to give them the option to play that way at the cost of some visual fidelity.
My only wish is that there was the option to retain the Japanese voice track (and apologies to readers if I’ve missed this option, because it’s unusual for Koei to not include it; but I can’t see it anywhere in the settings). The English voice actors are competent, but the Japanese voice artists are of a seriously high pedigree and it’s unfortunate that I can’t just switch the subtitles on and enjoy this game as the thoroughly Japanese experience that it is.
Related reading: A good 2D Souls game is Salt & Sanctuary. Read a brief review of the game here.
That is, of course, a tiny, insignificant criticism in what has become one of my favourite action RPG ever made. Boy, is 2017 off to a good start.