What's this?! Team Ninja? Finally did something good?! You better believe it. And all they had to do this whole time was just copy the Souls series? The ol' carbon paper inside the rigged clipboard? What a dirty trick! I'm kidding. I WISH more developers took to copying actual good games instead of what we usually get these days, which is shitting on perfectly good formulas and ruining what had previously been good. And interestingly enough, as much as Nioh rips off the Souls series, it may actually be the best Souls game of them all. Because it's such a blatant copy, I'll be comparing them a lot.
Firstly though, let's address the word on the street. There was a lot of hype out there, before and after Nioh came out, that it was a really hard game (now where have I heard THIS shit before). Let me go on record right now to dispel these slanderous rumors. I can confirm that the word on the street is false. Nioh is not difficult. It's about equal difficulty as any Souls game. Which is to say, pretty easy. People just don't pay attention and play recklessly. I assume.
Graphics are fine but not great. It almost looks more like a high end PS3 game, not quite PS4 level, especially when contrasted with triple A garbage like Horizon Zero Dawn and FFXV that blow their entire load on the graphics department and forget to spend some on actually making a good game. There are some pretty poor PS1 level textures in places where you're not supposed to look at, such as some ceilings and stuff like that, but even discounting that it's kinda lower end. For whatever reason the game's palette tends to look better when it's night time or otherwise dark, and I think they are fully aware of this, because the majority of stages take place at night. I mean, night's cool, I ain't gonna complain. I will say that despite the not quite top tier graphics, this game has some nice looking places. I like the Japanese aesthetic. Japan has a lot of really pretty places. The character models generally look good as well, and especially the girls tend to have nice faces. As expected of Team Ninja, really. They're not the developer of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball for nothing. They're pros. Professionals.
Music is also mostly unremarkable. Looks like this is another area they decided to copy Souls. So much for only copying the GOOD parts. On the other hand, it is much more story driven than Souls games. It's got significantly more characters, cutscenes, and story. And lots of undubbed Japanese, which is becoming increasingly common in games, so I've grown used to it by now. But as story driven as the game may be, the story isn't anything special or particularly interesting. It's just a "get the job done" type of deal. Don't expect to be on the edge of your seat or interested about what's coming next at any point. Same deal with the characters. They're mostly whatever. But I will say that I like how you play a set character in this game rather than having to create one like in Souls games because I fucking hate character creation bullshit. ESPECIALLY the ones with the millions of retarded sliders that supposedly affect minuscule details but don't actually make any discernible difference when you move them. It's not fun, it's a huge waste of time, and it NEVER looks good anyway. Simple character creation with easy options that look good I can accept. Pokemon character creation? Good. Souls character creation? BAD.
The level design is very well done, as you would expect from a Souls copy. Places are cool and fun to explore with lots of loot to find, good checkpoint placement, and good progression through the use of unlocking shortcuts so that you don't have to repeat certain parts after you get through them and some enemies that are made to not respawn after you've killed them once so that you don't have to fight them every time you go through where you fought them. All pretty standard stuff. But my favorite thing that this game adds is that each level has a certain amount (usually 8) of special collectable hidden little guys called kodamas that remind me of searching for the Jinjos in Banjo Kazooie, which makes exploring thoroughly more fun and rewarding. It feels good when you complete a level and you see the 8/8 kodamas found, and conversely when it's like 7/8 kodamas found you're like FUCK! And then you wanna go back and comb the place over again. You can get a variety of blessings at a shrine (Nioh's version of the bonfires) which give you bonuses like better drop rates and +% amrita (Nioh's version of souls) and stuff, and the more kodamas you have the bigger these bonuses. So it's useful to get them. Plus every kodama you get gets physically added to the shrine so it's neat how your shrine gets more and more kodamas chilling on it, with each one having their own animations and their own spot on the shrine. Unfortunately, this kodama hunting is kind of undermined by the fact that eventually you get access to the "kodama sense" property in some equipment which pinpoints kodama on your radar when you get near them. This is bad because it makes finding kodamas relatively trivial. At least most of the time. Sometimes there are a rare few that require a bit more but for the most part you don't have to be nearly as careful when exploring if you have kodama sense. Kinda feels like it's defeating the point of the whole kodama searching game.
One of the things that Nioh has over the Souls series is that it takes the loot system of games like Diablo and Dragon's Crown, where you're constantly picking up equipment that gets higher level and thus statistically better, so there's much more equipment turnover than in a Souls game. I'm a fan of that since I like finding sweet loot and constantly upgrading my equipment. Just like in the aforementioned games, each piece of equipment and weapon can have special properties, and the amount of properties it'll have is based on the rarity of the item. They're color coded by value, of course. White = common, yellow = uncommon, blue = rare, purple = exotic, green = divine. So what this basically means is that unlike Bloodborne where you settle on an outfit and a weapon and that's that, in Nioh you're constantly finding better weapons and equipment that might even be the same type but with different stats and properties. I prefer this system since it gives the game an added layer of progression. You're not just continually getting stronger in terms of your character level and skills, but also in terms of your equipment. You can carry up to 500 items with you so that's really nice and convenient to pick up everything. And all the loot you don't need you can sell for money, or for amrita, or even dismantle for forging materials at the blacksmith.
The other aspect that this game does better than Souls is that the blacksmith and forging system is much more robust. You can forge weapons and armor, and depending on the quality of the materials used you have a higher chance of getting versions with better stats and properties. You can do soul matching which lets you fuse one piece of equipment with another, where the base equipment gets boosted up to the level of the equipment sacrificed as the material. There's a familiarity system with weapons, where the more you use a weapon, the higher your familiarity meter with it gets, and higher levels make the weapon's stats and properties stronger. And once you reach maximum familiarity with a weapon, if you use it as a material in soul matching, the base weapon can inherit one of the properties from the maxed familiarity weapon you're sacrificing. You can also spend money and spirit stones to do "reforging" which lets you replace a property on equipment for a new random one, which can get pretty addicting. It's like a casino up in this bitch. Reminds me of buying shit from the addicting gamble merchants in Diablo 2.
This forging system has the added benefit of creating an extremely good demand for money. As a result, I'm very pleased with how they handled currency in this game. Despite how much shit you sell, money and materials are always consistently super valuable because of how the blacksmith works. You're always wanting to forge/soul match/reforge new and better equipment and that takes a lot of money and materials. There was never a point where I felt like I had enough money until after the end of the game. The thing is that there is no real limit on how much you can spend twinking out your equipment, so you never get to a point where you're like "okay, I've forged everything as strong as possible, there's nothing left to spend on". And there's no limit on how much you can keep reforging each piece of equipment trying to land crazy properties on them. It's basically like... you know how you could spend hours rerolling inherited skills on a persona in Persona 3 or 4 trying to land the perfect skillset? It's like that with reforging properties, except that the properties you can get are entirely random and you never know what you're going to get, so it can get pretty addicting rerolling on properties trying to see what awesome and rare properties you can get, but each reforge costs both money and materials (and the game autosaves immediately after each reforge), so you're constantly in a situation where you want more money. It's very rare for a game to be able to pull this off (only because most devs are idiots though, not because it's necessarily a very difficult thing to get right).
Another thing I like in this game is that it has a cool in-game "trophies" system, very similar to what you have in Star Ocean, where you have a bunch of different challenges and criteria that you can work on completing throughout the game to gain titles which give you reputation points. And then you can spend these prestige points to gain actual bonuses to your stats, like better drop rate %, more life, ki, toughness, elemental damage resistance, damage output, etc. So getting these titles is actually worthwhile and fun. The challenges include pretty much everything under the sun. Things like killing a certain amount of each type of enemy, killing certain amounts of humans with every weapon type, doing certain totals of every elemental damage, breaking objects, finding items, doing finishing blows, grapples, everything. One of the most interesting is that there's titles for beating every boss without taking a single hit. Going for these titles adds a bit of challenge to bosses that would otherwise be way too easy. Not that much more challenge though, because as I said, Nioh isn't very difficult.
Despite this, the combat and boss fights are still a lot of fun. Maybe moreso early on for the boss fights, because it gets substantially easier as you progress and become more and more powerful, to the point where later on it's not uncommon to be able to beat some bosses without taking a hit on the second, third, or sometimes even on the first try. They have a hard time keeping up with your power level and you get to the point where you're clearly doing way more damage to bosses than was probably intended. At least compared to how boss fights were going earlier on. This is similar to what happens with Souls bosses where oftentimes you end up killing them so fast that you never get to see much of what they can do. The fight simply ends too quickly for them to show their stuff. But I would say that it's to an even higher degree in this game because of how much you're able to play around with and improve your stuff through the forging system. There's almost no limit to how much you can improve your equipment. Whereas in Souls games weapons only go up to +10 (or +15 or +5 or whatever the case may be) and then they're hard capped, in Nioh every piece of equipment has a corresponding level that decides how much damage (or defense in the case of armor) it does. As you level up not only do you find higher and higher level equipment, but you're able to forge your stuff to be higher and higher level which skyrockets your damage even higher than just what leveling alone would do. As I said, there's just very little limit to how much you can play with the system, so if you're the type that autistically spends a lot of time on improving your equipment like me, the power levels can get a bit out of control. It's not a bad thing; I really like games where it feels like the work you put in makes a noticeable difference, I just wish they would've made the actual game harder to compensate, but alas, it seems they balanced it for people who aren't putting in much work.
It also has Bloodborne syndrome in that healing is crazy fast and easy to do mid fight. Unlike Bloodborne, you can only carry 8 elixirs on you at a time (though you can have up to 999 in your storehouse), and they seem not as easy to farm, but the truth is that even 8 is FAR too much. It should be more like... 1. Or none. Despite them not being as easy to farm, I racked up hundreds of them in my storehouse simply because they are not needed. Between putting lifesteal properties on weapons or health from amrita absorption on armor, and onmyo magic which gives you 2-4 casts of a spell that (very slowly) recovers up to about half of your HP, that's all the healing that's ever needed during regular gameplay. AND since you want to get all the titles for beating every boss without taking a hit, there's no point in using elixirs during boss fights either. If you get hit at all you may as well just let yourself get killed and try again.
The game controls are super tight. You can feel it in the way the character starts and stops and moves. It feels really good and responsive. The dodge is faster and better than in Souls, most similar to Bloodborne, and the equip burden tiers make a HUGELY noticeable difference so I feel that using light armor and staying below 30% equip burden for the A rank agility is super good in this game. Especially considering that you don't want to get hit at all in order to get the titles for beating every boss without taking a single hit. Individual weapons don't have different movesets. The moveset is the same for every category of weapon. There are swords, dual swords, spears, axes, kusarigama, ninjutsu, onmyo magic, bows, guns, and cannons. But it's not like Souls where weapons have weight (only armor does) and stat requirements. While different stats affect the scaling of different weapon types, which means you should still decide on a type that will be your main, you're able and expected to use all weapon types. With all weapons you have 3 stances (not counting sheathed. There are some moves that you have to be sheathed to perform), which you can freely switch between. High, mid, low. Each stance changes your moveset and skills as well as your mobility. High is a slower, high damage, high guard break stance with less attacks per string. Mid is balanced between strength, defense, speed (and is also the only stance in which you can do parries). Low is the fastest stance with the most attacks per combo and lowest damage. Each stance affects the availability of your dodges as well. In high stance you can't quickstep, you can only roll, in mid stance you get one quickstep followed by a roll, and in low stance you're able to quickstep twice in a row. There's also a skill tree for every weapon type, which lets you learn new moves with each weapon. You gain skill points by leveling up and through other ways. The melee weapons all use the same skill point currency, but the ninjutsu and onmyo skill trees have their own ninja points and magic points, which you have to raise your dexterity and magic stats to get. This is cool as another added layer of progression. That's a thing that Nioh does very well. It gives you so many things that you can do and reason to do them. Getting amrita, money, items, crafting materials, titles, skill points, glory, weapon proficiency, etc. Weapon proficiency is another thing. It's different from weapon familiarity. Whereas familiarity is a value tied to a specific individual weapon, proficiency is a value on each weapon TYPE that increases as you use that type. It can go up to 999999 and reaching certain milestones gives you skill points and unlocks special missions. This encourages you to use different weapon types throughout the game, because otherwise you're just leaving skill points and the aforementioned missions on the table.
I like the stamina (or ki, in this game) system. Every enemy has a ki bar just like you, and it gets depleted by attacking, dodging, blocking your attacks (especially kicks and other skills of that type, which do massive ki loss) and getting hit. And if you deplete an enemy's ki and then hit them it's very rewarding because with normal enemies it causes them to bend over for a few seconds, letting you go in for a big damage grapple or get a knockdown and go for a finishing blow. And with big enemies and bosses it causes them to start receiving hitstun from your attacks (where normally they can just hyper armor through them), allowing you to combo them. It's a fun system where you have to be looking at their stamina and try to go in and be more aggressive when you've gotten it low to try to go for the break, while not allowing your own stamina to get low. For this there's also the neat ki pulse mechanic, where if you stop after an attack or combo (but not if you got blocked) and wait a second, blue sparks will form around you and if you press R1 at the right moment you'll recover your stamina significantly faster. The amount you can recover from your ki pulse is based on your skill stat.
Even though it's a neat system, once you get comfortable with knowing how to exploit it a lot of enemies' prospects kinda go down the toilet. The issue is that human bosses are too similar to you and to each other in that they share the same weaknesses to the ki and guard break system. It's easy to exploit that weakness and put human bosses into long stretches of blockstun, guard breaks, and ki depletion until they die without them being able to do much. Even though they all have different techniques and attacks and skills it doesn't really matter because defensively they lose to the same thing (with very few exceptions) and just get overwhelmed. That's how it becomes possible to be able to beat a boss without taking a single hit on the first try when you've never even seen him before.
There's a similar system as Souls games where you go online and you can see the bloody graves of other players where they died, as well as what they died to. If you activate these graves you can fight an AI controlled phantom version of the player called a revenant. These are probably the toughest non-boss enemies in the game (but only if you still haven't learned how to exploit human enemies, as I mentioned earlier), and if you kill one they give you glory (another currency that you can use to buy other stuff you can't get with gold) and have a chance of dropping a piece of that player's equipment. This is one of the best ways to get powerful equipment. Being able to fight revenants of other players is fun, but there doesn't seem to be enough of a limiter on the number of graves that pop up, and people die TOO MUCH, so you can't get anything done if you're obssessive about clearing everything 'cause by the time you clear them all, a whole new batch of people have died and new graves have popped up. You could theoretically be at it indefinitely (and I've personally wasted a bunch of time just clearing revenants), so eventually you just have to start screening people and leaving some graves alone and just move on. You can't see exactly what equipment someone has, but you can see the color, weapon type, and the player's level. So if you see someone with lots of purple/green equipment and that he's high level, you probably want to fight that guy.
Unlike Dark Souls the world isn't interconnected. You have a world map and from there you pick the level that you want to do and after you complete it you go back to the world map. You can redo levels as much as you want, which means you can also refight bosses as many times as you want. It feels like this game learned from all of the good things Dark Souls 2 had that the Souls series itself promptly forgot about. That ability to fight bosses multiple times. No bullshit limit on obtainable forging materials. And possibly losing your stuff when you die is a complete non-issue because there's an item you can use to negate that. It's not even something you have to equip. It's an item you can use AFTER dying to bring your stuff back to you and it's not even that rare. This means you can play without the stress in the back of your mind of possibly getting fucked and losing a bunch of amrita in a bad spot. Good shit all around.
Level 1 runs are already a thing in Souls, and in this game that seems like even more of a doable self imposed challenge because weapons don't have stat requirements (only armor does). I ran into a few revenants of people doing level 1 runs, as well as a few of people doing no armor runs (completely naked except for a weapon). Not my thing because why would you restrict yourself from one of the most fun parts of an RPG, which is the progression of your character, but y'know, whatevs. Speaking of levels, something I like is that Nioh seems to invert the Souls way of stat progression. Whereas in Souls you get diminishing returns from your level ups until you reach a soft cap and then a hard cap, in Nioh you seem to get increasing returns as you get higher level. In early levels you normally gain +1-2 damage from a level up, but by the late points of the game you're commonly gaining +5-8 damage from a level up. I like this method because it helps keep level ups feeling significant. Of course, this could be another contributing factor to the game being too easy, but as I said, you just need to make the enemies stronger and the actual game more difficult to compensate. Don't change the system. Don't put a limit on MY power progression. Make the enemies stronger so that I NEED that power to be able to compete.
The funny thing is that even when Nioh attempts to provide increased difficulty, it still falls short. There are more difficult versions of the levels called Twilight Missions, which change enemy placement and puts in different more difficult enemies and traps but also gives better loot. Every twilight mission counts as an actual mission (as in, it tracks whether you've completed it like the normal missions). While it's true that they are more difficult than the standard levels, it's not by that much. These twilight missions could've easily been the default levels no problem. The other minor issue is that their availability is random. You only get access to 2 twilight missions at a time, and the 2 that you get access to change per day. Also, you don't just get twilight missions from levels that you have already unlocked (which would make the most sense). You can get one from any level, and if it's from a level that you haven't unlocked you're just not allowed to play it until you unlock it. The only reason I say it's a minor issue is because there's few enough of them that you're still likely to complete them all throughout your playthrough despite the random draw.
Finally, once you complete the game a lot of stuff gets unlocked. Hard mode becomes available. You're able to get divine equipment as loot, which is stronger, has more property slots, and the armor pieces have familiarity and the ability to soul match inherit properties like weapons. You're also able to get +1/+2/+3/etc versions of divine equipment. And it unlocks the ability to level up your guardian spirits to increase the bonuses they give you. In hard mode enemies have higher HP, damage and stamina. You can die in 2 hits, and have to hit enemies more. If you're used to not getting hit it won't be a problem, but if you get caught in a combo you're probably dead. Aside from that there are different enemy placements. Sometimes they'll put enemies in places there weren't before, or they'll put a different type of enemy where there was a different one before. Probably the most impactful change is that they added minions in some boss fights where previously you were only fighting the boss by itself. Ninja Gaiden did that too. The difference being that Ninja Gaiden was a really hard game, whereas Nioh is, uh... not. Seriously, this hard mode is not actually much difficult. Especially if you've put in time to beat all the bosses without taking a single hit, and been similarly avoiding taking hits from regular enemies, you're not going to have any trouble here. Especially too because of the higher tier divine equipment you can now get which not only is way stronger but gives the ability for more twinking than before. Then add to that the fact that hard mode shits amrita at you (like Bloodborne low depth chalice levels of exp) meaning you're leveling up at a fast rate, coupled with increasing returns, and welp. Hard mode ain't shit. Plus, I'd say it suffers from the same issue as NG+ in Souls games, which is that since a huge part of the game's appeal is exploration, once you go into hard mode and have already found everything so that there's no more exploration to be done, it's not as appealing anymore.
So anyway yeah. Despite the fact that all the rumors about this game's difficulty were blatant fabrications, Nioh is a really fun and well designed game. So you know what? I'll let that slide this time. It's an excellent Souls ripoff. It may not have been able to solve the issue of Souls games being too easy, but it copies all the best aspects and adds some unique and better ideas of its own that ultimately make it even better than what it's imitating.
Final Verdict: A
Final Playtime: 222 hours