Nioh will never be able to escape the "souls-like" tag that has been attached to it, but it takes what Dark Souls brought to the action genre and incorporates other ideas to make something that feels like an evolution instead of a copy. Nioh is like a recipe that has been executed perfectly. It blends Dark Souls style combat and leveling, with a fighting pace similar to Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, then they threw in a Diablo style random loot engine on top of it all. Not only do these elements come together seamlessly, it ends up being a greater experience than the sum of its parts.
You play as a fictionalized version of the real English sailor, William Adams, who became the first western samurai during the Sengoku period of Japan. The tale weaves real aspects of Adam's time in the far east and the historical figures he met along the way, with Japanese folklore and demons called "Yokai" to create a unique world that is as vivid and beautiful as it is dangerous. The story is a little disjointed and corny sometimes, but it's entertaining and at least kept me interested in moving forward to see what happened next. William does suffer from what I call "The Geralt Effect", named of course after the protagonist of the Witcher series, in that he's mostly just a gruff and boring character that is hard to connect with. Luckly, William is pretty stoic so he leaves a lot of the talking to the infinitely more interesting side characters and spirits of the game.
|"Look how gruff and brooding I am"|
Combat is predicated on a three stance fighting style that makes battles into a more strategic affair. Low stance utilizing quick but weak strikes, mid stance to play more defensively, and high stance to deliver crushing blows at the cost of speed. I usually stuck with mid stance as my default, then mixing it up against enemies I knew to be more susceptible to the other stances when necessary. You have five weapon types to chose from, katanas, dual swords, axes, spears, and Kusarigamas (a sickle with a chain on it). Outside of the katana and dual swords being similar, the weapons all have distinct play styles that make it fun to try them all out against the wide variety of enemies that inhabit each level.
The enemies in Nioh range from zombie like creatures, to rival samurai, all the way to giant sea monsters, and 20 foot tall demons. The fights against the samurai bosses tend to be the most exciting, but the designs for the big Yokai are generally really cool and frightening. Some of these Yokai use elemental attacks, which will force you to adapt your armor to defend against that particular element or face getting stuck for hours. I was stuck on an early boss in the game who uses moves that afflict you with paralysis until my friend suggested changing my armor to counter that effect, after which I beat her on the next try. In Dark Souls you can mostly stick with armor that just gives you a better defensive rating but in Nioh you have to adapt to elemental damage, or risk dying in the same way over and over again.
|One of the more frightening creatures of Nioh's world|
The tool to level up your armor and weapons is unique in that for a price you can "soul match" weaker items that you may be attached to due to weight or abilities with stronger items to raise them up to that level. The cost gets to be very high later but it does help lower weight builds keep up with their heavy duty counterparts. If you have max proficiency with a weapon (gained by using it often) you can pass on abilities while soul matching it to help keep abilities you really enjoy. It's a shame that all of this gets bogged down in a plethora of menus that don't give you many tools to help sort through the mess that your inventory will become after a mission.
If time is fair, Nioh will take its place in the pantheon of great action games. I had very low expectations for it but it has become my biggest surprise of the young year so far. It it takes a genre that has been well worn lately and breathes new life into it by mixing the formula up in new and exciting ways. Nioh deserves to be mentioned alongside Dark Souls, instead of beneath it.