It may have been established by now that I quite like Dark Souls. A lot. Also Bloodborne, which was like Dark Souls on Gothic meth. The intricate, connected worlds, the strategic combat, the challenge, the enemies, the bosses. Everything in those games comes together fantastically to create gaming experiences unlike others. You know when a series has been successful when there are so many games that clearly take their inspiration from it. Hyper Light Drifter, Salt and Sanctuary, and Lords of the Fallen all make use of mechanics and style of this young, but venerated series. And here comes a new challenger: Nioh, otherwise known (perhaps unfairly) as Samurai Souls.
Nioh follows the supposed exploits of William, an Irishman who travels to 17th century Japan in pursuit of Kelley who has stolen his Guardian Spirit, Saoirse, so he can gain Amrita to release Yokai to ravage the country. If that makes no sense to you then you’re in the same boat as me. The plot is there, with plenty of cutscenes introducing you to various historical Japanese figures (if you’ve played the Warriors games you may recognise some), but I didn’t know what was going on at any point. I suspect if you have some knowledge of Japanese mythology and history then you may follow it closer than I did. Having said that, the Souls games had very convoluted plots (although they keep it more hidden) and are still very enjoyable.
They’re enjoyable because the gameplay is so well put together, and that’s very much the case here. Combat against the humans and demons you face is quick, but requires thought. You have light and heavy attacks for your weapons (of which there are a good few), but you also have stances. Low, mid, and high stances give you different attacks that are suited for different opponents. Mid stance spears are great for poking and keeping enemies at range, whilst high stance swords can destroy enemies rushing towards you if timed well. There is a lot of depth here that allows you to find a style that suits you but gives you options when you need them. I often stuck with a low stance sword but switched to high stance axe for enormous damage when needed. Stamina management appears here too in the form of ki, but with ways to recover it during your combos with well timed button taps, allowing you to press the attack.
The enemies are varied, although there aren’t a huge number of them. Standard grunts can still destroy you if you’re careless, but the powerful Yokai are the real challenge. Axe wielding demons, tongue monsters, and bird men are all powerful foes that will take you out until you learn how to handle them effectively, it’s just a shame there aren’t more varieties. The bosses are tremendous as you may expect, with spider demons and deadly samurai warriors providing a different challenge at the end of each stage. The difficulty of them does vary rather wildly, with some of the early bosses being brutally difficult, whilst later ones I could defeat on my first attempt. It may well be the case that I stuck to an approach that worked better for some bosses than others, but it didn feel like the difficulty spiked from time to time. But the challenge is part of the point here, and just like Dark Souls, players can be summoned to assist you with bosses for some limited co-op action. PVP is off the table for the time being though, being promised for a later update.
Whilst the gameplay is tremendous, and kept me coming back for more side missions and main quests, the world was less engaging. Characters didn’t really grab me, and the environments were quite bland. There were only so many times I could fight demons in “Japanese village” or “cave” before the rot sets in. The world looks lovely, but there was a lack of variety once again. Further, most levels were fairly linear and lacked opportunities for exploration, although finding shortcuts back to your shrine (Nioh’s bonfire equivalent) was as satisfying as ever. Another irritation was the amount of loot that enemies drop. I found myself spending a lot of time rooting through my inventory, deciding what was worth keeping and what wasn’t. And each item has so many different stats! It’s hard to be sure if an item is objectively better or not. Having said that, I did fine just looking at damage/defence and elemental effects, so it may be the case that there is a lot of depth for those looking for it, whilst those who want to play can get by just fine. An accessible Souls style game! Who would have imagined?
Nioh was developed by Team Ninja and published by Sony. I played the game on PlayStation 4 and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Souls games or challenging action RPGs. I did every single side mission in this, not for loot or leveling up, but because I wanted more of the gameplay! I’m normally a main story and some side quests kind of player, but I wanted more of the action in Nioh. After 40+ hours of gameplay, I’d say I got my money’s worth.