You might be wondering why it’s taken me so long to publish this review.
It’s simple, really: Nioh is hard. Painfully, swear-inducingly hard. By the time Sony’s coverage embargo lifted, I was still struggling my way through the opening few levels.
And, yet, I loved every minute of it. Even after dying at the same boss for the tenth time.
It’s the Dark Souls mentality: you’ll spend hours hitting your head against a brick wall, only to jump for joy when you finally make some progress.
Sure, the resulting migraine hurts, but somehow in a good way - just like it will an hour or so later, when you repeat the whole process again.
Better stock up on paracetamol - you’re going to need it if you plan on finishing this epic action adventure.
WAY OF THE WARRIOR
It might be a third person adventure with light RPG elements, but don’t think the developer has just taken the Dark Souls formula and moved it to feudal Japan. Ninja Gaiden, Team Ninja’s other rock-hard slash-em-up, is equally as influential.
There are plenty of weapons to master, but each one has three separate stances, too. One might give you better defence, but not hit as hard; another will do more damage, but each swing of your sword will be slower - leaving you open to attack.
Each different weapon has its own skill tree to unlock as well, adding more moves and attack combinations to learn. And that’s before you start learning how to balance it all with a constantly draining stamina meter.
It might be called Ki here, but it still plays a huge role in combat - even more than stamina does in Dark Souls.
Time it right and a squeeze of the right trigger fires off a Ki pulse, restoring a chunk of your stamina and making you next few attacks do more damage. Think active reloading in Gears of War, only with samurai swords instead of chainsaw-guns.
Enemies have their own Ki meter too, so you can tire them out with dodges, parries and strikes, then follow up with a devastating critical hit while they’re staggered.
The biggest ones spawn pools of Ki-sapping energy, which can only be dissipated by performing a Ki Pulse in the centre of them - no easy task when you’re also being battered by a 30ft ogre.
DEATH IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
Each expansive level is packed with enemies that can kill you in seconds and, believe me, they will.
Death isn’t the end of the world, though. You’ll respawn at the last shrine you visited, with one chance to reclaim your lost XP from where you fell. Nioh goes one step further, though, taking away your Living Weapon abilities, too.
Team Ninja have definitely taken a few liberties with protagonist (and real-life historical figure) William Adams’ samurai skills, but his mystical make-over comes in handy. Fill up your Living Weapon gauge and you’ll get a few precious seconds of invincibility, letting you dish out damage without retribution.
Removing that option, unless you return to your corpse, makes combat all the more tense. Don’t make it back to your grave marker and you’ll have to re-summon your Living Weapon from a shine, sacrificing your experience points in the process.
You’ll need them for the boss battles, which are easily the game’s highlight. The first time you encounter one, it feels like there’s no way you’ll ever beat it, but after that first handful of failures you’ll start to recognise patterns, land a few hits and begin to work out a strategy. Each one has multiple stages to fight through, so it feels like a genuine achievement when you finally finish one off.
Each level is stained with the grave markers of other fallen players: wander over to one and you can summon a phantom version of that player to fight. They’re carrying the same gear the players themselves were using, so it could be a sneaky way to get upgraded gear early.
Don’t think they’ll go easy on you, though. With the same weapons, abilities and quick use items, even low-level phantoms can put up a serious fight. And don’t forget, it only takes a few hits from the weakest enemy to send you back to a shrine - leaving your own grave marker on the ground in the process.
SET THE SCENE
Nioh isn’t one connected world; instead, you return to a map screen after each mission, to restock your gear, upgrade your skills and plan your next move.
The blacksmith becomes crucial here, letting you forge new weapons, upgrade existing ones, or refine special abilities until you’ve got a blade Hattori Hanzō himself would be proud of. And he should know - he turns up a lot throughout the story.
Unfortunately, it’s during this downtime that you’re handed a heavy dose of exposition. It gets pretty dense in places, and it's hardly what you’d call subtle. Take the tattooed villain at the heart of the story: pure pantomime.
It’s a good job you can dive straight back into the action once you’re sufficiently tooled up, then. Power through these diversions and concentrate on the hacking and slashing. That’s where the real fun lies.
It helps that Nioh’s many levels look so rich and vibrant. Dark Souls was all doom, gloom and darkness, but here colours really pop and locations look absolutely gorgeous.
Fans of co-op gaming will be happy to hear Nioh lets you summon visitors into your world, to help you tackle the toughest bosses. Each summon uses up expensive resources, though, so you’ve got to pick your moments wisely.
Visitors can’t open doors or loot items, though - only pick up the scraps that player one drops for them.
At least it’s easier to play with friends here than it is in Dark Souls, which makes it a lot easier to coordinate during hectic battles.
Aside from the mind-numbing difficulty spikes every time you get close to a Yokai boss creature, Nioh has a few other problems that stop it from usurping Dark Souls as the master of punishing action RPGs.
The game is practically overflowing with treasure, weapons and armour, and keeping on top of it all is a challenge in itself.
Sorting and selling your gear takes up too much time, a relic of the early access alpha where weapons would degrade as you used them. Now that your swords don’t break over time, there’s no reason to constantly rotate out your equipment - but the frequent loot drops remain.
There’s not enough variety in other areas, either. A lot of the side missions re-use maps you’ve already explored, only condensed even further and set at a different time of day. These levels aren’t filled with secret areas to uncover or NPCs to meet, either - just more gear to add to the collection.
I got a little tired of facing off against the same giant Yokai demons, too. There’s almost too much weapon and armour variety, but not enough when it comes to the enemies you’re hacking and slashing.
Nioh is brutal, fast-paced, and crushingly difficult - so everything I was hoping it would be, really.
Team Ninja has taken a lot of familiar mechanics, then added its own twist on them, with the resulting game keeping both Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden fans happy.
I’m tempted to say it’s even tougher than FromSoftware’s epic adventure series, with so many more systems and abilities to master.
The combat is more nuanced here, with weapon stances and Japanese folklore-inspired magical abilities adding to the familiar mix of recognising enemy patterns, learning to parry and striking at the exact moment to avoid a nasty counterattack.
Nioh’s world doesn’t feel as alive as Dark Souls III’s Lothric, though - even if it looks beautiful when you get a second to breathe and take it all in. An overabundance of menu management and a fairly simple story mean it isn’t a masterpiece, but if you want a serious challenge, it’s still a must-buy.