2017 is barely through the turnstile, but already ‘best game of the year’ designations are being made. Leo Rae-Brown suggests that despite its flaws, the vicious Nioh deserves your consideration.
To say that Nioh has been long-anticipated is an understatement. It practically fell off the face of the earth for nearly a decade after its announcement in 2006, resurfacing only in 2015 under the banner of Team Ninja of Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive fame, but the wait has been worth it. It’s been some time since an action game this refined has rolled around – its combat mechanics are extravagant, its levels intricate and moody, and its loot system quite maddening.
Set in the year 1600, the game follows the tale of blonde-haired samurai William (loosely inspired by real-life sailor William Adams) as he travels to Sengoku-era Japan in search of a kidnapped spirit. There, he finds the land mired in civil war, and beset by demons and monsters. It’s an intriguing look into Japanese history and mythology, although the story never really evolves very far past that point – cutscenes have a bad habit of ending halfway through, disjointed monologues are delivered almost at random, and a number of plot developments are relayed entirely through text dumps.
Still, the clumsy attempts at storytelling can be forgiven in favour of the impressively fine-tuned action. Where Nioh shines is in its combat. It almost defies comparison, with precise animations, unique, varied enemies, and meticulous level design. Nioh‘s missions have you carving a path through the tattered countryside, and the journey will take you to a number of (in)famous sites from Japanese history, such as Honnō-ji and Mount Hiei.
The levels themselves are lavishly detailed, filled to the brim with hidden paths and side areas, as well as various shortcuts that can be opened to allow ease of access around the zones. Checkpoints appear in the form of Shrines, which will allow you to rest and recuperate at the cost of respawning the enemies you’ve vanquished thus far, in a similar fashion to Dark Souls‘ Bonfires. The world map also offers up a selection of side missions, though they aren’t quite as exciting as their counterparts. They often send you back to areas you’ve already visited, and which are now swarming with tougher enemies.
As the barrier to the underworld weakens, you’ll face down a harrowing gallery of fiends and dark spirits on your quest. Nioh‘s lineup of monsters is taken from Japanese mythology, featuring creatures such as Nue, a lightning-spitting chimera, and Umi-Bozu, a towering, shipwrecked spectre. Adapting to the fighting styles of each enemy makes for a rewarding experience – some monsters will feel insurmountable at first, but you’ll eventually be able to tackle them without even breaking a sweat. As time goes on, you’ll become more experienced – not just in terms of levelling up and acquiring more powerful gear, but as you learn more about the combat and each of the game’s weapons.
Five weapon types might not sound like a lot, but each sports a surprisingly diverse set of attacks, as well as three unique fighting stances and a variety of special abilities. There’s a little something for everybody in here – the Kusarigama and Dual Swords offer high-speed playstyles with blisteringly fast combos, while the Axe and Single Sword promise slower, methodical strikes, with the Spear sitting at a flexible middle ground. These can be further backed up with stat-boosting armor and even a selection of specialized equipment sets, which provide options and benefits for different playstyles. These can be a headache to manage – the inventory interface is a bit on the cramped side, and missions tend to shower you in equipment and scrap gear.
Then there are the Revenants. As in the Souls games, deceased players will leave behind grave markers – but in Nioh, examining these markers will allow you to battle a Revenant of the dead player. Victory will earn you and your clan Glory points, as well as some of the gear they were wearing when they died. This leads to the amusing effect of certain pieces of equipment spreading almost like a virus throughout the playerbase – one player dies, another player fights their Revenant and takes their gear, then they die, and soon everybody’s wearing the same armor set. It can be interesting watching fashions change from level to level.
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In addition to indirect PVP, Nioh also features a pair of co-op modes, allowing you to conquer missions and monsters together with a partner. The co-op is good fun, and the netcode is generally stable (aside from the occasional vague connection error), although it does come at the cost of trivializing some levels – most enemies can’t keep up with more than one player.
Nioh is brutal and beautiful, easily shrugging off its minor inconsistencies. The challenge can feel overwhelming, but perserverance gives way to a one-a-kind adventure. It’s easily one of the finest games of the generation, and a great start to 2017.
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