Nioh - Not Your Average Dark Souls Clone

Hi everyone, Lance here. After finally finishing the gargantuan adventure known as Witcher 3 (more on that at the end of the week), I found myself itching for game with a tight, engaging combat system. Seeing as both Nier Automata and Dark Souls 3's DLCs are not quite out yet, I decided to pick up Nioh after skimming through a few of its many gleaming reviews. 

After putting a good 25 hours into it, so far I concur that Nioh is indeed a very, very good game, with some kinks I personally didn't quite like. 
Nioh's main draw is definitely its gameplay, combat is fast, tense, and most importantly, bloody good fun. But first, let's talk about the giant elephant in the room: Nioh draws extremely clear inspirations from the Souls series of games, from its level design to its interface and the basic ebb and flow of combat. That's as far as the similarities go however, as unlike simpler Dark Souls clones like Lord of the Fallen, Nioh is far more invested in carving out its own identity in the market, and adds plenty of its own twists to the classic Souls formula to make it feel like a fresh experience, and for the most part it worksVeterans of the Souls series will feel quite at home here, but honestly I'd say it reminds a lot of of a modernized Onimusha.
Now I'd like to go over some of the key innovations in game-play that I really appreciated. First of all is the use of multiple weapon stances. Each of the games's 5 weapon classes have a high, medium and low stance which influences the weapon's move-set, speed, damage and Ki usage. This game-changing feature effectively triples the move-set of all weapon classes, and allows some much welcomed flexibility without sacrificing individual weapon traits. Traditionally slow heavy axes now have an option for faster (but shorter ranged) swings when in their low stance to combat nimble enemies, whereas smaller weapons like the katana can quickly switch into the powerful high stance to punish large openings.

Stacked on top of that would be the a skill tree system for each weapon class that grant additional perks, special moves, combo finishers, which can be customized and assigned to each of the 3 stances. Add to that ranged weapons, the gadget-based Ninjutsu skills, the spell-casting Omyouji skills and also Spirit familiars, it can seem pretty damn dense, because it very much is. Fortunately each of these features are introduced gently enough through course of the story that it never gets to overwhelming, and the option to easily respec means that one can feel safe in experimenting to find what works best for them. There's always something new to learn in Nioh, and the added variety makes the core combat all the more engaging.
One particular change which I absolutely loved and would like to see featured in future Souls-like games is the innovations involving ranged weapons. In Nioh, you get to carry two-melee and two ranged-weapons (from a choice of bows, matchlock rifles, and massive handcannons) at all times. Ranged weapons can be quickly whipped out with a simple press of the L2 button for quick snapshots without awkwardly fiddling with the inventory. These shots are capable of dealing Huge damage if you can hit enemy weak spots, but ammunition is just scarce enough to avoid easily cheesing through encounters. These changes make projectile weapons feel less of a side show, more of a great complement to melee combat, and goddamn those rifles are cool.

Oh, and one other game-play change which I would like to see more games incorporate is a simple one, the option to tweak the framerate. Seeing as how Nioh is currently a PS4 exclusive, its incredibly refreshing to see a game finally willing to allow players to choose between a stable 60fps at a lower resolution or lower framerate for (marginally) better graphics. For a game where frame-perfect dodging is a thing and getting 1-2 shotted is not uncommon, the ability to play at 60fps is an absolutely godsend, heck the game still looks good regardless.
Outside of the gameplay, the other thing I like about the game is its setting and atmosphere. Set in the dark fantasy version of the later stages of the Sengoku period of feudal Japan, players take on the role of William, an English privateer in pursuit of a rouge alchemist who is set on abusing the dangerous crystals known as Amrita. The constant wars that left Japan devastated and many dead, coupled with the use of Amrita has caused a huge surge in Yokai/Japanese demons. William's quest leads him to visit many gorgeously visualized historical places and  meet with various historical figures of the period, providing a nice treat for anyone familiar with the names of Tachibana Muneshige, Ishida Mitsunari, Mt Hiei and Honno-ji Temple.

Being a game set in the Sengoku era, William (that strapping man above) gets to use a huge variety of period specific armor and weapons, most of which I'm happy to say look bloody cool on him. Like the stats but prefer the looks of another set? You can easily refashion equipment at the blacksmith to look like any other piece of armor you wish, a nice touch indeed.
Its a bit of a shame then that Nioh doesn't do more with this setting brimming with such potential. The story mostly conveyed with short blocks of text and short cut-scenes that serve mostly to get you from mission-to-mission, but otherwise is pretty bare bones when it comes to any sort of meaningful storytelling or characterization of any of its cast. 

While not mandatory to play the game, I must also mention that anyone not already familiar with the Sengoku period will have much of backstory and lore of the people and places fly right over their head. Personally, I'd recommend people to watch of these short videos to quickly get them up to speed on the major happenings of the period. 
Now I'd like to go over my one major complaint with the game, and this is most likely one of personal taste. Its to do with the loot system. The sheer variety of beautiful weapons and armor you get is something I appreciate, really I do. But since Nioh employs a level-based loot system and random drops with random properties, means that balancing the drops between all the weapon and armor types necessitates that enemies drop a lot of loot, and by that I mean LOTS of it. William can carry 500 items at any one point, and that space gets filled up FAST if you don't frequently deal with it, filled with a lot of essentially junk which you sell or break down for useful crafting materials. 

Fortunately there are systems in place to scale your favorite equipment to match your current level, and individual properties can be re-rolled so that RNG doesn't mess with you too much. Honestly, as far as Diablo like loot systems go Nioh is one of the smarter, more thoughtful ones, and if that's your jam you're gonna love it, But personally I'd prefer the Dark Souls system of unique loot that can be upgraded. Having 5 different versions of the same legendary weapon in my inventory makes it feel a little... cheap, and I'm not sure I want to deal with this level of inventory busywork in an action-adventure RPG. 
Overall, I'd say that Nioh is a fantastic game in its own right. If you're a Souls player looking for something to scratch that familiar itch, Nioh is in all likelihood going to work for you remarkably well, while proving itself to be a uniquely different beast altogether once you get to the oddly-charming mishmash of its myriad of complex systems. For newcomers, the initial difficulty curve is going to be high, but behind that steep slope is an engaging, highly-rewarding action-adventure that is going to be well-worth the time you spend on it.


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