NiOh has been in the works for over twelve years, even if there is no way to know exactly how much of the original design of the game remains. At long last, the time to face its monsters has come.
The game obviously borrows heavily from the Dark/Demon Souls series, and I could easily see how Sony Interactive Entertainment might have purposely picked up publishing in the west, in order to fill the void left by the lack (at least for now) of a BloodBorne sequel among the PS4 lineup.
I will admit that in the past I have been guilty of comparing the two a little too closely, and after playing the final game I can definitely say that this is no BloodBorne 2, even if it could easily play that role for the fans of From Software’s game.
Team Ninja unapologetically lifts entire mechanics from From Software’s games, dropping them into NiOh relatively unchanged, but that’s just on the surface.
If you look deeper into what NiOh has to offer (and you’ll be forced to, if you want to survive past the first stage), developers added their very own creativity to so many elements, that NiOh can definitely be considered its own game, inspired by the Souls series, and by Team Ninja’s own Ninja Gaiden, but certainly its own unique animal under many aspects.
The story is the first large difference: Souls games have stories, but they’re always quite blurry and featuring as little character interaction as possible. NiOh, on the other hand, comes with a full fledged and epic tale chock full of characters and dialogue.
Incidentally, don’t you dare confusing NiOh with The Last Samnurai. While both stories feature a gaijin (westerner) fighting as samurai, they’re set in completely different eras, and NiOh has really nothing in common with Tom Cruise’s cheesy and not always respectful romp across Japan.
Most characters, including protagonist William, are more or less precisely based on historical figures of the Sengoku Jidai, the era of civil strife that ended with the raise of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It’s one of the most fascinating periods of the history of Japan, and NiOh gains a lot of charm from this setting.
That charm is enriched by the appearance of many famous characters, like Ieyasu Tokugawa Himself and Hanzo Hattori, and some less known but equally intriguing ones like Yasuke, a samurai of African descent. There are many, and while not all of them get equal (or sufficient) time under the spotlight, Koei Tecmo’s Samuai Warriors heritage is definitely felt here, but with a more dark and gritty coloration.
William travels to Japan pursuing another Englishman, Edward Kelley, for reasons that I will not spoil, but it’s the beginning of a story in which history and supernatural mix very tightly, creating a setting that is both historical and fantastic at the same time. NiOh may have a western protagonist, but it’s definitely one of the most Japanese games you’ll ever play.
The story is interesting, deep, and full of intriguing people to meet, but it’s not always well paced or narrated, with some elements that might let you scratching your head. That said, it’s definitely good enough that it enriches the game as opposed to detracting from it.
NiOh‘s visual fidelity really depends on where you’re positioned within the graphics versus frame rate struggle. In fact, it comes with multiple modes that let you select the balance you prefer, even on standard PS4.
Want the best visuals your machines can handle and you’re content with 30 FPS? You can opt for movie mode. If you prefer smooth 60 FPS gameplay at the price of visuals, then action mode is for you.
That said, be warned that action mode on standard PS4 is not exactly flattering, while on PS4 Pro it’s certainly a good compromise, as it pairs the same visuals as the movie mode on the less powerful console, with 60 frames per second.
Character models are very good, and well designed to boot, giving a fascinating, and very twisted, look into the people who pulled the strings in the Sengoku Jidai. The same can’t always be said for environments, that often suffer from low resolution textures and less than perfect foliage.
That said, the overall look of the game is definitely fetching, especially if you opt for movie mode on PS4 pro, that comes with very competent anti-aliasing in 1080p, and a solid image quality.
NiOh shines artistically more than it does in sheer technology, which is something that it definitely has in common with Souls games and Bloodborne.
While the tech can show some hiccups, the overall depiction of a Japan made of nightmares under the graceful surface is absolutely spot-on.
Environmental effects and lighting also heavily contribute to creating the game’s atmosphere, which is definitely one of its best aspects.
NiOh is exactly the kind of game where the old adage “gameplay is king” is most appropriate, and that’s good news, because gameplay, and most prominently combat, is where Team Ninja’s upcoming title really shines.
First of all, forget the idea of just hacking and slashing your way to victory. NiOh is an extremely tactical game, that rewards patience and careful planning more than lightning-fast reflexes.
At first sight, you might think that this is another of the aspects borrowed from Dark Souls or Bloodborne, and that idea will cause your death, or many, many deaths.
The game’s “Ki” works in a significant different way than stamina in Souls games. While on the surface it still depletes when you act, forcing you to inactivity when you run out, the pace at which that happens is completely different, especially thanks to the “Ki pulse” mechanic.
After you attack, spiritual energy will disperse around you, and by pressing R1 with the right timing, you will reabsorb some of it, restoring your Ki (which would otherwise grow back up on its own, but much slower).
This simulates the breathing techniques used in Kenjutsu and other martial arts, basically prompting you to enter a flow of attack and recovery that masterfully combines observation, timing and focus.
If you ever practiced martial arts in your life, you’ll probably feel right at home with this, even if it might take a little while to adapt something that you’re supposed to do with your full body to an action performed with buttons.
Your attacks will basically be like a graceful series of waves hitting the shore and withdrawing, in a consistent flow that doesn’t just feel awesome, but it also looks spectacular. Once you master it, I wouldn’t be surprised if you considered this the most satisfying battle system in a game of the genre to date.
Mind you, pulsing your Ki is not mandatory: you could very well finish the game without touching the mechanic once, but the difference it makes is almost literally the same between the relatively uncultured gaijin pirate waving a broadsword around that William is at the beginning of the game, and a perfectly trained Samurai that has honed his skills to perfection.
Incidentally, you won’t be the only one affected by Ki. Your enemies will be as well, so you can use the mechanic at your advantage to tire your opponent out, and then have an easier time dispatching them (which will at times result in gruesome executions).
This is also just the tip of the iceberg. NiOh includes a a system that uses three stances, which are a simplified version of those actually used in the Japanese art of the sword.
While the medium stance is balanced, high stance will grant you more powerful attacks at the price of speed, while low stance prioritizes quick actions while sacrificing damage power.
On top of this beautifully-crafted risk-and-reward system, stances can be switched dynamically and even chained with combos, letting you truly explore an extremely wide range of options.
And there is even more: the game comes with a very deep skill tree for each of the melee weapons you’ll use, plus ninjutsu and onmyo magic to grant you consumables and other beneficial effects.
The skill trees unlock both permanent buffs and active skills that make your arsenal even deeper and more flexible. For instance, one of my favorite early katana skills is the traditional “Iai” technique, that lets you charge a powerful attack executed while drawing the sword. If you time it right and use it skillfully, it can give you a nice advantage at the beginning of a fight.
The best part of the whole combat system is that all this variety and depth isn’t mandatory. You can learn and utilize just as much as your skill and ability to focus let you manage.
You can focus on a single weapon and use it through the whole game, maybe taking advantage only of a few of its most common moves, and you’ll do fine, as long as you’re patient and tactically-minded.
On the other hand, if you want to truly learn the art of battle, NiOh is the gift that keeps on giving, as it will give you plenty of room to feel like your skills and mastery of the tools of the samurai really count and make a difference.
I’m far from the best player myself, but I did see some really skilled ones thanks to the online features, and boy, were they a sight to behold.
Incidentally, one of the things in which this game definitely does not diverge from Souls games is the difficulty: it is absolutely and sadistically ruthless, presenting more or less the same penalties for those who aren’t careful enough or get too greedy with a reckless combo.
If you die, you’ll be sent back to a bonfi…. Ahem, to a shrine, where you can also level up and perform a few different utility tasks. All the enemies in your path will have respawned, often making you lose large chunks of progression.
On top of that, all your unspent Amrita (a currency used to level up) will be left at your location of death, and if you die again before recovering it, it’ll be lost forever.
This can and will certainly be frustrating for those who don’t like “masocore” games, especially when you manage to wade through a bunch of challenging enemies only to be killed due to a drop in focus as you get in sight of the next shrine.
Enemies definitely demand your respect. While rank and file troops offer only a moderate challenge (but can still be deadly if underestimated), armored samurai won’t give you quarter if you lose focus even for a second.
Things get really challenging with the Yokai, that can easily pass for minibosses due to their considerable battle prowess.
Of course, bosses are the real challenge. They offer a lot of variety and a ton of absolutely ruthless fun (or frustration, depending whether you like this kind of challenge or not). Not only they’ll make mince meat out of you unless you learn their attack patterns and take advantage of them very carefully, but they also spawn pools of Yokai energy that will negatively affect your Ki.
While there are a couple of bosses that aren’t as well designed as the rest, most of them will definitely satisfy those who love this kind of game, especially when combined with the deep fighting system that I described above.
The broader gameplay flow is made of main story missions with a plethora of optional side missions. Those are a real boon for players who feel that the challenge is a little too steep. Instead of having to grind the same area over and over, you can do a bunch of side mission and come back with plenty of loot and Amrita that will let you make things a little more fair.
Speaking of loot, the equipment system is very deep, letting you carry four weapon at the same time (two melee and two ranged). You’ll drop plenty of implements of destruction and a myriad of semi-randomized pieces or armor through the game, so those who enjoy this kind of activity will have plenty of fun hunting the rarest armor and blades. It’s certainly satisfying and very much addictive.
Don’t expect to beat this game quickly, by the way. While individual play times will certainly vary, this is not your usual six-hours AAA experience, and it will most probably take you well over 30 hours or even more to see the ending. If you do all the optional content and keep having fun with side missions and multiplayer, NiOh can easily grant over 100 hours of fun.
There is also a nice variety of additional game modes, including hard-as-nails twilight missions and more, without even touching the multiplayer aspect of the game.
While player versus player gameplay will be available post-launch with a free update, co-op is really, really fun. It works by summoning other players by sacrificing “Ochoko Cups,” and the depth of the battle system really goes a long way into fostering interaction and coordination between players. Besides, it can certainly help those who struggle in overcoming one or more of the game’s many challenges.
Ultimately, NiOh is a really fantastic game. It comes with some flaws, and a few elements that are a bit rough around the edges, but it hits almost all the right notes.
Team Ninja’s latest labor of love is packed with charm, atmosphere, and one of the best action battle systems that you’ll find across the industry.
If you approach NiOh with the right mindset, all the frustration due to the ruthless level of challenge will turn into satisfaction when you overcome each obstacle. If you want to feel like a true samurai mastering the complex ways of or Japanese warfare, and you’re willing to pay the blood price for it, this is your game.
Don’t call it Bloodborne 2. NiOh certainly deserves its own spotlight.