Team Ninja has been in a bit of a rut from almost a decade now, seldom managing to recapture the magic of the early Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden titles. With Nioh, some might see its attempt at re-tasking and reinterpreting From Software's Dark Souls playbook as lazy, or unimaginative. The more critical could even claim this is Team Ninja giving up on making a "Team Ninja" game. They would be wrong.
Nioh is not Dark Souls rehashed. Nioh is the quintessential Team Ninja experience; deep combat, rewarding exploration, and compelling loot acquisition motivate to push the player past inevitable multiple deaths and drive them towards completing the critical path. It's a shame that the story found along that path is far less compelling.
You play as William Adams, an Irish sailor who fate has conspired to deliver to war-ravaged feudal Japan. The conflict between the Ishida and Togugawa clans sets the backdrop, but it's the demonic machinations of antagonist Edward Kelley that drives the central plot. The story is paper thin and seldom delivers on its promise, and unlike the broad strokes and almost abstruse nature of the Souls games, presents a more traditional critical path, with clearly defined characters and motivations.
However, regular pacing issues and plenty of confusing character choices continually hobble the story, which is a shame, as the ideas and motivations behind it are genuinely interesting. Thankfully, the final acts are far more consistent, so while opportunities are lost throughout, the eventual payoff is still very satisfying. In the end, though, none of this really matters because the story is the least important part of the game. In no uncertain terms, Nioh is the best action game I have played in well over a decade.
While it takes more than a few pages from the Dark Souls playbook, Nioh has rewritten much of it, and created something greater than its inspiration. With a flatter and far less punishing learning curve, Nioh allows you enough time to get to grips with the basic combat mechanics before facing you up against your first meat wall. That is not to say that the combat is easier, or lacks depth. In fact, in many ways the opposite is true. Cheesing enemies with constant rolling out of the way is far less effective here. The action is much faster, and more interactive. Blocking, dodging, quick counter-attacks, and even a barrage of fast offensive strikes are the most efficient means of dispatching most enemies.
Team Ninja has played to its strengths with every aspect of the combat. Improvisation, experimentation, and reactivity are at the fore of every major fight. While a player could succeed in using the same tactics throughout the game, it's the ability to respond and take the fight to foes that allows it to not only stand out from Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but stand above them. As someone who adored the difficulty of those games but found the combat too deliberate and more akin to rhythm puzzles, it's refreshing to be given the agency to take control of a fight.
This due to some smart design choices. First and foremost is the Stance system. High stance opens you up to attack, but delivers slower, more powerful strikes. Low stance increases your defences and allows for faster strikes, but at the cost of reduced damage. The medium stance balances offense and defence. You can swap between these on the fly, and choosing the best stance for each fight can be the difference between life and death. The stances also work with the stamina system called Ki. The more aggressive the stance, the more Ki used when dodging or striking. Running out of Ki not only hampers your ability to fight, but also defend yourself.
But this system is not a one-way street. A well-timed button press after an attack can instantly recharge your Ki. This Ki pulse is a game-changer, as a skilled player can chain attacks, dodges and Ki pulses to essentially become a moving pillar of death. The final additions to the combat system are the Guardian Spirits. Each provides a specific passive bonus as well as the Living Weapon ability. This slow-charging ability can turn the tide of a fight, but it needs to be used sparingly as triggering it too soon may leave you vulnerable when you need it most. It's a powerful skill, and it always a hell of a lot of fun to use.
While killing demons, spirits, soldiers, and even representations of other players is at the core of the game, the support mechanics do a fantastic job of providing a solid structure for all the carnage. Death in Nioh has its consequences – and its rewards. It takes you back to the last shrine you visited, and respawn all enemies. This can be frustrating, but it does allow you to earn more Amrita (which is used to level up), and more Samurai points (to unlock greater weapon abilities). Your proficiency with each weapon type improves the more you use it, making level grinding a viable means to improve your chances in combat.
It also helps that every level is expertly designed. Eschewing an open world to focus on a more linear path, there is no wasted space in any level. Exploration is rewarded with plenty of secrets and hidden items to be found, and this is important, because loot plays a big part in character progression. As in games like Diablo, there are plenty of loot drops, and finding better gear is just as important as improving your skills. The loot system might not be as robust as that in some other action RPGs, but it does provide a lot of variation, and plenty of choice when kitting up.
Everything about Nioh feels like it was made with the player in mind. There is no greater example of this than in the options menu. Here the PS4 takes a page from PC, as you can tailor the game to your specific needs – albeit in a much more limited way. Rather than forcing you to play at 30 frames per second, you can choose to sacrifice some graphical polish for a consistent 60 frames per second.
I cannot overstate enough how fantastic this option is! Being able to play the game how you want to play it is something too long missing from console exclusive titles, and I hope other developers take heed. Nioh is certainly not a show horse, but even running in its lower fidelity Action Mode, it's a fine-looking game, with solid art direction and interesting character design. The only real choice is the action mode, and while the game's graphics do suffer, it provides the superior experience.
With Nioh, Team Ninja has released the best game in its storied history. Difficult and rewarding in equal measure, it succeeds in almost everything it attempts. While the comparisons to the From Software library are unavoidable, this is a very different experience, and – in my opinion – superior in every way. This is a game that moves the genre forward.