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Nioh Review - My Perfectly Cut Hōseki

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Nioh is an action-RPG developed by Team Ninja and published by Sony (and Koei Tecmo in Japan). That is the game’s description, but Nioh is so much more than just an action RPG, it is a masterpiece, a PlayStation 4 sleeper hit.

“Freed from this mortal coil” - The phrase upon a player's inevitable death(s) has been etched into my memory after playing Nioh for the last three days, dying roughly 200 times in the process, and I enjoyed every last second of it. Nioh incorporates a vast array of mechanics, technical prowess, rich storytelling and brutally combat to deliver an unforgettable experience - one that in my opinion knows no equal. Playing it for the first time was like walking on a beach expecting to pick up some smooth rocks, but finding a perfectly cut Hōseki (gem) instead.

A western samurai’s mission

The story follows protagonist William, an Irish-born English sailor who sets off to Japan at the turn of the 16th century in pursuit of Edward Kelly, the game’s main antagonist, who has captured William’s guardian spirit-like creature. The antagonist has been dabbling in the ancient art of alchemy and has found a source of power in special stones called amrita which holds spiritual power.

Kelly needs this power to achieve his maniacal goals. Japan is in the midst of a crisis, with war raging across the nation, which means blood will inevitably flow; and that is precisely what he wants. He unleashes the Yukai, evil spirits from Japanese folklore, to bring even more chaos to feudal Japan. William chases Edward Kelly to a variety of areas, for example, the Kyushu, Chughoku and many others in pursuit of justice, meeting historical figures along the way; some of which are willing to help William if he lends his services to their cause.

The story unfolds through some amazing cinematic scenes and clues about what happened in a particular environment, for example touching a corpse sometimes produces a short comment from the spirit realm about what has transpired in the area. Although I do not know much about Japanese lore, the story did an excellent job of keeping me interested throughout the experience. It is a deep and sometimes complex story, one that I admittedly struggled to follow completely at times. However, the more I played and the more I uncovered, the more I fell in love with Nioh and now want to research and read everything I can find about the Yokai.  

Throughout the game, William not only meets human characters but also forms bonds with friendly spirits, my favourite being a floating cat with a deep voice that guided me through multiple difficult situations. William learns the way of the samurai, gaining new abilities and titles by, for example, killing a specific type of enemy or using a weapon to great efficiency.

Nioh gives the player a lot of freedom when it comes to mission selection. After completing the first few missions, I was taken to a map of the game world, where I could choose if I wanted to continue with the main mission, delve into side quests or attempt extremely challenging “Twilight missions”. Each mission has a certain level of difficulty and corresponding rewards. You do revisit some of the same areas you played through in the sub quests, but you can see the changes due to your actions. For example, I went back to the first fishing village twice, once to kill some Yokai in a mission called “wreathed in flames” and once to overthrow a bandit leader that took advantage of the townsfolk after the chaos I left behind. It felt like I changed the world with my actions; and seeing the aftermath just made me realize even more how much I wanted to crush the antagonist.

However, various powerful Yokai stood in my way. Every enemy you face in Nioh can, and sometimes will kill you. If you make a mistake or two, you will die to enemies you have faced over a hundred times in the past. No matter how strong you are, you can never get overconfident, as even the lowest of creatures will shut you down and wreck you. Then, there are of course a massive amount of boss battles, all unique, brutal and exceedingly challenging. For reference, I died more to the second boss of Nioh than I did to The Nameless King in Dark Souls 3; and she was just the tip of the iceberg.

Nioh’s boss battles left me breathless at first, then frustrated at their difficulty, blaming everything from my controller to the developers; but then I realized something. There is nothing wrong with the game, and the boss battles are perfect the way they are, I just had to “learn to play.” The game gives you ever tool you need and even has a Dojo for you to hone your skills in. If you die (and you will), it is 100% your fault. Every boss encounter varies greatly, but they do have one thing in common: You can overcome every obstacle they throw at you with the right strategic moves.

You have to be fast, willing to adapt on the fly and most importantly, learn from each death. Nioh requires you to execute your strategy with clinical precision to have a chance at making it out alive, and that is just one more thing I love about the game. Through slow and steady progress I finally took down several of the game’s bosses, each one providing an immense challenge. The reward isn’t just some cool looking items, but instead a feeling of euphoria that washed over me when a boss fell. It is the best feeling I have had in a game, including the Souls franchise; and I got it over and over again after each boss kill.

Souls in all the right places

It is impossible to talk about Nioh’s mechanics and gameplay without mentioning Dark Souls. If you’ve ever played one of the Souls titles, you will notice that Nioh has several familiar mechanics; but Nioh isn’t just some Dark Souls clone. Even though it does employ a lot of similar mechanics, it takes every single one of them a step further, and in my opinion, a step in the right direction.

Throughout my journey, you will face (and hopefully slay) countless enemies, from human villagers and soldiers to a variety of powerful Yokai. Each of those enemy deaths rewards you with amrita, which can be used to level up. On death, you lose all your amrita and have one chance to get it back. If you die before touching your grave, you will have lost the amrita you have not spent for good. Therefore, even dying to an “easy” enemy could cost you everything you’ve worked for; and it happened to me more than I care to admit. The intensity of encounter multiplies tenfold when your amrita is on the ground somewhere, which is when mistakes tend to occur. The video below shows some of my horrible mistakes, an astoundingly stupid death that could have been avoided.

 

So basically, like souls, right? Well yes, but Nioh also has another currency, which you can collect to purchase weapons, armour and consumables; and it doesn’t drop on death. As I mentioned earlier in this review, the game tells the story through cinematics and the environment and items do make a difference in Nioh. Further, the game sports a deep crafting system, including a way to keep your item’s look, boost an item’s power level, disassemble items and craft a plethora of new ones.

Nioh has a plethora of items, delivered to the player in a glorious explosion of loot much like that of a Diablo game when they kill an enemy. The loot isn’t just for looks either. Unlike the Souls franchise, Nioh’s loot makes a big difference and adds a lot to strategic depth to the game. My weapon of choice was first and foremost the dual sword option, which provides fast attacks and is excellent at taking out smaller enemies. However, ranged weapons such as a longbow (with very limited ammo) and other melee weapons for example a massive axe came in very handy in certain fights.

Each weapon and armour piece has a wide variety of stats, bonuses and even some special abilities to play around with. With all the options at a player’s disposal, Nioh gives you the choice of how you want to play; but also punishes the misuse of an item and rewards a good item setup and character build. Further, the player has three stances at their disposal, which provide different benefits. For example, the high stance allows for attacks that break an enemy’s guard posture, while the low stance is all about movement and lower damage.

Learning the stances made combat just a little bit easier for me; but even 20 hours in I still failed to switch stances at the right time, which led to a couple of dozen deaths. Stances, in essence, determines your overall approach to the combat; what you feel most comfortable with can be used to your advantage, or be the catalyst for your demise. Even after three days of putting almost every waking hour into Nioh, defeating a large number of the game’s bosses, I still feel as if I haven’t even scratched the surface of the item system and character build potential.

Every build and item combination feels so different, but yet so exceedingly fun and rewarding, that multiple playthroughs are, in my opinion, a must. Nioh is a game that I can’t see myself stop playing; that’s just how good everything about the game feels. If Nioh is a bit too daunting to face alone, there is also the option to play it co-op, in a sense. You can use a Tori gate to summon a player on the main world map and then go on missions together, or you can summon someone at a shrine, but it does cost you an offering of an item and if that player or you die, the co-op session comes to an end, which could make things even more intense.

Honour is in the details

The samurai were fierce warriors known for their discipline, honour and morality; living by a code called bushido (way of the warrior). I brought up this point because I believe Nioh is one of the most honourable games I’ve seen in the last several years. I wasn’t bombarded with trailers and almost run over by a hype train for Nioh; and the developers even gave players a free trial which shows exactly how the game plays and what you can expect. That shows a lot of confidence in their product.

Nioh flew under the radar for me (and maybe you too), but it delivers in every aspect imaginable, including graphical detail and user choice. When I first launched the game on my standard PS4, it gave me the option for three video modes, one of which was action mode (delivering a high fps). It is something I haven’t seen an option for on the PS4, but something I feel every game needs. By lowering the game’s graphical quality (only a bit on my version), Nioh delivers an exceptionally smooth experience in Action Mode; while in Cinematic Mode it runs at a solid 30fps and higher quality graphics. It is that choice the developer has given all PS4 owners (not just PS4 Pro) that show they went the extra mile, delivering a game that is beautiful and runs unimaginably smooth. The graphics, even on Action Mode, look fantastic.

Animations are smooth, beautiful particle details surround weapons, characters and more. The weather effects create a stunning atmosphere, as you can see from the video above where I fight a boss that has the body of a tiger, the head of a monkey and a chimera-like tail. Accompanying the highly-impressive graphical quality and high frame rate is some brilliant voice acting and a musical score that sets the tone of every boss encounter, every area, and every mission so perfectly that I find it impossible to fault Nioh (standard PS4) on a technical level.

Nioh on the PS4 Pro

For those who have a PS4 Pro, my colleague Marco Cocomello has played the game, trying out different graphical options and explaining them in detail:

"Nioh has a couple of game modes that makes use of the PS4 Pro's extra processing power. A mode that favors a higher resolution for a 30FPS experience, and a lower 1080p mode with a 60FPS. Testing these modes out gave me different ways to look at the game, but in the end, I settled with the 60FPS Action Mode.

The game just suits the higher frame rate, and although the higher resolution looks great, the higher FPS helps in combat with a smoother camera movement. Then we have the 'unlocked frame rate' modes that keep the resolution as high as possible, but the frame rate varies depending on the scene.

I would not recommend this mode as the dips in frame rate sometimes get in the way of combat, and can affect the overall performance of the game. Still, Nioh's different graphical options proves that 2017 might be the year that we see much more use of the PS4 Pro's power."

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The Nioh Verdict

I’ve died roughly 200 times in 25 hours of play, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nioh’s plethora of systems, from combat mechanics to giving me that action RPG feeling with loot collection and a deep crafting system are all exceptionally well done. The intriguing story and characters, as well as the game’s beautiful graphics - all while still running at a high frame rate makes it a must-have PS4 exclusive.

However, it isn’t just all the game’s parts that make it great, but how well they work in tandem to deliver something remarkable. Nioh is an absolute masterpiece. I’ve reviewed a lot of games over the past three years, and I do not say this lightly: Nioh is the best game I have ever played.

On that bombshell, it is important to note that the game isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like reading subtitles or if you prefer playing a game just for the story, Nioh might not be your cup of ramen. Although the story is, in my opinion, fantastic, it is the level of difficulty and the fact that there is no “easy mode” that might put a lot of people off.

If you are up to the challenge and want to die over and over again, you can check out “What SA gamers will pay for February’s top game releases,” and start saving your amrita for Nioh’s 8 February 2017 release date.

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"Nioh is an absolute masterpiece"

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