Nioh Review, or Onimusha Gaiden Souls

Nioh Review, or Onimusha Gaiden Souls

English Title Nioh
Japanese Title Nioh
Kana Title 仁王
Director Kenichi Ueda
Release Date 2017
Developer Team Ninja
Publisher Koei Tecmo
Series Nioh
Platform Playstation 4

So Nioh is finally here and Team Ninja’s ‘souls like’ is impressing many a gamer with its vision of an ancient Japan fraught with yokai and power-hungry samurai. While Nioh has been in the public consciousness for just a little under two years, it was originally announced all the way back in 2004 marking a production easily as troubled as The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy 15, two games which many fans would consider disappointments. Yet despite all odds Nioh isn’t just a good game, but a great one.

While the biggest talking point is the game’s obvious similarities to Dark Souls, it’s easy to forget that Team Ninja were masters of the hard as nails action game at a time when the Soulsborne titles were still but a bonfire in From Soft’s eye. While taking inspiration from the structural topes of Dark Souls Nioh mashes this together with a touch of Diablo, Ninja Gaiden and a concerted effort to create a story in a way which raises it above a simple clone.

Taking place in the sengoku period of the early 1600s, players take control of William Adams, an Irish sailor sent to Japan in pursuit of Edward Kelley, an enemy of Queen Elizabeth. Hearing of social unrest in the East Kelley fans the flames of war to harness the power of Amrita and bring about death and destruction via various yokai. Assisted by Hattori Hanzo and associates of Tokugawa Ieyasu William cuts his way across Japan to defeat Kelley and retrieve his stolen guardian spirit Saoise.


In attempting to craft a more narrative experience than other games in the genre Nioh struggles somewhat in creating a story that’s meaningful. Weaving a narrative that combines the warring states period with alchemy and folklore it’s sometimes hard to keep up with this tale of alternate history if you aren’t studied in the history the game is playing with. That said, there are interesting enough characters to follow even if the overarching plot is somewhat confusing. From Hattori Hanzo to the game’s portrayal of perennial villain Oda Nobunaga there’s enough to draw you in to the story even if character motivations don’t make much sense at times.

Yokai Attack!

Where Nioh’s lore really shines is how it leverages this in terms of enemy design. Drawing quite faithfully from yokai of folklore Nioh’s elegantly designed antagonists are a far cry from the cosmic monstrosities of Bloodborne. While yokai have been in games as early as the NES in titles like Goemon and Ninja Kid (Gegege no Kitaro in Japan), Nioh’s enemies feel torn straight from Toriyama Sekien’s yokai enclopedias. From attack patterns to elemental weaknesses, Nioh treats Japanese folklore as design documents, and while there’s embellishment here and there, you can’t help but laugh as a Kappa reaches all the way up William’s rear end to inflict massive damage.

Part of this is thanks to the localization. While appreciation in the West for yokai has slowly been growing it’s nice to see Nioh continue this trend, referring to the creates as yokai rather than translating them as goblins or simple monsters. There are instances in which some of the yokai have had their names changed, Wanyudo becomes Wheel Monk for example, but for 90% of its roster they’re called by their original names.

Another area in which the game’s localization pushes boundaries is in its treatment of language. No badly accented English here. William is a stranger in a faraway land, and the game wisely chooses keep with a Japanese language track for the great majority of its cast. While this could have proven problematic in terms of in game speech, the levels themselves are relatively dialogue free, so there’s little risk of missing anything important.

Samurai Gaiden

But what use are creative enemies without combat to match? Drawing upon Team Ninja’s history the combat is as fast and fluid as you would. Most important is the ability to change weapon stances, creating a variety of approaches to combat that put other games of this ilk to shame. As with many things in Nioh however, being able to change a Kusarigama from a guard breaking wreckingball to a propeller speed blade of death in less than a second did keep me from exploring other weapon types.

Which ironically brings about Nioh’s biggest flaw. For as uniformly excellent as everything is in the game, its systems often negate something else in its design. This is also reflected in the game’s level based structure. Instead of embracing an interconnected world, Nioh’s action is separated in to roughly hour long levels, each taking place in a different location. While this helps establish a greater variety of terrain when compared to a Dark Souls or Bloodborne, this does come at the cost of atmosphere as the location’s inherent ‘gaminess’ is highlighted by its segmented level design.

Oni-gaga for Loot

There are areas in which Nioh’s embracing of these aspects aids in its addictiveness as it borrows from Diablo’s loot based gameplay loop with an obsession with stats to match. At first glance the sheer plethora of stat sheets, weapon familiarity, ninja points, samurai points, and other character building screens will intimidate even the most ardent RPG fan, but they offer an extra hook for those looking to bury deeper in to its systems.

The loot game is somewhat at odds with the revenant system however. Akin to Dark Soul’s invaders, Revenants are red phantoms which invade the player’s game. Crucially in the case of Nioh however, revenants can intentionally be spawned from bloodstains left in places where other players have died. Unlike the Souls games, Revenants are AI controlled enemies based upon builds of real life players, including the gear they were carrying at the time of death. Sounds great, but once the player becomes attuned at taking these highly curated loot chests down it does upset the balance of the game. Level 70 and see a level 110 bloodstain? Kill that sucker and wreak havoc with weapons somebody else put endless amounts of hours and gold in to levelling up and reforging.

The revenant system being somewhat ill thought out combined with Nioh’s abundance of systems to min max does upset the balance of the game about a two thirds of the way through. In the game’s fifth region (of six) I was surprised to see that the level 100 trophy had yet to unlock. Upon checking my level I realised I was still somewhere in the mid 80s, yet the levels I was completing were marked as for those around 110. My character build was fleshy to be sure, but with sloth magic and a level 140 Kusarigama I received from Revenant farming I found myself tearing through these higher level environments with some ease.

This won’t upset the game’s balance for everyone, but if you’re familiar with the combat of the Souls series and the obsessive stat game found in Diablo and MMO’s, Nioh leaves itself open to be exploited. Some players will relish in the freedom the game gives you, but I wish there were some difficulty assuring hooks in there somewhere. As a result Nioh isn’t quite as tidy a game as Bloodborne. Throwing a million different systems and design choices at the player not everything is as massaged in to the overall experience as one would hope, but in trying at least succeeds in forging a few innovations of its own.

Nioh is a fantastic game in almost every aspect; from its level design, varied enemies to a combat system that even beats out From Software. That it has some system issues is far from game breaking, and luckily only really rears its head in its final third. It’s frustrating that by far the easiest aspect of the game to fix is the only part fraught with problems, but it rarely detracts from the experience.

Relevant Links



Previous Interview with Matt Alt: Localizing Nioh and the World of Yokai
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About author

Craig 41 posts

Horror Japan is Craig Hatch, a Brit currently living in Tokyo, Japan. Horror Japan is a project that aims to review and collate media from all aspects of Japanese horror culture.

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Editor review




Nioh is a fantastic game in almost every aspect; from its level design, varied enemies to a combat system that even beats out From Software. That it has some system issues is far from game breaking and rarely detracts from the experience.