Team Ninja, the development squad best known for the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden series, takes a stab at role-playing games with Nioh, a challenging, action-heavy title set in mythical Japan. Nioh (price TBD) is a venture into uncharted waters for the developer, and while the game takes inspiration from the iconic Dark Souls games, it is very much its own beast, filled with technical action, stronger narrative elements, and a unique setting. Nioh is still in development, but the game has undergone public alpha and beta phases, which Team Ninja has used to test the game's performance and gauge feedback. Aside from some balance and performance issues, Nioh exudes a great deal of polish. If you need your action-RPG itch scratched in lieu of Dark Souls or Bloodborne, definitely keep Nioh in your sights.
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The Original Weeaboo
Nioh is based on the story of William Adams, a 17th century sailor who arrived in Japan and earned the favor of the Tokugawa Shogun. Adams spent the last years of his life in Japan, and he has been popularized as the first Western samurai. Team Ninja embellishes the tale by weaving demons, magic, and ninjas into the narrative.
Adams embodies the stranger in a strange land cliché, which makes him an ideal protagonist in this supernatural setting. Nioh blends iconic Japanese monsters, authentic equipment, richly interwoven environments, and RPG leveling to create a game that has an air of familiarity, while feeling wholly unique. At first glance, Nioh's systems resemble those found in From Software's Dark Souls games, but Nioh's faster paced action, complex stamina system, and beefier weapon abilities push it to the hardcore action side of the spectrum.
A Stance for Every Occasion
Your arsenal includes a spear, katana, dual blade and axe/hammer weapons, each of which has light and heavy attacks. Light attacks are useful for bread-and-butter combos, whereas heavy attacks are powerful but highly situational, so you only want to use them when your opponent is vulnerable.
Each melee weapon gives you three stances, which radically change your attacks. Overhead stance is slower and consumes more stamina than other stances, but deals excellent damage. Low stance offers the fastest attack style and lowest stamina cost, but deals very little damage. Mid stance does not excel in damage or speed, but offers great defensive options, making it an ideal opening stance for a fight. Each has its strengths, so it is worthwhile to learn how to fight with them all.
Combat is melee oriented, but you can also enter combat with a variety of projectile weapons, such as bows and rifles, to expand your attack range.
Dancing on a Razor's Edge
Nioh, like the Souls games, makes heavy use of a stamina gauge to dictate the combat flow. Attacking, running, blocking, and evading all consume stamina. You must effectively manage your stamina to keep an edge in battle, because you are highly vulnerable when all of your stamina is depleted. If you are struck when out of stamina, or block an attack when your stamina is low, you'll suffer a lengthy, Monster Hunter-style recovery animation where William stops to catch his breath. You are utterly vulnerable during this animation, so it is crucial to maintain your stamina and avoid this state. The flip side is that everything in Nioh, from samurai grunts to demons, is susceptible to this penalty, making stamina damage a viable strategy in any fight.
What really sets Nioh apart from the Souls games is the Ki Pulse stamina regeneration mechanic. Ki pulse works like Gears of War's Active Reload system, as strange as that sounds. At the end of any attack or combo, your stamina gauge turns white and refills rapidly. By pressing R1, you recover whatever amount of stamina has filled in the gauge. You recover very little stamina if you press R1 early, but if you press it too late, the white gauge reaches the end and resets, forcing you to wait for the stamina to regenerate normally. Ideally, you want to tap R1 at the exact moment the white gauge reaches its end. Good use of Ki Pulse lets you fight much more aggressively, and makes combat feel much more involved, because even when you are withdrawing to restore stamina, you are actively inputting commands and remain involved in the encounter.
Nioh expects its players to have a solid grasp of Ki Pulse. For example, supernatural enemies spawn dark puddles that greatly hinder stamina regeneration within the area. Using Ki Pulse within these fields dispels the effect, letting your stamina regenerate normally. But more importantly, Ki Pulse is tied to a host of other skills and techniques, which open up all new avenues of crazy, stylish combat. For example, switching stances at the end of a combo in lieu of a basic Ki Pulse is called Flux, which gives you a quick stamina refresh and a bit of extra juice on top of it. This encourages you to switch stances dynamically during a fight. Ki Pulsing can also be used to switch weapons, letting you perform lengthy weapon-swap combos on the fly.
William is blessed with guardian spirits, as well as magical abilities, which give him an edge over most of his bloodthirsty adversaries. Guardian spirits give William a passive buff, depending on the spirit. For example, the fox spirit Kato grants a tiny attack boost. As you fight, you also build magic, which is represented by the circular gauge to the left of your health bar. When full, you can summon the guardian spirit into your weapon, temporarily imbuing it with their respective element, while giving you damage immunity.
Nioh also features two support branches that complement the melee action, much like the spell systems in the Souls games. Magic and ninjutsu give William access to powerful abilities that greatly augment his defensive or offensive abilities, or debilitate enemies to make them easier to deal with, respectively. One particular magic spell casts a defensive barrier around you to soak up a set amount of damage, for example. Ninjutsu smoke bombs cloak your presence from enemies, making them much easier to pick off while the smoke is active. You can invest in various magic or ninja skills, depending on your stats, which leads to some very interesting build possibilities.
A Work in Progress
Though Nioh has fantastic potential, there are balance issues that Team Ninja needs to address before the game's release. For example, lithe enemies like the ninjas hit like trucks, while the hulking, long-tongued demons are as weak as kittens. All of Nioh's adversaries can be overcome with practice and experience, but I would appreciate if enemies reflected the damage they dealt.
Nioh incorporates trial-and-error gameplay in some situations, which I am not a fan of. In most cases you can gauge what you're up against and either snipe enemies from cover, or bait them to you and fight them one on one. But sometimes you'll fall through a roof into a room filled with enemies, and suffer an unnecessary death. Or you'll explore caves, only to have a swarm of angry bats whiz past and knock you off the edge of a cliff to your death. Sure, you will know to avoid these hazards in the future, but in many cases you wont know what to expect until you've fallen for the ruse in the first place, which can feel cheap.
The armor system could also use some tweaking. In Nioh, good armor is absurdly heavy, requiring a tremendous stat investment to wear effectively. This is at the expense of other, more useful stats, making heavy armors feel less viable than lighter armors. Heavy armor also penalizes you with steep stamina consumption costs, so using the equipment feels unrewarding. Lower stamina penalties, or lower stat requirements would make heavy armor more worthwhile to use.
Nioh is a technical take on the hardcore action RPG. Its myriad systems create energetic and masterful combat, but the stat system also accommodates a variety of builds and fighting styles. Nioh combines the appeal of a Souls game with the combat depth you would expect from a straight action game, and I look forward to the finished product when it hit store shelves in 2017.