Nioh: Changing up the Formula

As the fire faded away with Bloodborne’s acclaimed DLC and in the limbo of Dark Souls 3’s final DLC to close the long-running saga, the month of February 2017 was when the Souls-like subgenre of games fully blossomed into the scene with Nioh. Back then, I was debating on getting it to stave off the month-long wait I had left for the Ringed City DLC but decided against it and decided to fully dive into the Trails of series instead. Nioh escaped my mind for quite some time but I did hear some reviews praising the different approach to combat but as well has having a few more bosses that felt a lot more “unfair” compared to the likes of Dark Souls’ calculated difficulty. I thought about buying it for a time but then Ghosts of Tsushima and Sekiro muddled my opinion of samurai-souls games for a while so it wouldn’t be until it went up for free that I finally had no excuse but to try it for myself.

Immediately the gameplay differences hit me, especially the interact button being the O button instead of the X button which made me backdash away from items frequently and the low-mid-high stance attacks that altered your moveset compared to the static moveset of weapons in Souls which made any unique moveset a given weapon have be an exciting prospect. What threw me off however was the amount of weapons enemies shat out when they died and how many different inherent abilities they had be it extra damage against certain enemies, extra scaling bonuses, better recovery, better elemental affinity, and the likes. It threw me for a loop since I always want to be optimal and for better or for worse, upgrading in the game was tied to the Proficiency meter. On one hand, this allows for on the fly swapping of weapons should you find a replacement which allows a lot of experimentation but also tends to clutter the shit out of your inventory as well as make it complete hassle for someone like me who cares a lot about stats to make choices, especially in those circumstances that have a higher rarity but lower level mix-up.

Thankfully, the devs must have known the vanity that comes with weapon stats, rarities, and appearances because the highly detailed Forge system in Nioh is something that really streamlines things, at least for the right price. The Forge first and foremost allows you to buy and sell equipment which is the first way to get rid of unused gear. There’s the Smithing System that helps alleviate the stress of weapon rarity drops and stats should you partake in getting the proper amount of materials to make sure a weapon comes out the correct rarity you want it to. Soul Matching allows for those pesky problems of finding high rarity weapons with less than optimal levels to be raised to a sacrificial item’s stats which will probably be the service used the most if you’re anywhere like me who likes to play favorites with weapons and stick to a weapon til the end if I have favor with it. The problematic thing though is that the cost of Soul Matching goes up the more you do it for a single weapon so doing this around 3 times will exponentially increase the cost to do it again which at that point, you might as well move on over to a different weapon unless you want to save up that much. More than just stats however, certain weapons have inheritable stats indicated by a marker next to it that moves onto another weapon if it used as a Soul Matching material. Refashioning is a godsend to someone as shallow as me who likes weapons simply because they look better and refashioning allows you to change any weapon or armor you have to physically look like your desired weapon because all weapons types have the same moveset so it’s simply a cosmetic attribute that’s being shifted. Reforging allows you to remake a given weapon so that you can remove and replace some undesirable traits for new ones. Finally, Disassembling does exactly as it says and acts as the opposite of crafting, netting you some materials. All these services are compounded with “favors” which are earned through giving the blacksmiths money which allows you to reduce the percentage of costs for a given service, or unlock the ability to give William haircuts.

Might as well finish up the topic of gear because it’s one of the key differences with Souls that I think Nioh nails in differentiating itself with. Fashionistas are saved through the graces of the Refashion options as weapon and armor sets confer extra stat bonuses and there’s a ton of those in the game. Getting rare equipment is also a different fair all together as while pieces of armor drop from enemies, there is no set drops in chests and whatnot like Dark Souls does so the most reliable way to farm for high rarity gear is to farm Shades, recorded data of dead players that you summon into your world to fight. There’s an entire clan system with unique banners and bonuses to which faction you belong to but I never got the chance to really dive into aside from picking the side that gave me more Living Weapon time.

As mentioned before, all weapons have the same moveset across weapon types. You have Swords, Spears, Dual Swords, Kusarigamas, and Hammers. Me being me, I specc’d into the first three while not bothering with the Kusarigama and Hammers until late in the game when I got high rarity drops and used them out of curiosity. All weapons have access to three different movesets between the quick but weak low stance, the balanced middle stance, and the slow but powerful high stance. Movesets can be further customized in the vein of Godhand movesets by assigning combo finishers and other unique moves that can be mapped to button combinations that vary from dodges, parries, shoves, and other elaborate moves. Furthermore, you can manipulate the endurance/stamina/ meter, called Ki in this game, to recover faster by performing a Ki burst. This is an important mechanic to master as most demons in the game will expel a highly visible aura that will inhibit Ki recovery but performing a burst will cleanse the area of their corruption and also grant a burst of ki recovery and recovery speed. There is also your very own Devil Trigger mode called Living Weapon that makes you temporarily invulnerable and enchants your weapon with your selected Guardian Spirit, who also gives passive benefits, and allows you to wail on an enemy until the meter runs out. Ranged Combat is also slightly more involved as your Bow, Matchlock Rifle, and Cannons do incredible damage but are in limited supply. Last but not least are the Ninja and Onmyo techniques which can be customized through upgrading the Ninjutsu and Magic stats which allows you to distribute points into accessing certain Ninja Tools and Onmyo Spells. These range from a simple kunai to smokebombs while Onmyo spells give you elemental projectiles, buffs like health regen, and the most broken spell, Sloth which slows the speed of all enemies hit with it to a crawl. All skill points can be earned through leveling up stats as well as consuming the respective consumable. All in all, the combat is significantly more active and aggressive compared to Dark Souls. Oh and to make matters a bit tougher, none of your side-steps, dodges, and rolls have invincibility to them. Doing small things like gaining proficiency, ki-bursting, purifying, and using certain weapons gives you two sets of perks called titles that grant benefits such as boosted amrita rate, item drop rates, fall damage reduction, damage increases, and other small but useful benefits.

Unlike the interconnected worlds of Souls, Nioh functions off a Mission based structure which allows for a varied level of backdrops and subsequent missions on a given node reuses the same base map but takes place in a different time of day or some alternate take like a village on fire. The re-usage of locales did at the very least lend itself to a lot of missions and exploration. This re-usage is also apparent in Twilight Missions which are essentially harder versions of given missions that grant higher tier rewards and crafting materials.

Replacing your bonfires are Shrines which serve a multitude of purposes. You have your item box but you also have the choice to Offer items to the shrine which nets you the game’s equivalent of Souls called Amrita and is the other way to get rid of the mountains of items enemies shit out after death. Gold is a separate resource primarily solicited through blacksmiths. Unlike Dark Souls, there is no Estus Flasks and your primary healing method comes from Medicine that is dropped by enemies but their drop rates can be improved by finding Kodama spirits in a given area to give your choice of improving Amrita gain, gold gain, Weapon/Armor drop rates, or medicine drop rates.

You also select your Guardian Spirit at the shrine as well which also doubles as a place where you can recall the spirit from your corpse. Like Souls, you drop your Amrita when you die and have to retrieve it by reaching the place you got killed and your death marker is accompanied by your Guardian Spirit waiting for you but until you reach that point, you are without your Guardian’s passive benefits so in the case you wanted them back, you have the option to do so. Unlike Darksiders 3 that only added more souls/whatever to your death marker, Nioh properly has you lose them if you die on the way there. You can also summon co-op spirits through here but I’ve never bothered. Leveling is pretty basic and functions similarly to souls, you have your equivalent of health, stamina, strength, dexterity, intelligence (onmyo/ninja), and attunement slots with their own categories but leveling health upgrades your spear damage so that’s fun too.

Compared to the new game plus features of Souls that at the least, provide more HP and damage to mobs and at most, add new enemies and rings, Nioh provides a bundle of new stuff immediately upon completion. Not only is there an epilogue to the story, Nioh breaks open a new set of rarity with Legendary green rarities that differ from the Yellow-Blue-Purple rarities that we’ve seen with the game. Plus you are now free to beat the game again on higher levels but have the freedom to play the same levels in the New Game difficulty as well. Another big mechanic to combat the rising challenge would be the ability to give amrita to your Guardian Spirit to level them up, capping at 30. You can also choose a 2nd Guardian Spirit to act as a passive boost instead of being able to summon them.

The story of Nioh is basically a retelling of the events after the warring states period. William was contracted to obtain Amrita from Japan to help the English win against Spain but was imprisoned as to keep Amrita a secret. He breaks out of his jail cell and chases after a man named Edward Kelley who takes his native guardian spirit and becomes embroiled in the civil war, getting to know the players involved but ultimately siding with the Tokugawas instead of Mitsunari’s thanks to mostly being introduced to the higher political side of things thanks to making contact with Hattori Hanzo. It’s revealed that Kelley has allied himself with Mitsunari but his true goal remains to resurrect Nobunaga to throw the world into chaos. While the highlight of the game, and much of the subgenre’s appeal is about memorable boss battles, I struggle to remember too many. Hannya was cool but that was mostly because I had played Yakuza 0 to have that image stuck in my head and the humanoid bosses were pretty exploitable so if anything, it was the combat system itself that stands out the most with my experience with Nioh. I only played one full playthrough of Nioh, finished the epilogue, but have not been able to finish all the missions as those post-game dual boss fights are some serious shit. I have not decided to play the DLCs despite interest in its new guardian spirits and have yet to experience Nioh 2.

All in all, while the bosses and story leave a bit to be desired, I felt that combat of Nioh more than made up for it with its customization depth and it’s understanding of how its weapon drop-usage system could be further played with in the blacksmithing options. For what it was worth, I felt that Nioh distinguished itself with its unique strengths but now it needs to have some better boss fights.

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