It’s been a bad year for FROM Software.
Having effectively birthed what we now call the Soulsborne sub-genre, the past twelve months have seen three games waltz in with their own divergent takes on the formula. The first was Salt & Sanctuary – a two-dimensional Soulsborne-come-Metroidvania style game which made a mockery of FROM’s cheap mobile runner, Slashy Souls. Then you have The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – taking out much of the RPG and boiling the combat down to a beautifully syrupy-sweet consistency that made Dark Souls 3 look positively old fashioned. The gameplay had definite nods to the Soulsborne sub-genre, without too much of the additional fluff.
And then there’s Nioh. Brace yourselves for the thrust of this but one thing no-one wants or indeed cares to say needs to be made clear very early on; Nioh… is a middle-market game at a big-budget price.
I’m not joking – everything about Nioh screams middle-market to me. The graphics are good and the mission maps are pleasantly constructed but everything is rigid, prefabricated and predictable – they made a bunch of awesome maps and went about recycling them in a variety of ways to get the most out of them. And I’m not knocking that – particularly when the maps are complex and interesting enough that such a thing can be done – only pointing out it is kind of how it is. The audio is good, but it doesn’t swell and descends into cheap audio gimmicks from time to time, like a small gasping sound effect when an enemy has spotted you. The missions map and menus – in which you’ll be spending a lot of hours – are layered and charming but at the same time overwhelming and not well streamlined.
Nioh is a Soulsborne game at its heart, but that’s not to say it only seeks to rip a page from FROM Software’s book. Indeed, the game has a deliberate Onimusha vibe – kind of inescapable in a Soulsborne with samurai and ninjas – whilst its maps and atmosphere deliberately invoke a sort of Tenchu vibe, which enough nooks and crannies with hidden items to explore you can almost be distracted from your mission objectives. In terms of enemy design, there’s an absolute Shadow Hearts and Koudelka vibe going on, and that I can actually state that a game has a Koudelka vibe in 2017 puts a tingling sensation in my lower spine that is almost delightful. Actually… one second…
Okay, just a pleasant sensation and nothing to worry about. That’s a relief.
Nioh’s entire shtick is to play on the middle-market ideas and concepts, and I get that and I enjoy it very much. I also like the sort of Anime-style storyline that borrows heavily from real events; William Adams, you see, was an actual privateer who in 1595 was stranded in Japan. He eventually settled down and became the first Western Samurai, which is kind of awesome when you think about it – and Nioh is not the first to take on William Adams’ story, there have been books and TV shows (Shogun), animations and even hardcore pornography based on it. Yeah, sorry for putting that in your head. The game is imaginative, but its played straight enough to both be kind of so-bad-its-good and quite humourous to boot.
The balance is often a bit off at times too. It does fall into the Soulsborne trap of getting you to try a boss a few times before it goes down with some extraordinarily cheap mechanics that you absolutely, positively 110% must avoid at all costs or you’re dead (which defeats the point of an actual experience – Amarita in this game – system). Indeed, sometimes I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to have less weapons and more emphasis on levelling or less emphasis on levelling and more focus on its Diablo/Torchlight loot system where you can find tonnes of gear. I do think having both at the same time is a little silly, particularly when so much of the boss design is hinged on specific patterns and the recognition of those patterns.
But there’s so much I like.
The combat mechanics are actually surprisingly solid – I like the Soulsborne angle with stance changing, which really does allow for some complex showboating moments. Not that such things are useful in boss fights I found, but for 90% of the actual gameplay side of things it’s fun to take on humans, yokai and oni and feel pretty swish in the process. There’s a good selection of weapon types, and items in general as well which certainly helps in its more brutal moments – and Nioh has more than its fair share of brutal moments, let me tell you. There’s no shame in this game; you dance to its tune or you go the hell away, but you learn how the game telegraphs things and you work around it so whilst it can be a little cheap, most things you learn to avoid.
I like the Revenant System; dark red grave markers where other players have fallen, and you can stroll up and summon in an NPC invader from their remains, wearing the stuff they were wearing when they kicked the bucket (the graves also tell you how they died, which sometimes is hilarious!). Defeat these people at the level they died, and you are rewarded with some of the stuff they were wearing, meaning that death isn’t always a bad thing – it can help other players gear up too! How selfless and charitable of you. These things rack up in challenge though as player levels increase, and it’s a lot of fun seeing what other players are decked out in (and if you’re looking for specific weapon-types, yup, the graves show you that too so you can summon in just what you need).
I like the story, I like the cut of its jib, the cutscenes come off a bit cheaply-made but I’m fine with that, they’re functional and nice to look at and I don’t really ask for much more than that – it fits into that riff on the middle-market style it has. I like the crafting system – where you can level up your chosen weapon type if you’re having issues by matching its level to a useless weapon (to you), or transmog things, or change/inherit skill traits. I like the variety of missions, despite the maps thing, and I certainly like how it is presented – the Guardian Spirits are awesome, the enemy and even boss design is superb for how clearly lacking in budget they must have been, and it’s all hugely enjoyable and likeable and I very much like Nioh.
But still… it just feels a bit strange all told.
I like strange so don’t get me wrong, this isn’t in reference to its more odd moments. There’s just something a little off-putting to me when a big-budget game like this is playing itself off as some kind of middle-market oddity. Nioh is not the first game to push that button for me – Dragons Dogma had the same kind of vibe on its launch, and it was during its re-release as an actual middle-market game on PC that it found a wider audience and more success. But it still leaves an odd aftertaste, particularly when the absence of a proper middle-market on the PS4 exists save cut-price big-budget games which fell on their faces in their launch window (and the idea the middle-market is now the place for failed big-budget games does not sit well with me).
That feels like nitpicking when so much of this game is so good – but I cannot quite get beyond that. I recommend Nioh, of course. It’s another game out there doing the Soulsborne sub-genre proud and with style, pinache and a confidence that is almost unwarranted in a brand new IP like this. Your mileage and how much or quickly you fall in love with Nioh depends largely on whether you can get past its obsession with classic middle-market game influences and appreciate it for what it is.
It’s easily one of the best games I’ve played this year and that I’ve already played several games which could at any time in the last few years have been top of any given year-end top five list is astounding to me, and makes me seriously consider whether a top five this year should be a top ten. Nioh is a glorious little throwback and a really bold take on the Soulsborne sub-genre.
But at the price they’re asking? Well… it’s good enough for sure. But it does sting a bit.