This delicious blend of Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls isn't quite a masterpiece, but it's a stirring return to form for Team Ninja.
Team Ninja's new demon-slaying samurai epic has one hell of an elevator pitch: this is Ninja Gaiden meets Dark Souls. Nioh takes the silky smooth colourful Japanese texture of Team Ninja's storied hack-and-slash affair and merges it with the light RPG structure and methodical combat of From's dark fantasy series. Yet mixing these two diametrically opposed takes on the third-person action game isn't easy and Team Ninja has done a commendable if occasionally unflattering job of cribbing From Software's most influential design tropes, all while retaining the distinctly ludicrous comic book flavour that's always been central to the Ninja Gaiden dev's DNA.
Nioh tells a highly embellished tale of western samurai William Adams, a real-life historical figure who arrived on Japanese shores in 1600. This folklore-heavy fable isn't particularly well told with an abundance of convoluted exposition and cackling tattooed villains taking centre stage, but storytelling has never really been Team Ninja's strong suit - something made especially clear when William spends hours cutting his way through demonic hordes only to arrive at a boss' introductory cutscene where he's inexplicably joined by a party of allies. It's best not to think about this one too hard.
Your grey matter will instead be focusing on Nioh's extravagant combat systems where Team Ninja's work really shines. On the surface, the Dark Souls influence is obvious with its slowly recharging stamina meter determining your actions and a respawn mechanic offering one chance to reclaim your lost XP where you last fell. Yet Team Ninja handles the fisticuffs differently than From. Your moveset in Nioh is drastically more complicated than anything seen in Dark Souls, a complex skill tree offering throngs of unlockable manoeuvres that give each weapon type an incredible depth and flexibility. Your move list may not be quite as expansive as something like Ninja Gaiden, but it's definitely closer to the hack-and-slash upgrade trees of yore, before stamina meters prioritised timing and energy consumption over complicated combo inputs.
Yet you don't have to explore this to its fullest potential. In fact, you could simply stick to a single weapon type and just a handful of moves and still have more than enough immediate actions to juggle. The key to all of this is well, Ki, Nioh's spiritual take on stamina. By squeezing the right trigger at just the right time after launching an attack, you'll perform a Ki Pulse, which recharges your Ki meter quicker and grants an extra damage buff for the next few seconds. It's essentially Gears of War's seminal active reload mechanic manifested in melee combat and it's brilliant.
This single step is entwined heavily into the game's combat, especially as pretty early on you can upgrade the Ki Pulse so it's performed by dodging at the right time rather than absorbing energy while stationary. Furthermore, larger foes often spawn pools of Ki-sapping fog in their wake that can only be cleansed by performing a Ki Pulse in their midst. Doing so is a risky proposition, however, as mistiming your Ki Pulse could leave you panting for breath when facing these hazardous obstacles. In short, Nioh requires a degree of focus that even From aficionados will find demanding.
This Ki system doesn't just affect the player's ability to move either, as enemies (including bosses) are also beholden to the idea. Tire a foe out through effective dodging, parrying, and repeated attacks and they'll get as winded as you, leaving them vulnerable for a few glorious seconds of cathartic wailing. Sometimes you can even perform devastating critical attacks, presented as glorious close-up executions, on exhausted foes. Different attacks effect opponents differently, so there's plenty of strategy as you determine whether you want to focus on depleting your adversary's Ki or go straight for their HP.
As you'd expect from Team Ninja, Nioh's comically brutal boss fights are a highlight, ranging from deceptively difficult humanoid villains to a demonic centipede comprised of sentient segments that toggle between linking together and scuttling apart. Every boss provides a seemingly insurmountable challenge at the off. Many of these big baddies will no doubt slay you for dozens of attempts before you can even get to the more devious second stages of their duels. It's that steady, sadistic climb from thinking a particular boss is a fool's errand to finally figuring it out and conquering the impossible that offers Nioh's most exhilarating moments.
While the combat system and bosses offer a worthy successor to Souls and Gaiden fans, there are a few ways that Nioh falls short of the modern masterpiece it strives to be. The most troublesome problem with Nioh is its repetition. For all it does right, its padding is obvious and often obnoxious. Several side missions are set in the recycled maps (often condensed versions of the main stages portrayed during a different time of day) and the game's bestiary is a little on the light side. The first time you face off against a giant ogre it's exciting; by the 30th time, it's a bit of a drag.
Furthermore, the maps don't contain a lot of secrets. You can occasionally find some sweet loot and upgrades, but there are never any NPCs to talk to, puzzles to solve, or other mysterious objects to interact with. Nioh is set in a mystical, magical world, yet when it comes to prodding these labyrinthine innards, what you see is what you get.
Nioh has a somewhat questionable relationship to loot, too, where Team Ninja prioritises quantity over quality. There are lots of weapon and armour drops, but the problem is there's so much loot that sorting and selling it quickly becomes a chore. By the game's second half I was frequently not picking stuff up because I was too lazy to comb through my cluttered, overcrowded inventory to sell it. That's not the reaction to have when acquiring new gear. This abundance of gear drops made sense when Team Ninja released Nioh's alpha and there was a weapon degradation mechanic, enforcing players to switch up their strategy. But people found these constant switch ups irritating so the weapon degradation system was removed. Its shadow, however, remains.
Nioh isn't a masterpiece then. It's not quite fresh or original enough to be. But it is a return to form for Team Ninja, a studio many feel had lost its way after the departure of its founder Tomonobu Itagaki in 2008. Nioh's loot-heavy hack and slash doesn't fire on all cylinders - though to be fair its aims seem more singular than that of its competitors - but it's a refreshing reminder of just how thrilling a solid Team Ninja combat encounter can be. Primarily single-player games are on the decline right now, but Nioh is a strong argument for the merits of this withering form.