Nioh's big update brings more depth to an already brilliant game
New game double plus: good.
Nioh emerged earlier this year as a sort of fast food version of the Souls formula: an action-RPG that had absorbed the style and structure of From Software's games (down to specific item-consuming animations and audio effects) while combining it with Team Ninja's signature wing-flutter combat, and a drop-in level select arrangement that made for short, palatable bouts of play. It was, it turned out, a game you could feel slightly skeptical about - "Is this really emerging from the shadow of its influences?" - while racing to the platinum trophy in a hundred hours of play crammed around work and family. Reader, I deleted it from my PS4 once I got there.
This last point isn't entirely incidental. Nioh's new DLC, Dragon Of The North, focuses on depth rather than breadth, latching on to the compulsive core of the base game that made me, for one, feel safer - or at least more productive - without its tempting availability. Nioh is an experience built around Big Mac-moreishness and is heavy on the grind, and this DLC is an interesting insight into how the game, and its complicated post-campaign design, are seen by its makers. Also, it is another chance to knock the heads off growling demons in a whirl of chains and metal.
One result of all this is that Dragon Of The North might initially seem insubstantial. Its most tangible contribution is the introduction of a new region, Oshu, which slots in at the end of the existing six (players need to have completed the original story to access the DLC). Yes, the conclusion of the main game did leave Adams back in England, but that's nothing a ten-second cutscene of a ship on an ocean can't fix. Dragon Of The North, much like the rest of Nioh, is about action rather than deep and meaningful narrative. To summarise, though: there is a man in a castle called Masamune Date, he has a demon in his eye socket, and you need to beat him up.
You do this over the course of just two new story missions (two and half if you count an epilogue-ish boss battle) and seven sub-missions. This doesn't leave a great deal to discover, though what is here sits comfortably among the more engaging of Nioh's levels. The first, Yokai Country, is an approach through snowy paths to a cliff-side village linked with rope bridges and walkways, and the second, The One-Eyed Dragon's Castle, is a mazey series of courtyards and towers leading to the DLC's central confrontation. Sub-missions offer the usual mix of variation and repetition, some playing like shortened echoes of the main story missions, others like boss wave attack modes. One is a double boss fight, and I am annoyed it exists - the perversity of Nioh's hardest boss encounters, especially the two-on-one fights found in the non-essential sub-missions, is that I hated doing them but felt compelled to because they were there. Defeating them was completionist self-flagellation, and Dragon Of The North has handed me a new whip.
Luckily, it has also handed me other enemies I am much less petulant about fighting. There are five new bosses in total - the first an insectoid yokai, one of those creature designs that really does push Nioh into Dark Souls' Fighting Fantasy-influenced territory, and the others a mix of fast and floaty humans. How hard are they? At this stage, with everyone who's progressed to these battles having worked their way through the main game, the challenge these bosses present will come down to character build, gear, and level. My dexterity-focused level 140 ninja with vanilla divine gear got me past everyone fairly comfortably, with maybe a dozen attempts at the final boss and two or three on the others, though online playthroughs seem to show heavier builds struggling with the speed of the DLC's bosses. Either way these fights are, like the boss encounters in the main game, a worthwhile combination of puzzling, patience, and skill.
There are new regular enemy types introduced here, too, which might be even more effective than the bosses. Namahage are gangly, straw-cloaked yokai that dash and sweep with a pair of jagged, rusty cleavers. They're intimidating to look at, though not too tough, sitting somewhere between the Yoki and the Onyudo on the pain-in-the-arse scale. Rokurokubi, on the other hand, are a new entry straight in at number one. These are human-yokai hybrids, well-armoured samurai whose necks and heads transform into writhing, snapping demonic snakes when attacked. They inspire that uncanny revulsion common to the very best of Nioh's enemies, backed up by the fact they pose an intricate strategic threat - quick-firing poison and fireballs from range, and whipping into damaging melee attacks from close in. Two or three in a tight spot is a guaranteed bad time - I hate them. They are great.
All in all this represents a few hours of play, though what Dragon Of The North really offers are more reasons to play the rest of Nioh some more. There's a new weapon type, the Odachi, a large sword with the reach of an axe or spear but with what feels like a more agile moveset. This comes with a new set of moves to unlock, new dojo missions to complete, and a proficiency rating to max out, making a run through earlier levels a sensible choice. And, perhaps most significantly of all, there's a new difficulty setting, Way Of The Demon, which sits alongside the standard Way Of The Samurai and the unlockable Way Of The Strong to effectively give Nioh a new game ++. It is an invitation to play through Nioh in full for a third time, and the most efficient way for collectors and completionists to obtain divine weapons and armour for crafting and build experimenting.
Dragon Of The North was released in conjunction with Nioh's latest update - 1.08, if you're counting - and while all the content discussed so far is only available with the DLC, the update also made a new PvP mode available to all players. Using a new menu option at the Torii Gate players can search for one-on-one or two-on-two battles, which take place away from the core game in otherwise empty maps. This removes the invasion-related dread of PvP as experienced in Dark Souls, which seems to be a motion towards accessibility, although if so it's undone by the apparent lack of level balancing in the mode as it stands. All players, regardless of character level or equipment, are matched together, and as such you're just as likely to face an opponent capable of killing you with a single blow - or, as the current ninja-heavy meta stands, fend you off with seemingly unlimited kunai - as you are someone ready to give you a fair fight. Coupled with persistent lag, in a combat system reliant on split-second timing, and the result is - well, let's just say it's good that it's free.
So - PvP is worth trying at your own peril. But it does point to where Nioh is heading, and where it wants you to head. Team Ninja, it seems, is encouraging hard grinding, focusing on the long-tail perfectionism hinted at in the base game's most notorious trophy (Regular Smith Customer, which required hours of grinding and hundreds of interactions with the game's blacksmith). The Odachi and Way Of The Strong, coupled with a PvP happy for players to be at a gear-based disadvantage, announces pretty clearly that Nioh is about playing long and hard for loot. Which, on the one hand, means there are dozens of hours of play here for the committed enthusiast, but also means players looking for fresh ground to conquer should be aware that Dragon Of The North offers perhaps an evening's worth of new content - and at £7.99, that's probably just about right.