The most reductive way to describe Nioh might be “Dark Souls in feudal Japan.” Yet the Dark Souls games are so highly specific and demanding in their design principles that this comparison doesn’t necessarily constitute an insult. Nioh walks the walk when it comes to difficulty, as well as in its thoughtful and restrained approach to combat and belief that every death and replay has its price and a lesson to impart. The game even has its own pensive, distinctly Eastern approach to the loneliness and regret of the poor fallen warriors whose corpses line your path every step of the way.
That said, the Dark Souls games are more than the sum of their gameplay mechanics. What Nioh instead brings to the table of medieval fantasy is a grounding in Japanese history and mythology, a world of ancient decaying horrors, flighty animal gods, and haughty lords scrambling for power. Beyond Koei Tecmo’s own Samurai Warriors series, it’s a slice of history that gamers see relatively little of, and despite a few concessions to Team Ninja’s familiar tropes (for one, the studio is still lousy when it comes to portraying women), it’s gratefully presented here with a significant degree of dignity.
It’s a shame that the game saddles itself with telling the story of the first gaijin samurai, William Adams. Yes, he’s an actual historical figure: In fact, John Blackthorne in James Clavell’s 1975 novel Shogun is based on Adams. But given how much of a blank slate William ends up being over the course of the game’s story, there’s no logical reason why he needed to be our gateway into this world instead of a native with actual skin in the game (pun intended). In Nioh’s cutscenes, the imprisoned, Welsh-accented Adams is freed from the Tower of London by Saoirse, a selkie, after which she’s kidnapped by fabled British occultist Edward Kelley. He takes her to Japan, where he intends to use her to usurp the magical power protecting the country. William follows, which is how he finds himself embroiled in the political mess of the Sengoku period, and beset upon by all manner of horrors on his way to Kelley.
Those horrors range from desiccated, barely functional zombie villagers to massive axe-wielding oni. The influence of the Dark Souls series is especially felt in the player’s encounters with the occasional hard-hitting boss, with every attack and dodge costing an amount of stamina, called Ki here. Also like Dark Souls, low level enemies can still put a serious dent in one’s plans, which is to say nothing of bigger ones that can cause the occasional, aggravating one-hit kill if players aren’t careful during skirmishes. And, of course, dying means losing all of the precious Amrita—the magical currency needed for William to level up—that you’ve collected up to that point, though it can be regained if one can fight their way back to the exact spot they were killed.
Where the Dark Souls comparisons end is in the level of control that’s been handed to players in their approach to challenges. William doesn’t have to choose a player class at the outset of the game, so how players develop their style with every new upgrade is a much more fluid, satisfying experience, even though the actual inventory/ability management system is a cluttered disaster that recalls the most damnable parts of the first Mass Effect. The game gives players a chance to test everything it’s got in the first few hours, then lets the stages themselves determine their most comfortable approach. It’s much more inviting and accessible that way, even despite the constant danger.
Throughout Nioh, the sword slices and axe/hammer strikes are vicious, and running and dodging rings around helpless enemies is endlessly gratifying. Wearing down a foe’s stamina to zero leaves it open to all sorts of brutal power moves and finishers, an ever-satisfying reward for excellence. There’s less chance of the player getting lost or accidentally running into an insanely high-level enemy than there is in most games of this sort, but there are sudden spikes in difficulty that can stopgap the player for hours, and force a different, untested gameplay style to proceed. What’s mostly a “play how you want” situation becomes “do what you have to,” and the shifts are jarring.
Indeed, there are drawbacks and flaws to the brand of “tough but fair” that Nioh presents. Ultimately, though, the game successfully draws from the fact that every effort, dare, and interminable show of skill required to proceed is worthwhile, to see a little more of this world, to liberate its people—or just for the sheer gratification of conquering a worthy foe. Nioh wears its influences on its sleeve, but also puts forth a Herculean effort toward surpassing them.