Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Nioh - Thoughts

Nioh is a Souls-like—there's no point in attempting to deny that. From the Action RPG similarities (third person camera, equip load affecting stamina, leveling up by choosing which stats to increase) to the shared level design choices (ladder shortcuts, respawning enemies, stages ending in a boss fight with a big health bar at the bottom of the screen), right down to how you have to do a corpse run to pick up your sou—er, amrita. But the similarities to Souls end there, as Team Ninja forges their own path via their sublime combat system. As crazy as it sounds, Bloodborne's action doesn't even come close to the amount of intricacy, nuance, and depth present in Nioh's swordplay. If there's one reason to don the samurai armor and purge Japan of its oni infestation, it's to experience the best third-person combat this generation.

The most unique aspect about Nioh's gameplay isn't its low/mid/high stance weapon juggling, but the Ki Pulse: an instantaneous maneuver that lets you regain stamina lost. It sounds like pretty unremarkable on paper until you start playing the game and realize how quickly you run out of stamina, as well as how terrifyingly ferocious you become once you really nail down the Ki Pulse mechanic. Having to keep an eye on both your health bar & stamina bar in the heat of combat (as well as the enemy's health & stamina) adds a whole new dimension to the swordplay, especially when you're tasked mid-combo to expel the Yokai Realm (an AoE curse that saps your stamina recovery) with a well-timed Ki Pulse. Throw in two magic systems and a massive amount of skills for each of Nioh's five weapons, and you have a game you'll continue to learn new things about long after the credits roll.

But you better hope you get a grasp on Nioh's mechanics quickly because enemies come at you fast and full of fury, cutting you to bits in a handful of hits. When I say it's easy to die in Nioh, I mean it's really easy to die in Nioh—not even the Souls games are this merciless! Bosses in particular can require a high skill bar to topple, as a tense fight with any of them can be concluded in seconds should you get hit with a nasty debuff or lose all your stamina, reducing you to a panting, vulnerable target. I struggled a lot in this game, but it was never an angry or frustrating struggle; a lot of the battles in Nioh were simply puzzles I had yet to solve, where any mistakes I made were usually punished with a swift death. At the start of the journey I was a flimsy, unrefined steel that was suddenly thrust into a forge of hellfire, time eventually purging me of my impulsive button-mashing tendencies. I still die every now and then in the game (again, it's really easy to die), but man did I love how Nioh continued to push me to play better, even near its end.

Nioh is difficult—make no mistake about that—but it's never unfair. Shortcuts are always nearby, enemies can frequently be fought one-by-one, and you never feel like you need more levels or a better weapon in order to overcome a fearsome boss. That's not to say that you won't need to equip better stuff however—Nioh is frequently overburdened by its inventory management, requiring you to scour through your list of gear every two stages or so. Deliberating between which equipment to keep or toss is surprisingly confusing for how relatively naked the game is in the grand scheme of things; whether you equip a "Mid Attack Break +7.2%" katana or "Strong Attack Ki Damage +6.8%" blade doesn't really matter since failing to dodge a single grab is liable to end your run. Plus you'll continue to find better and better gear as you press onwards, meaning that 99% of the loot you pick up before the final level is going to end up in the rubbish bin.

For as obnoxious as the inventory management can become, I would contest that Nioh's greatest failing is its lack of enemy & stage variety. When you first start the game, it feels awesome to come across so many mythological Japanese monsters, but around halfway through the journey you'll have seen all that Nioh has to offer (barring the bosses). This isn't a terrible thing in and of itself since all of the enemies are fun to fight, but Nioh is a reaaallly long game with a heap of side content to explore, meaning you'll eventually know every enemy like the back of your hand. Areas in the side quests are also reused frequently, which can feel quite disheartening, especially since any shortcuts you unlock in the main levels are impermanent (even if you merely replay said level). Throw in the fact that there's not a whole lot of build variety in Nioh (you can learn each of the game's five weapons over its duration), and one playthrough will probably be enough to sate your samurai bloodlust.

So essentially, if you play it a lot, you'll realize Nioh is lacking in variety—not a bad "greatest failing" to have, honestly! Thankfully it doesn't share Breath of the Wild or Skyrim's Achilles heel of core mechanics failing to sustain their wealth of content, since Nioh is built from the ground up with a rock-solid foundation. I might wish some bosses had popped up more frequently, or that there was more to the Twilight Missions other than "more oni!", but every battle is brutal and fulfilling; every demon slain is its own conquered hurdle. Trying to learn the delicate flow to each weapon and their special abilities is a joy that's found only in the best character action games, and fitting this luscious gameplay to a Dark Souls-esque mold produced an experience I was absolutely smitten by. Despite whatever failings Nioh had (speaking of, I forgot to mention that the story is bafflingly atrocious), whenever I think back to the game I think not of its flaws or shortcomings, but of deftly dancing around a foe, recovering my stamina just in the nick of time, and cutting their head clean off their shoulders. I likely performed over a thousand decapitations, but not once did that maneuver ever become tiresome—I earned every violent victory.

Nioh renewed my faith in Team Ninja; I doubted that they had the mastery to create their own successful Souls-like, and I was dead wrong. Like Doom last year, Nioh was the game I never wanted to stop playing, simply based on its combat alone. And like Doom, there's plenty of legitimate complaints to be had that—upon reflection—crumble underneath the relentless gameplay. Mechanically, Nioh is a cruel wet dream, demanding a ton of effort from the player but rewarding them in spades, should they choose to walk the arduous path of the samurai. It might be a long and difficult road to travel, but just as practice breeds perfection, Nioh ultimately begets a satisfied gamer.

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