This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Nioh.
Neo is dark, stylish, a little too fast to keep up with at times, blandly attractive, and was memorably portrayed by Keanu Reeves in the three Matrix films. But enough about that; let’s talk about a video game. "Ni-oh", spelled like someone got startled just as they were explaining what gas constitutes the majority of Earth’s atmosphere, is a new Dark Souls clone from Team Ninja, and sadly, we still haven’t come up with anything better than "Dark Souls clone" for the genre name; I’ve heard people trying to get "Soulsy" going, but that sounds more like what you’d call soul music after it’s been piped into an elevator.
Nioh is good news for all the weeaboos in the room who were furious that Dark Souls was set in Western-inspired fantasy despite being a Japanese game and wanted to be slitting up samurai demons on a fucking pagoda all day. As I said, it’s by Team Ninja, and it’s published by Koei Tecmo, so you should know what to expect: lots of ninjas, lots of traditional Japanese architecture, and all the women show off more thigh than a Kentucky Fried Chicken advert and/or have tits like two tanukis fighting in a bin liner. Our main character is William, an Irish sailor with the mysterious ability to see demons and guardian spirits, because he is Irish, and therefore, constantly drunk. After his own guardian spirit is stolen from him by a bloke who looks like Emperor Palpatine on spring break, William pursues him to Japan at the onset of the historical Edo period, accidentally becomes a samurai embroiled in the conflicts of the time, and goes down in history as the first-ever weeaboo, which is roughly how the locals pronounce his name.
A lot of the characters are based on real-life figures; William Adams was a British sailor who ended up living in Japan and then advising Tokugawa Ieyasu. The game takes two major liberties: William Adams wasn’t Irish (this is the Saboteur thing again where we make the English person Irish because the Irish are the more marketable non-empirical bastard alternative), and secondly, as far as we know, William Adams never fought a giant electrified cat. Some knowledge of actual history might be useful, because after we got to Japan, I swiftly lost track of what the fuck was going on; some names would be thrown at me in a narration over still images, there would be a cutscene of William looking confused in yet another house of some important Japanese bloke, and then we get dumped on a forest path to kill a round of gits.
Which brings us to the combat! It’s faster-paced than Dark Souls combat, but not quite as rushed as Bloodborne combat, which was like dusting off a nervous cheetah. It’s at times quick and at times cautious, but generally kind of stylish, almost like it’s a cross between Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden, funnily enough. But if you thought Dark Souls combat was a bit complex with all that stat-boosting, double-handing, and titanite business – titanite being upgrade material and not something you say to complement your wife’s vagina this evening – then I’ve got bad news for you!
Picking what weapon you want to swing about of the billions that your enemies disgorge like last night was free taco night at the weapon restaurant is just the start of your problems, matey-o. Do you need to be fighting in Low, Mid, or High Stance? Is the "Living Weapon" meter full? Are we using the Ki pulse in the morning and evening and after every meal like a good boy? To what button combo did we assign the kick, the parry, the sheathe strike, and the gentle finger up the bum hole? Does the toughness rating of our string vest matter as much as the defense multiplier? Do we need to be forging our weapon? (Probably not, since the enemy will probably vomit up nine better ones in the next mission.) But what about ninjutsu? What about onmyo? (Wasn’t he one of the Wombles?)
It’s a little daunting, but if Dark Souls combat is like learning to ride a motorbike, then Nioh is like piloting a huge yacht: there are probably lots of little things you could learn to do to smooth out the ride, but at the end of the day, all you really need is "push stick to go forward", which isn’t that difficult, as long as there are no solid objects between you and anywhere else in the universe. I got by sticking to sword and spear and mainly Mid Style, except when trying to get things down from high shelves. In the end, the combat’s good in the same way Pornhub is good: it’s highly varied and versatile, so there’s bound to be something that appeals to your depraved tastes, but if you try to make use of all of it at once, you’ll swiftly go blind.
And speaking of inevitabilities, let’s compare Nioh to Dark Souls some more. The gameplay structure is the same: each time you die, you come back to the last bonfire, I mean, shrine and the enemies respawn, you collect souls, I mean, inraku to level up, and the one enemy that’s a wheel can absolutely go fuck itself. But the rather glaring difference is that Nioh is mission-based rather than the Dark Souls-style single, cohesive world, and between missions, you go to a map screen. So Nioh is to Dark Souls what Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, right down to a higher density of tasty thighs. Hence, Nioh goes for a much more fixed structure: the plot missions must be done in order, each one ends in a boss fight and has a fixed number of hidden collectibles for you to find, consisting of green jelly babies in funny hats who bestow special bonuses. There’s one that increases the rate that enemies drop healing potions, and the rest can all piss off. One increases the weapon drop rate, for fuck’s sake! Why the hell would I need that? I’m already using 90% of the weapons I find for arts and crafts projects.
As for the boss fights, they’re exactly the sort of thing I want in a Soulsy game: I walk in the door the first time, and I’m almost immediately smeared across the back wall like breakfast marmalade. Then I throw myself at it again and again, getting more and more cross because the hitboxes are, as ever, fucked, and the boss with the pointy spear can somehow use it to simultaneously stab an area the size of a shipping container. But just as I’m about to rage quit and start making whiny, defensive posts on the Internet, I figure out the patterns and finally succeed, getting that lovely, self-satisfied high that is, after all, the reason I seek out hard games, and go to bed that night clutching my todger with renewed vigor.
It wasn’t the difficult boss fights that caused me to start losing patience with Nioh; it was everything leading up to them. The story’s too oblique to be involving, and the level design’s kind of shit. Dark Souls has you exploring the rafters of cathedrals and you can fall to your death through the exposed cleavage of a giant statue of Lynda Carter, and meanwhile, I was most of the way through Nioh and thinking to myself, "Ooh, can’t wait to see where the next mission’s set! Will it be a Japanese village, a forest, a cave, or a Japanese village in a forest with a cave?" These are sarcastic thoughts!
Look, I know that just because Nioh’s combat and gameplay invite comparison to Dark Souls doesn’t mean it needs to do every single thing that Dark Souls does. If it wants to focus on the combat mechanics rather than resurrecting the corpse of Sir Christopher Wren to head up the map design, then fine. But I like exploring as well as fighting, and a bit of scenery can really enhance smacking things about; that’s why I put pot plants in my grandma’s bedroom. Things far too often got too corridor-y and same-y maze-y for my taste; I’m pretty sure the frozen village level in Nioh could be faithfully recreated in the Wolfenstein 3D engine, or in a patch of mud by a toddler with a spoon.
- Finest sword in the East: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Soulsy enemies are like old people in that nothing good ever comes of them getting behind a wheel
- Can never have too many wall scrolls
Extra: Will Save the Galaxy for Food
My new book, Will Save the Galaxy for Food, is out now! It’s a sci-fi comedy with all the usual sci-fi comedy themes: redundancy, hopelessness, and existential dread. Available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook from all good retailers and some dodgy ones.