Nioh has been out for a while now and many critics have heralded it as a modern classic. Having recently sold its one millionth copy, Team Ninja’s fictionalised tale of real-man William Adams’ adventure through feudal Japan has grabbed more than just the odd Soulsborne fan. As someone who has sunk his fair share of time into the series it derives from, this isn’t the piece I wanted to write. In fact, and don’t tell my editor this, I kept putting off my review in hopes that I would eventually warm to Nioh, that the penny would drop and I would discover what I was missing, that I would be able to sit behind my computer and knock out a glowing review. But here we are.
Nioh begins like Dark Souls, with a prison escape. Unlike its inspirator, however, Nioh’s introduction lacks any spirit or imagination, the tortured dregs that laid on the deathly atmosphere of the Undead Asylum being replaced by characterless guards patrolling long, dreary corridors devoid of any detail. Outside torrential rain falls upon sparsely populated spaces to create a setting as thoroughly miserable as it is thankless. And let’s not forget that where one squares its noobs off against a giant, club-wielding demon, the other presents some stumbling guy called Derrick. It’s the sort of stuff bargain bin games are made of.
From there, Nioh sweeps William through a series of linear levels (a moonlight village, a winding cave system, a washed out monastery), all of which feel hopelessly lifeless. This, however, is nothing new: most reviewers agree that Nioh has a hard time getting its feet off the ground. It picks up eventually, they say, the more you invest in it, the more you’ll get out. So if you’re unemployed or still at school then happy days! But for the rest of us, spending 20-something hours wading through an aggressively mediocre Souls clone to get to the good bits is madness. If a game isn’t good 10 — never mind 20 — hours in, the game isn’t good.
However much Nioh may or may not improve over the course of its lengthy campaign is irrelevant, such a colossal false start is inexcusable. The early-game should set the standard for the upcoming experience, it should be loud and impressionable. The worst thing any form of entertainment can do, particularly in its introduction, is fail to entertain. I’d have much rather walked away absolutely hating Nioh than feeling nothing at all, because at least then it would have been emotive enough to elicit a response. As it stands, Nioh struggles to exact any kind of emotional response and its feeble attempt to draw the player in falls utterly flat.
It’s not just Nioh’s insipidness, however, that turned me off. Underpinning the gameplay is a slew of mechanics so poorly presented you’ll often find yourself ignoring half of them entirely. Random loot drops, unlockable movesets, alternate stances: it’s all so superfluous to the core experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather play a Souls-like that brings something new to the table than emulate it entirely, but what’s here is a tentatively stitched together mess that threatens to come undone at any second. Sure, you could probably get by without using a lot of these mechanics, but in doing so what you’re left with is a hollow imitation of the thing it so desperately wants to be.
If anything, Nioh has given me a greater appreciation for the singular elegance of Souls. While the former arguably has more depth than the latter, the accessibility and fluidity of its gameplay is weighed down and made bloated by its kaleidoscopic design. In adding so much variance to the basic act of playing, Nioh loses the spark that makes Souls such an immediate jolt. Likewise, while you have more loot and attacks at your disposal than in Souls, because every weapon of each type has an identical move set, you ultimately have less options in how you engage in combat. In other words, you may have around 20 moves you can do with your kusarigama, but that moveset extends across every kusarigama in the game. Like the rest of Nioh, the weapons on offer lack character and your relationship with them is dependent purely on numbers.
Too often does Nioh feels like its going through the motions. There’s the occasional flicker of brilliance but taken as a whole, what makes Souls so special has been lost in translation. You’ll never experience anything like descending the creaking scaffolds of Blighttown, or delving deep into the moribund ruins of New Londo, because there’s no excitement, no mystery or wonderment in Nioh’s world. (Although, there is this one ninja guy who carries a cat around like a pocket watch. And the cat talks. The cat talks, guys.) It’s anodyne, the linearity of its levels stymying any sense of discovery; not that it really matters: what’s round the next corner tends to be more of the same sterile, immediately forgettable environments, spattered with the same handful of generic enemies you’ve slain countless times already. Take Miyazaki away from Dark Souls and what you might be left with is a game like Nioh: a Souls-like lacking soul, a visionless, listless, needlessly convoluted attempt to bottle lightning. Dark Souls II basically.