"If you own a PS4, and you aren't playing Bloodborne, then you are using your PS4 wrong!" That was the final line of my Bloodborne review. PS4 exclusives have been generally better than XBoxOne exclusives, but I haven't been particularly impressed yet. Until Dawn showed some promise and might be the only other PS4 exclusive that I'd even consider recommending. I gave up on Gran Turismo when GT4 started to turn into more of a car-collecting game rather than a racing game (I describe it as "Pokemon for cars"), and I've long since burnt out of the Uncharted games. I heard good things about the Ratchet & Clank reboot, but mascot platformers aren't really my thing, so I passed on that one. And I haven't gotten to play Horizon Zero Dawn yet.
Nioh has fast, dodge-heavy combat, in which each weapon had multiple move-sets.
Well now there's a new PS4-exclusive on the market, and it's supposed to be competition for the Souls-Borne series. Nioh definitely shares a lot of superficial design elements with Dark Souls, and its fast, dodge-heavy combat using weapons that have multiple movesets seems thoroughly inspired by Bloodborne. But Nioh is also heavily inspired by Ninja Gaiden. Although the original Ninja Gaiden was a good game for its time (and some of the sequels have been good too), it's these Ninja Gaiden influences that start to hamper the experience for me.
A random loot-dropping quarter-muncher
Nioh really started to lose me with its second true boss fight: Hino-Enma, a flying vampire and/or succubus who deals paralysis. The problem was that most damage just seemed unavoidable. All her attacks dealt damage through my blocks, which meant that dodging was the only way to keep alive. But she has a cheap spinning attack that (as far as I could tell) could not be dodged if you are in melee range when she starts the attack. All of her attacks felt considerably overpowered considering the limited (if present at all) wind-ups and cool-downs for them, especially the frustrating paralysis-inducing attacks. Even when she left openings, my attacks didn't stagger her, so she often countered with her own combo when I was in the middle of an attack, which just leeched precious more health. She just kept chipping away at my health like an arcade quarter-muncher, making the fight feel less about skill and more about just being efficient enough to defeat her before I ran out of elixirs. The only way to get more elixirs was to backtrack through the level and grind for them.
Bosses feel severely overpowered for their missions, and are tedious and uninteresting to boot.
After using a Travel Amulet to pick up my lost Amarita and return to the shrine, I power-leveled to 10 levels over the mission recommendation. This finally allowed me to beat Hino-Enma, but left me severely over-leveled for the next mission, which I cleared with absolutely no trouble at all. But then I got to that mission's boss (a lightning-spewing dog name Nue), and got repeatedly pulverized again. Even after grinding through some of the nearby Yokai (which posed virtually no threat to me at my level) to accumulate extra elixirs, I still didn't have enough to get through this boss's mile-long health bar. I don't mind being stonewalled occasionally, and I don't mind bosses being hard, but I expect the challenge to be more evenly-distributed. Am I missing some simple technique for dealing with bosses? Are the missions leading up to bosses supposed to be so trivial to deal with?
It seems like many of the bosses actively work against the core design principles of the game. The core mechanics encourage the player to be aggressive against enemies, using the Ki Pulse to keep your stamina up and string together long combos. But the bosses don't really allow this. You can't stay close enough to them to use a Ki Pulse to extend a combo. Instead, you have to keep your distance, wait for an opening, close in for one or two attacks, then back away to avoid the boss' counter attacks.
Setpiece bosses also drag on too long.
Even the bosses that were based around setpieces didn't really work for me because of how much of a grind they became. An example is the giant centipede in the silver mines. I breezed through the level with only a couple deaths and cleared this boss in a single attempt because the trick is to just climb up a ladder and then drop down on it from above ad nauseum. So it was trivial to beat the boss, but it still took forever to fight because of its unnecessarily long health bar. I went into the boss very low on elixirs and barely made it out alive, as I had to experiment to find a reliable way to damage it. But now that I've found that method, I feel like I could probably take on this boss with no elixirs at all, and maybe even without taking any damage.
It doesn't help that so much of my performance seemed contingent on my equipment. This also wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that loot drops, and the specific stats and effects of equipment, are completely random - MMO-style. So lucking out and getting a super-rare (purple), super-powerful weapon or armor can act as a crutch that gets you through missions that you maybe don't deserve to beat, and without you having to necessarily learn the skills that you're expected to learn in order to progress. On the other side of the coin, being stuck with common or uncommon equipment can leave you stuck without any real understanding of why everything seems so hard.
Loot drops and weapon upgrades are randomized, but still cost rare resources.
Even worse is that crafting and upgrading equipment is also random. Each time you craft a piece of equipment at the blacksmith, the stats and rarity of the item is randomized just like a loot drop. Trying to improve the abilities of a weapon only replaces that ability with a different, randomly-selected ability. And all of this crafting and upgrading costs resources! You're gambling your gold and materials whenever you use the blacksmith!
The only reliable way to improve your equipment is to "Soul Match" a weapon or armor by infusing it with a stronger, higher-level weapon or armor. This can improve the raw strength of the lower-level equipment, but maintains its specific abilities and attributes (which may be better than the randomized abilities and attributes of the higher-level gear). I like that early-game equipment can hypothetically be kept competitive with more advanced equipment, but Soul Matching your favorite gear up to par with newly-acquired gear very quickly becomes prohibitively expensive. The whole system just seems asinine.
Underlying combat is sound, but overly complicated
These problems are a real shame, because the underlying combat mechanics do seem sound - if maybe a bit over-complicated. As I said at the top of the review, the combat seems heavily-inspired by Bloodborne. It's very fast and very dodge-heavy. Each weapon also has multiple stances: a high stance, medium stance, and low stance. The high stance delivers slow, harder-hitting attacks that can be easily interrupted (or which you can flat-out whiff on). The low stance deals swift, relatively weak combos that can interrupt enemy attacks and chain together for massive damage. And the mid stance lies in between. And within each stance, there's a light and a heavy attack, along with a series of unlockable special moves. This provides each weapon with a large amount of versatility, and you can also equip a second weapon, as well as a pair of ranged weapons, to fill a lot of combat niches.
Each weapon class feels distinct, and each weapon in a class has multiple stances.
Despite being able to switch stances with any weapon to make it as fast or slow as you want, each weapon class still feels very distinct. Dual katanas feel different from axes, which feel different from spears, which feel different from the Kusarigama (the chain-like weapon). I like the dual katanas for their swift slash attacks against weaker enemies and ambushes. I like the axe for its powerful heavy attacks against Yokai. And I like the spears for their thrusting range in confined spaces and their sweeping attacks in open spaces. Weapons within a given class, however, do feel pretty much identical.
There's also a concerted effort to make a lot of information available to the player. You may not notice it at first, but the UI includes timers for weapon buff durations, timers for ability cool-downs, a list of recently-acquired items, and other very helpful information. Every piece of equipped gear is visible on the character model, including on enemies and revenants / co-op partners. If I have a katana equipped as my primary weapon, and an axe as my secondary weapon, then my character model will show a katana hanging from the waist and an axe strapped to his back. The bow and gun will also be slung over his shoulders. In multiplayer and PvP (which was not available at launch), you can see what your allies and enemies have equipped, and they won't be able to surprise you by pulling a gatling gun out of their ass.
You can see an opponent's Ki and every piece of equipment they're wearing.
The game also displays the Ki of an enemy under their health bar - including for bosses. I found that this wasn't as reliable as I'd like it be, and the Ki Pulse kind of undercuts the whole thing anyway. Enemies would still attack me when their Ki was supposedly drained, and I'd sometimes attack them without them going into a stagger or critical hit. So I've yet to really figure out the rules for Ki, but it's nice to see that the enemies are all working within the same rules as you.
Ranged weapons also feel very useful and powerful. Using a ranged weapon to pick off a boss's health when it's exposed often meant the difference between beating it or falling for the upteenth time. Unfortunately, ammunition (along with supplies in general) are very limited. So if I used up all my arrows, only to die to a boss anyway, it was yet another item (along with elixirs) that I'd have to farm for before the next engagement with the boss.
Farming and grinding through shitty levels
In general, Nioh is very skimpy with supplies. It hands out weapons and armors like candy, but good luck maintaining a meaningful reserve of consumables like elixirs, arrows, bombs, weapon buffs, enemy de-buffs, status cures, Travel Amulets, or summoning candles - at least in the first few map areas. It also means that managing your inventory is an absolute nightmare.
Ranged weapons are surprisingly powerful, and a well-placed shot can be an insta-kill for many grunt enemies.
Backtracking through parts of a level to farm for elixirs, arrows, and bombs became a painfully common activity following a respawn. You can spend skill points to increase your carrying capacity, and you can find collectibles to increase how many elixirs you'll get back from shrines, but these points are slow to acquire, and your capacity is slow to grow to useful sizes. And even if your capacity is good, you still have to get the item drops. You can buy many consumables from the blacksmith, but you can't visit the blacksmith while within a level. So if you run out of ammunition or bombs or whatever mid-mission, or need to upgrade equipment, you have to either grind for replacements or surrender the mission and restart it. All progress you'd made in the mission will be lost, and any shortcuts you had unlocked will be re-locked.
And going back through a mission is just not enjoyable. They do a good job of providing useful shortcuts at just the right times, but the corridor-crawls between shortcuts and checkpoints feel very repetitive and generally uninteresting. This might be owing to the fact that enemy variety is pretty low, and the same enemies appear in virtually every level. Most of the levels also aren't very visually varied. Maze levels are easy to get lost in because so much of the environment looks the same. The bland levels might be the reason that the load times are so short (short load times is a huge advantage that this game has over the Souls games). At least when you die, you get back into the action very quickly.
The missions often felt very random, and the world lacks immersion.
The presence of short and repetitive sub-missions doesn't help the matter. These missions usually take place in cordoned-off areas of main story missions and simply involve you finding a particular enemy and killing it - usually on the premise that one of your mission-givers lost his precious sword in the level and wants you to go find it. Once the mission objective is completed, every enemy in the level vanishes, and you're free to loot the place at your leisure. Yes, it's as boring as it sounds! And if that weren't bad enough, there's also "Twilight Missions", which are just repeats of other missions, but with harder enemies. By the time I moved onto the second map region, I had already played through the first mission three times - not including all the time spent re-traversing the mission after dying.
The sub-missions that work well are the ones that play around with expectations. Some of them alter enemy placements in creative and sneaky ways, while also changing the player's start position, the location of shrines, and the availability of shortcuts. In some situations, this creates new and interesting challenges, and the sub-mission feels different enough from its parent main mission to be interesting and challenging. And at the very least, these sub-missions give the player an opportunity to grind or farm without having to redo a main mission verbatim.
Talking cartoon animals?
The mission structure means that the game lacks a cohesive world, and so you just warp from random place to random place, performing random errands for random people. And this brings me to the story, which I just didn't care for at all. Random people sent me on random missions that only loosely (if at all) seemed to connect to my character's own tenuous objective.
I don't know if the spirit guardian in this game are part of Japanese culture, so this might come off as culturally insensitive, but I found the talking cartoon spirit animals to be annoying and silly. The weird little bobble-head critters that show up at the shrines also make loud, obnoxious sounds that made me hate being anywhere near a shrine, and it just seemed to get worse as I found more of the little buggers. Anyway, the gameplay function of the spirit guides is to provide you with a temporary invulnerability buff, which is a silly arcade contrivance that feels out of place in this game. They also provide small - but noticeable - stat boosts. Since you lose your spirit guardian when you die, and have to re-collect it at your grave site (along with your experience), this provides a decent little incentive to not die.
The cartoon spirit animals seemed silly to me.
The Dark Souls-inspired mechanics also feel a little out-of-place. The revenant mechanic makes narrative sense considering that demons and undead are invading the world. Dueling against CPU-controlled avatars of dead player characters is an interesting idea -- I had actually proposed an almost identical mechanic for Dark Souls -- but it's a shallow replacement for true PvP, which (at the time of this publication) is just plain ... missing. There's also no real narrative reason for the death and resurrection systems or for the multiplayer co-op (especially considering that everybody is playing as the same character). This multiplayer experience in general feels segregated from the main game. You have to go so far out of your way to make yourself available for summoning that it's limiting the player base and making it sometimes hard to find co-op partners - especially competent ones. You can't express your interest in being summoned and then practice cutting down enemies while you wait, the way that you could in Dark Souls.
Everyone else has their own cartoon animals too.
Dark Souls' difficulty, respawn, and multiplayer mechanics work because they are designed to be part of the game's larger narrative and themes. Nioh feels like somebody at Team Ninja said "we want to make a modernized spiritual successor to Ninja Gaiden. Ninja Gaiden was unforgivingly hard. Dark Souls is a modern game that is unforgivingly hard, and everybody loves Dark Souls! So let's replicate Dark Souls features in our Ninja Gaiden successor, and everyone would have to love it!" But nobody seemed to grasp how those features in Dark Souls played into and complimented that game's narrative or general mood.
I also got frustrated that there is no easy way to exit a mission if you're having trouble with it. The game includes some "escape" items that operate similarly to the Homeward Bone and Dark Sign of Dark Souls, but the rigid mission structure of the game makes these items feel much more punitive. In Dark Souls, you always had the option of finding your own escape route from any area that you didn't feel comfortable proceeding through. And there are generally other optional paths that you can explore as well. The teleport items acted as a way to eliminate the risk of fleeing (the Homeward Bone) or just give up all you'd earned for the sake of convenience (the Dark Sign). You can usually return to an in-level shrine in Nioh if you want to level-up, but without the ability to simply walk out of a mission in Nioh, you have to use a teleport item if you need to return to the blacksmith to upgrade equipment or buy supplies. But those teleport items are in very short supply.
The multiplayer mechanics feel segregated from the main game,
and PvP is replaced with dueling CPU-controlled revenants of other players.
The developers apparently tried to mitigate this by separating character levels and equipment purchases / upgrades into two currency types: you gain Amarita (experience for leveling your character) and gold (money for buying / upgrading equipment). You lose Amarita when you die, but you keep your accumulated gold. This way, if you find yourself unable to get back to your grave, or if you have to abandon a level, you get to keep all your gold and can at least spend it on better equipment and supplies. Regardless, not being able to spend that gold in-mission is absolutely infuriating, and costs inflate very rapidly, which just makes it feel like now I have two resources to grind for! It also means that your Amarita doesn't do anything except for leveling up the character. There's no reason, as far as I can tell, for ever saving up your Amarita. Every time you come across a shrine, if you have enough Amarita to level up, then you should level up. This only exacerbated my problems with being overleveled for most of the first half of the game.
Not jumping ship from Dark Souls
So yeah, I'm very disappointed by Nioh. The game's core mechanics are sound, but virtually everything that is built around those mechanics just doesn't work for me. Equipment and inventory management alone is almost enough to ruin this game for me. But the lackluster level designs, tedious mission structure, and overall uninteresting story just didn't do anything to pull me back in. Bloodborne is still the unquestioned best game on the PS4 - by a long shot.
Maybe my opinion will change in time. And if it does, I'll be happy to come back and re-review this game.