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Nioh
Score: 95%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: KOEI TECMO America Corp.
Developer: Team Ninja
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1; 2 (Online)
Genre: Action/ RPG/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
Itís been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Team Ninjaís Nioh ought to have the folks at FromSoftware blushing like schoolgirls. Different in all the right ways, yet similar in all the right ways, this superb action role-playing game takes the gameplay style of the Souls series, gives it a much-needed shot of adrenaline, and establishes itself as wholly its own beast. If youíre a fan of this particular type of game and own a PlayStation 4, you owe it to yourself to give this one a go.

Right off the bat, Niohís setting is firmly established as an incredibly dangerous time and place to be. KOEI TECMOís eternal penchant for the Sengoku Period has never been more obvious, but it's an excellent fit for this kind of game. It isn't quite as suffused with gothic and supernatural horror as the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but I count this as a positive; it makes Nioh come across as the anti-Dynasty Warriors. (More on that later.) All that being said, thereís a healthy dose of the supernatural; the demonic Yokai are hulking terrors who are as fast as they are powerful. But on the flip side, thereís some honest-to-God charm sprinkled in for good measure; the tiny little tree sprites known as Kodama are so adorable that youíll want to find them all, and not necessarily just for the gameplay benefits they provide.

Style aside, Team Ninja has approached Niohís visuals with gravity and respect; coming from the makers of Dead or Alive, thatís no small feat. Animation work is superb; a must for this genre. Each frame counts. Combat looks intense, violent, and fast. Its gore factor rests comfortably between Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II, with heads and limbs being lopped off at regular intervals as a reward for thoughtful combat decisions. Cap all of this off with load times that are functionally non-existent. While youíll have to spend a few seconds loading into each massive area, dying results in a near-instantaneous trip back to the nearest Shrine. Compare this with Dark Souls and Bloodborne, which compound your suffering by forcing you to sit through comparatively lengthy load times just to get back into the fray. Nioh doesnít feel the need to be cruel 100% of the time, and for that, it is to be commended.

Niohís sound design goes beyond competent; the effects and soundtrack conspire to bring a very particular feel to the on-screen proceedings. Itís alien and familiar, supernatural and mundane. Much of this can be attributed to the unique storytelling tropes, but even on its own merits, itís fantastic. Combat, in particular, sounds horrifying. Steel strikes steel with frightening ferocity, and each contact with flesh will make you want to cringe -- especially if itís your flesh thatís being carved up. Voice work is largely excellent, which is kind of a departure from the usual Team Ninja brand of camp. This time out, theyíve mostly forgone the squeaky-voiced bimbos and brooding badasses in favor of full-throated expressions of despair and sorrow. Combine that with stranger-in-a-strange land protagonist William Adams, whose Irish accent and Caucasian origins provide a magnificent contrast with the enemies and settings.


Gameplay:
The genesis of Niohís story apparently lies in an unfinished script by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and features actual historical figures. Itís the early 1600's. Japan has seen better days. Not only is the country caught in the throes of a devastating civil war, but itís on the receiving end of a full-fledged demonic invasion. Helping to move things along on the side of evil is notorious English occultist Edward Kelley, and hot on his trail is William Adams, an Irishman who puts his faith in steel rather than his fists.

After a lengthy tutorial section set in a London prison, William tracks his quarry to Japan, where friendly faces are in vanishingly short supply. Raiders, foot soldiers, and demonic Oni stalk the land, slaughtering everything in their collective paths, and itís up to William to carve his way through if he hopes to have any chance of catching Kelley. And of course, along the way, he meets up with other historical figures, some of which seek to enlist his help in ending the conflict and slaying demons, and others who simply want him dead.

Nioh is similarly structured to Dark Souls. You are left alone in a labyrinthine world full of dangers and secrets, and itís up to you how you proceed. Where there may appear to be one way forward, there are often many, and as you progress, you discover new ways to get around, new items to experiment with, new enemies to slay, and new gear with which to do it. Like in Dark Souls, killing enemies yields a special kind of currency (here called Amrita) that doubles as experience, and the same rules surrounding death apply to its retrieval, as well as its permanent loss. Nioh's major differences lie in the minutiae, and ironically, thatís where those differences matter the most.

Combat is a fast, multi-tiered affair that takes into account a number of extremely important factors, most of which will be explained later. But at this point, all you need to know is that itís fast, unforgiving, and satisfying. It forces you to juggle offense, defense, and smart footwork if you want to survive, and even then, thatís not always enough. Players who think outside the box and work to thin the herd before tackling the largest threats will be rewarded for their patience and diligence, while those who rush in headlong will be punished. Nioh is about resource management, reflexes, environmental awareness, and above all, prudence.

Nioh has a cooperative mode, but it comes with one major caveat; whoever is summoned into your world must have beaten the level you wish to play. It's fun, but I'm still waiting for developers to wise up and include a no-frills cooperative mode for these kinds of games.


Difficulty:
Given its pedigree and inspirations, the only reasonable assumption with which any sane person can approach Nioh is that it does not screw around. This is why I referred to it earlier as the anti-Dynasty Warriors; where enemies in those games exist primarily as cannon fodder, there isnít a single hostile entity in Nioh that isnít fully capable of absolutely destroying you. Now, our hero is no slouch, but itís up to the player to ensure his survival.

So of course itís hard, but Niohís accessibility is particularly praiseworthy, especially when you look at its competition, which prides itself on being esoteric and cryptic. If youíve played a role-playing game, Nioh speaks that universal language of hard statistics and unambiguous structure. Youíll have a decent grasp on what weapons and items are supposed to do before you experiment with them.

As with the games that preceded it, the most dangerous thing about playing Nioh is its tendency to get you on tilt. The more frustrated and impatient you are, the more you are going to die. The more you die, the more precious Amrita is lost. And you donít want to lose that Amrita.


Game Mechanics:
Niohís combat system may not boast the command list of a more straightforward character action game like Ninja Gaiden, but itís deep and rewarding in different ways. After all, William Adams is only a man, and he has his limits. And options. Lots and lots of options.

This becomes readily apparent during the opening sequence. Nioh is quite liberal with loot drops, and regardless of your stated preferences (solicited at the beginning of the game), youíll become acquainted with swords (single or double), spears, axes, hammers, and, making a return from Ninja Gaiden II, the almost-medieval kusarigama, a weight-and-sickle nightmare thatís as much fun to wield as it is to watch in motion. Where Nioh has the edge in this regard is its simplicity and ease of access; where Dark Souls is often deliberately obtuse, Nioh is refreshingly straightforward.

Weapon types heavily influence how each battle progresses, but things get micro when you take into account stances. As you might expect, different stances result in different damage output, different defensive capabilities, and different evasive maneuvers. And each stance is suited for a specific encounter type. Medium stance is the one youíll likely stick with the most, as itís balanced between power and speed. But eventually, youíll have to change it up. If youíve accidentally kited more enemies into your area and have no way out, low stance may help you preserve your Ki and give you the agility to avoid multiple attacks from different directions. Going mano-a-mano with a standard soldier? The high stance sacrifices speed for power and often, overkill.

Understanding how Ki works is integral to succeeding in most of Niohís enemy encounters. Think of it as stamina, easily the most precious resource in the Souls games. It works similarly at a glance, but since Nioh is geared far more towards offense than defense, you may find yourself sapping your Ki pool quite often. The Ki Pulse is a mechanic designed to keep the rhythm of combat as you slash, weave, and block. After an attack is completed, a particle effect swirls around William. When it contracts and flashes, a button press will trigger a rapid Ki recovery, allowing him to continue the offensive. Enemies use Ki, as well; forcing your foes to expend their Ki at too rapid a pace will eventually result in their exhaustion, which in turn opens the door for massive damage. Of course, the same can happen to WilliamÖ

In addition to the superb melee combat, Nioh gives you some ranged options to help thin the herds before getting into the thick of things. Bows and rifles are incredibly satisfying to use when you can, especially when youíre getting revenge on a cowardly sniper. Progress far enough, and youíll start unlocking more supernatural weapons to use against the Yokai and their superiors.

I personally prefer this game to Dark Souls, and think that the only thing thatís holding it back from FromSoftwareís level of success is its exclusivity. Nioh is a strong early contender for best game of 2017, and if youíve got the mettle and the nerve, itís not to be missed.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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