Game review: Nioh for PC

Oh, my God, y’all. It’s taken me forever to get this review out even though I bought Nioh in freakin’ December of last year. I got well over a hundred and twenty hours into a first playthrough when the game broke my resolve to keep going, and I ended up beating all three Dark Souls games in the next two weeks. I never would have called any of that trilogy short before, but they’re practically minuscule compared to Nioh. That’s not a good thing.

I forced myself to start a second run, this time with a better idea of what kind of build I was aiming for, and another hundred and thirty-seven hours later, I reached the end credits. Does that mean I played everything? Nope, there’s still some end game missions I can’t do yet because they’re way above my current level, and there’s also several DLC additions I will eventually dig into as well. But at this point, I need a break from this game because it’s felt quite often like a job rather than something I do for fun.

You might think the problem is the game’s difficulty, but you’d be wrong. Aside from random cheap attacks (for instance, a monster appears from out of literal thin air and one-shots my character) I didn’t find most of the game to be too hard. Part of this has to do with my play style, in that I know there’s going to be ambushes, so I creep along with my guard up at every corner. I use my bow and rifle to snipe anything I see at a distance, and in general, I crawl at a snail’s pace to suss out the threats ahead of me long before they know I’m in their area. I’m sure it would be harder if I just ran at breakneck pace into every trap and ambush. But that’s not how I roll. I roll slowly, yo.

No, what I consider Nioh’s biggest flaw is the grind. For some of you, that’s actually a big draw, and if so, you do you. I’m okay with most games asking me to grind a bit to raise my level, but there’s four flavors of grind to this game, and all of them kinda suck.

Before we continue on that line of thought, I should talk about the stuff I did like, because obviously I had to like something if I put up with a total of (checks Steam) 262 hours and am still willing to go in and do more. First, the combat works just as everyone has said. It’s fast and fluid, with each weapon having multiple combo options thanks to the stances. Basically, you can hold weapons high for maximum damage, in trade accepting maximum risk by draining stamina. (I know it’s call ki, but it’s stamina under a different name.) A middle stance is a combo with decent damage and faster time to recover and start another combo, while low stances are often very fast but deal the lightest damage. You could in theory just pick one and stick with it, but there are times when some stances are more useful than others, so it pays to learn what they offer early on.

As for the weapons themselves, they’re all good. I developed a preference for the tonfa as my main weapon and kusarigama as my secondary choice, but I also played with every other weapon class and couldn’t pick a loser from the crowd. If you have a preference for a particular play style, the game probably has an option to please you.

The music is pretty good, enough so that I’d frequently stop playing just to listen to the music. Some of it is nice and peaceful, while other tracks just scream “THIS IS EPICNESS UP IN HERE!” Like the weapons, I couldn’t point to any tracks I disliked. It’s all good.

This is where I would normally begin with the gripes, but I need to be clear this time. I don’t hate Nioh. I plan to play it again sometime in the future to dig into the DLC. But I didn’t love it either, and while it’s going to end up with a high score based on the core game mechanics alone, I very much want to give a harsher score for all the other problems I had.

The list of complaints has to start with the story. The big draw for me was that William Adams is a real person, someone with a fascinating history who, by luck and skill, managed to turn a bad situation into a lifetime career in a foreign land. I encourage you to look up William and absorb all of his life, AND THEN look at the garbage fire that is William in Nioh. An immortal psychic Irish pirate has his “guardian spirit” kidnapped by by a super evil wizard. (The game calls him an alchemist, which I think proves they don’t know what that word means.) He travels to Japan to save his spirit, and along the way he reads a book about samurai, which gives him the skills other men normally train for years to gain. He then arrives in Japan, where I can’t be sure if the locals are giving him the “Steve Martin treatment,” or if they’re trying to kill him, or if they’re just that fucking incompetent.

Every other mission ends with some character saying something like “Gosh, a ninja yokai! I’ve never heard of that before.” Oh, sure, despite this being a country full of these things, with some characters pledging their entire lives to fighting said monsters, this mission giver and several others somehow don’t know a fucking thing about the beasts that roam their land.

This story strains even further when you actually fight any of the humans in duels because they have super powers granted to them by guardian spirits. They will casually kick William’s ass in these fight without breaking a sweat, but these demons, who I wrecked easily, somehow are too powerful for the locals? Yeah, I’m not feeling that.

I can never be sure if the game is playing out a “dances with white man” routine, but I feel like the locals have to be trying to kill William so they can get back to being royal assholes. In the first three regions of the games, there’s always one mission that goes, “Hey I lost my sword to some yokai. You can go fetch that for me, right?” These swords are supposedly so important to these people, and yet the first region has me go fetch the same sword three times because the owner keeps losing it. At least with the next two missions of the same type, I get the sword as a reward after the first fight, but that in itself is a problem. If the sword is so important to the quest giver’s family, why are they handing it over to a stranger they just met? It doesn’t make sense.

Later missions drop the “I lost my sword” joke, but they’re not much better in terms of story. One asks me to fetch an incense burner, and both the intro and the ending of that mission had me asking, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

This brings me to my other big gripe: I have to keep playing in the same areas with slight variations. Any time I’d get to a new region, there were levels that were fun to play the first time. But then I’d have to go back over and over for sub-missions, or Twilight missions, each of them rearranging the locations of shrines and monsters. It’s all a bit too samey after a while, and yet, I had to keep going into these levels for other reasons.

This is where the grinds come in. Yes, grinds, as in plural. The biggest needs to grind aren’t for levels, at least not until around level 70, when the cost of each new level becomes ridiculously high. Instead it’s to collect equipment to scrap for materials to make new armor and weapons. Part of this is my fault because I opted to go with light armor. That requires an item called leather kozane, and most armor dropped in the game instead yields iron kozane. So I might have to do the same level ten or twenty times to get enough leather for a full new set of armor, and sometimes the blacksmith would bang out one crap item after another, forcing me to go back on another collection quest. The result of that is armor with slightly higher defensive numbers, but rarely offering any new bells or whistles.

Supposedly, you can use soul matching to upgrade an older set of armor to a higher level, but the cost of doing so quickly becomes impossible. I had one armor that I loved because every time I killed an enemy, it would activate a healing ability. In effect, I never had to rely on my healing items because the armor was doing all the work for me. The first time I had to soul match the entire set, I was out roughly three hundred thousand gold. No big deal, but the second time I wanted to upgrade the same armor, the price for the upper body armor alone was three million. I’ve seen prices as high as 45 million for a second upgrade on a weapon, and there’s no way I can make that kind of money without engaging in other kinds of grinds, none of them being fun.

After grinds for materials and cash, there’s also grinding for honor, a currency used in a hidden teahouse shop. You can get honor by fighting revenants, a form of asynchronous PVP where you fight other players’ slain Williams. But the honor amounts rewarded for these kinds of fights are rarely worth the trouble, so the other option is to join a clan and donate items in exchange for honor. Each clan will have two items to donate, with one of those being the clan’s chosen weapon, while the other can be just about anything. The second selection changes every twenty-four hours, so you have to collect enough of this one item in a day to get gold. So for instance, one day I might need to hunt down 30 rifles to get my 60,000 gold, and the next I might need bows or exotic armor. In any case, I have to keep going out on these collection runs to pay the blacksmith, and to have enough honor to pay for stuff in the teahouse.

When it came to getting new weapons, I rarely used the blacksmith to forge them, and I rarely found them from loot drops in the levels. What I did was trade honor for weapons, and I’d keep doing that until I got an exotic item. Then I would go to the blacksmith and use reforging to get the weapon loaded up with abilities that suited me. On average, this meant I’d spend around 2,000 honor to get something good and then sink 300,000 or more gold to get it into a usable state. This is because with reforge values being random, it is possible to keep rolling the same shitty abilities over and over before finally getting something useful.

You can use another rare material to pick abilities from a list of three options, but that has two problems. The first is that sometimes all three options suck, so you have to use the random reforge, then back out of that menu and go into the tempering menu to see if the three options are any better. I’ve spent ten minutes fiddling with this process and still had the same three tempering options. But problem two is that the material, umbracite, only comes from doing twilight missions, and you can only do two per day. You can still do the mission over, but until the twilight missions reset, you can’t get any more umbracite. It’s not worth the trouble, especially when the list of tempering options end up being so very meh most of the time.

Before I move on, I should also mention that the teahouse will let you buy “disguises,” or skins of other characters in the game. Most of the skins are dudes and go for around 7,000 honor. I wanted to play as a woman, but just to unlock one required 66,000 honor. None of the dudes are that expensive, so it just feels like the makers are punishing me for wanting to play as one of two women in the game. (Side note: (Yes, I know the DLC offeres another woman to play as, but I have yet to see her or the cost for her skin. I’d wager though that it’s much higher than any of the dudes.)

But then we come to the final grind, the amrita grind, or the XP. I have to compare this to the amount of souls I need to level up in the Souls games, the inspirational source material for Nioh. In any of those games, the grind can be pretty mild unless I’m working on some kind of hybrid build. Levels come easily as a natural result of fighting the bosses, so it’s entirely possible to level up without running through one area over and over to get extra souls.

This is not so in Nioh, where the prices on each level quickly spiral to ridiculous amounts, and where the rewards for fighting bosses is so skimpy. As William moves to new regions, the minimum recommended level for each mission gets to the point where he has to go back to the previous region and repeat the same quests over and over to make an additional five or ten levels. As I neared the end of the game, I’d try pushing into these higher level missions even though I was 15 to 20 levels too low, and the result was that I’d do shit damage to everyone, while even the weakest human bandit could shear off two thirds of my health in one hit, while the yokai could all just one-shot William.

Because of the forced grinds, even the coolest levels end up becoming boring because I have to keep doing them. The final mission takes place in a floating castle, and it ends with a boss rush leading up to a giant multi-headed dragon. It’s fucking awesome, but it ends with a shower of an entirely new class of weapons, Divines. If I want to reforge those and get the abilities I like, I need to disassemble them to get divine fragments. That means that at least until I can increase my character’s level to take on the end game missions, the only way to get these divine weapons is running the final level again, and again, and again. Just the thought of doing that boss rush all for a four measly weapons that I won’t even use fills me with the kind of apathy I felt trying to play the higher floors of Let It Die.

I come to the end of this review feeling extremely conflicted about giving a score. There were some nights when I was playing that I would be immersed in new levels and loving the combat. But for every night like that, there was another where I was just going through the motions because I needed to do one grind or another. I’d go from having fun to wondering when I could get back to having fun because of all the grinding, and that combined with the shit story has me very tempted to give the game a low score.

But…I mean, I got around sixty hours of good times out of that laborious run, so it was worth the money, and yeah, I can see myself eventually going in to try the endgame missions and DLC. So if I strip away the annoying bits, I end up wanting to give Nioh 4 stars. I don’t consider it to be an extremely difficult game, although it could be if I opted to do every mission under-leveled. By the time I got to the final region, I’d likely be doing 5-10 damage regardless of my weapon type, while the enemies would all be able to kill William in one hit. But playing at the minimum level is usually manageable. It’s a good time, if you don’t mind putting up with days-long stretches of work just to get back to the fun.

In the end, I doubt this review is worth much. By this point, you’ve either played the game and know how you feel about it, or you’ve decided not to bother, in which case my impressions aren’t going to sway you. But if you liked the Souls games and were for some reason still on the fence about Nioh, I’d say give it a shot. The combat is a lot faster and more fluid, and every weapon has true combos, while most Souls weapons are limited to a much smaller range of moves. There is a good time to be had in there, but the makers apparently expect you to put in a lot of hours of work to make it to those fun parts. If that’s not your jam, I don’t blame you for skipping this.