Nioh (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Nioh (2017)

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Final Fantasy XV fans take note - Nioh was in development in some form or another since 2004 and managed to deliver a game that was not a rambling, incoherent, passive-aggressive nightmare to play.  The key words there are "to play", Nioh has its fair share of storytelling problems that stem from a lack of faith in the gameplay itself being good enough to tell a story.  I'd say that stems from its long development, but there are so many cutscene, character design, and environmental choices that culled from tighter games that add to Nioh's sometimes bloated feel instead of providing texture.

Nioh's biggest problem is there's too damn much going on and not enough narrative focus to make the storytelling worthwhile.  The beginning and ends of many levels feature cutscenes that recall the classic NES Ninja Gaiden.  But Nioh's cutscenes are bland affairs, filled with wide shots of hastily introduced characters muttering something about the historical conflict in Japan and treating the player-character - William - mostly as an afterthought.  Ninja Gaiden's cutscenes were economic perfection, using tight closeups of Ryu's face to highlight the intensity of his journey and adding a layer of surprise when unknown figures entered or exited the frame.  Cutscene Ryu is just as determined as his tightly controlled platforming presentation, but William's surgical caution and the player's necessary observation of enemy patterns in the game bear little resemblance to the mostly mute presence cutscene William projects.

While the cutscene storytelling is unengaging, the environmental storytelling is a dull hodgepodge of influences. The levels themselves are often well thought out, the highlight a battle through a labyrinthine ninja training facility that flips in on itself while William works his way to the pipe smoking toad in command.  Dark Souls comparisons are tired, yet Nioh earns a mild nod with the completely unnecessary shortcuts built into the maps.  There's not enough sprawl in the paths William can take to suggest a web of people in the background working together to make the land their own, like when the unexpected environmental loops become apparent in the Dark Souls games.  Worse, the disconnected feeling is amplified by a world map where menus upon menus for level selection remove even more focus from William's journey, a similar problem I had with the otherwise excellent God Hand.At their best, the levels more resemble the early Playstation 2 combo-heavy adventures like Shinobi or Devil May Cry.  The Shinobi comparison works wonders in situations where William is in a space of tightly defined boundaries with a few environmental hazards and attracts the attention of multiple enemies.  Combat is typically a one-on-one affair, and the main attraction, yet the moments flipping and parrying multiple attackers while switching weapons to get a brief advantage on one before switching back to deal with another are deeply satisfying - especially when the Ki Pulse mechanic becomes increasingly important to be mindful of.

I'm bored with stamina management as a way to prolong already slow combat.  Nioh's way of dealing with this is brilliant, by providing William with three different stances (roughly translating to light, medium, heavy damage) to deal attacks and a Ki Pulse to regain his gusto in prolonged fights so I wasn't merely waiting around for the energy to attack.  The combo potential is great fun, particularly with my weapon of choice the tonfa, and create a character arc for William more interesting than anything I saw or heard in the cutscenes.

I love tonfa because they're a defensive weapon in nature (and remind me of the protagonist of Suikoden 2, one of my favorite RPGs), providing cover for arms and favoring a block/beat/thrust system that in Nioh means plenty of satisfying hits.  William's growth as a warrior begins with mundane strikes, a simple three to five hit combo (depending on the stance).  But the Ki Pulse meant I could keep pushing my limits, delivering attacks in different stances and timing the Ki Pulse just right to earn the most stamina back to resume my assault in different ways.  At the start that just meant transitioning from light attacks that maintained my ability to dodge easily to finding an opening for a steady rhythm of heavy hits.By the time Nioh wrapped I had barely plumbed the depths of its stance and Ki Pulse system.  I would launch William in with a heavy jumping thrust, regain stamina from the Ki Pulse to switch to a medium stance for some strikes, and finally transition back to heavy with another carefully timed Ki Pulse and attack to launch into a special attack before switching back to light and hop away to survey the field.  Toss in the many buffs I acquired that encourage switching stances, and special attacks that also can only be performed by stance dancing or in some cases changing to another weapon mid-strike, then it seems Nioh's combat system is near boundless in its creative potential.

Nioh's real story lay in this system of William pushing his body to the limit then finding out where he can go next.  That Team Ninja provides a variety of targets to practice on is secondary, as is the necessity of the Ki Pulse to clear demonic fields that are less interesting obstacle and more action-based housekeeping (sometimes I'd need to hop away from the fight, ie/ the good stuff, to just swing in empty space and clear a few of the stamina draining zones).  Instead this idea of a warrior pushing their limits, confident enough to handle whatever is in their hands, slowly findings new ways to take what they know and growing beyond their capabilities is more compelling than any spirit war semi-informed Japanese history story William's Geralt-cosplay self occupies.

This is excellent, and with some fine-tuning could have been one of the best games I've played.  Instead I'm impatiently waiting for the experimentation and fun of combat to kick back in 1/5 of the time and spending the remaining 4/5 having an absolute blast finding new ways to dance William around his opponents.  That's enough to earn my love, even with my annoyance at the long-winded path to get there.

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Posted by Andrew

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