20 February 2017


This article was originally written on 20-02-2017, but after this date a lot of the combat mechanics in Nioh have changed. This, paired with the admit-ably rushed nature of the article, means this piece will be revisited later-on. Until then one can read this article, just keep in mind it may contain content not up to Stinger's standards.

Nioh has gotten a lot of attention lately due to its apparent likeness to the Dark Souls franchise; often being dubbed “Samurai Souls”. It being a new intellectual property and a return to form for Team Ninja of Ninja Gaiden fame, the game has a lot to live up to. The studio has been struggling to find its ground since some key personnel left the studio to work elsewhere (look at the Devil’s Third article for more on that) and Nioh would be a perfect place for them to get back on their feet.
This article will mostly go into the depths of the combat engine and what makes it tick, because it does tick. The game has been sold out in many areas and is actually quite a rare find at the time of writing. So what makes this game so compelling?

Nioh is a game with a rich history, both inside and out. Based on unfinished script of famed writer Akira Kurosawa the game has been in production since 2004. Originally scheduled for release around 2008 the game struggled with multiple studios and engines before landing at Team Ninja in 2012. The game’s in-game history is based on real life lore and history of the Sengoku period of Japan, focussing on Ieyasu’s rise to power after the death of Oda Nobunaga. A nice twist in itself, with Nobunaga normally being the main antagonist in games placed in this time period, being treated akin to Hitler. The in-game character profiles offer a rich history and insight into these people, making it somewhat surprising that you can only read them while in the world-map.

Immediately upon starting the game players are met with a unique option: to play with strong graphics at 1080p and 30fps, or 720p and 60fps. An option that usually was reserved for the developers themselves at the start of creating a game, and one that has led many a game in the genre to sell less than hoped due to lower graphic fidelity to make place for 60fps.

Once the choice has been made you draw your weapon of choice and the game opens in London. A somewhat estranged choice with the rest of the game being set in Japan, giving beginning players a wrong impression of what is going to lie in wait for them. This cloak and dagger presentation extends to the combat and its mechanics as well; the player has only two attacks in the opening mission, no weapon-stances, can stack healing items infinitely and enemies in heavy armour are seen rolling fluently. Yet all these elements are turned upside down once the game really opens up. Giving the feeling that the game just taught you the wrong concepts. Games often save their true mechanics until later but by dumbing it down to such a raw baseline in the beginning will leave some players dumbfounded once the true game actually starts. As everything that was taught at the beginning is no longer valid.

Once it does open up the combat revolves around main protagonist William fighting in three stances: high, middle and low. All stances change his movement and abilities. A high stance’s dodge will be a roll with some invulnerability frames attached to it and it’s attacks are slow and damaging. At the same time the low stance’s dodge is more of a sidestep for quick repositioning and its moves quick but lacking in punch. It’s a mechanic that allows for easy access to a lot of moves and variations in defensive options without becoming too confusing or convoluted, especially when compared to the insane complexity of Dante’s style-switching mechanic in Devil May Cry 4.
All actions taken cost Ki, which recharges when you are idle. When fully drained you are unable to perform most actions and open to a finisher. All enemies and bosses also have Ki, with the same benefits and rules to them. This puts enemies on equal footing, allowing you to manipulate their Ki output and regeneration by putting out pressure of your own; resulting in some intense combat scenarios.

Weapon stances: Low-stance, Mid-stance and High-stance (left to right).
By switching stances mid-combo the game will come to a stand still though, indicating that the game is more meant to be played by switching styles after a combo or dodge has been finished. This is strange turn for the game as some abilities even promote switching styles in the middle of your combo. Performing a barrage of attacks while in low-stance, to then switch to mid-stance and perform a move that requires you to hold block and attack (Sword of Discernment for example) will simply result in you doing a mid-stance attack instead of the special move you requested of the game. It’s this drop of inputs that stops the combat from reaching a higher level and keeps it in the middle ground between the methodical combat of Dark Souls or Onimusha and the more input heavy and aggressive games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry. It will keep you begging for more depth, but it will always be unable to deliver.

But with five different weapon types at his disposal (Katana, Dual Katana, Kusarigama, Axe/Hammer and Lance/Spear), two types of special abilities (Ninjutsu and Magic) and a crafting system for armour and weapons; there are no shortage of options surrounding said combat. Abilities for the weapons, Ninjutsu and Magic are purchased using points which are gained by using weapons, levelling and doing missions. Gear is found at a constant base throughout; these are sometimes just for defence but other times also offer unique buffs when carried in sets like increased damage against an enemy that is aflame or boosting one specific ability. The armour you carry also has a weight to it. Heavier armour gives the player more hyper frames (the ability to not stagger when hit) but less Ki regeneration, whereas light armour makes the player more mobile but also more vulnerable to damage.
Purchased abilities can even be customized by selecting which you bind to which button combination, but this is restrictive in that regard. Some moves for instance can only be applied to pressing the square-button while guarding in mid-stance, making this part of customizability feel oddly constrained compared to the liberties offered in all other parts of the games design.

With these vast options and variables the developers will have a hard time predicting what tools the player has at his disposal when designing an encounter; as they can never count on the player on having one certain ability. There are numerous ways to balance around this though as Team Ninja themselves have shown in their own Ninja Gaiden Black; like by giving the player certain moves predetermined at a certain point in the game. But in Nioh they chose to ignore this, rather balancing the game around an un-upgraded William. If played normally without the use of abilities or magic the game will offer a strong challenge. Yet once the player dives into the multitude of options available to him and how they might combine together the game’s enemies simply do not keep up. A once mighty boss might fall in seconds to a combination of spells and abilities and other enemies that once made you jump in fright will now just make you sigh. The end result is that the game is as easy as you make it and as hard as you wish. Yet it is also this extremity that offers a lot of experimentation, Nioh’s greatest strength. To find that one overpowered setup, craft the armour and buy the spells surrounding it and to then see it in action can be a very entertaining experience.

Said experience mostly takes place in very dark areas across Japan. All areas are mission-based, you select a mission from an world-map and go there to beat the boss or reach a certain endpoint. The design in place allows for levels to be replayed but they also offer remixes like playing the mission in reverse while changing enemy layouts to keep things fresh. Missions usually have one path to follow, promoting a more linear design with numerous shortcuts to reduce the time running back should one die. It isn’t until the last area that the levels become more maze-like in their design offering multiple routes to the same endpoint but with different loot, collectibles and challenges along the way.
Within these missions you will fight many a foe. The game sports around twenty different enemy types including variations of existing ones. These usually fall in four categories, humanoids, huge demon-like Yokai, spirits and skeletons.

Around three quarters of all the games enemies appear in the first few chapters, which makes the rest of the game lacking variety as no new enemies will be introduced. This becomes even more apparent when the game enters new styles of areas like a snow area, which will offer no new designs or even reskins of previously met enemies. But while the variation is not high they have very specific weaknesses. Striking the horns of a Yokai will leave it stunned for a spell and hitting that yellow eye of a Wheelmonk will leave it out of gas. It’s these features that make combat experimental again, urging players to find new and interesting weaknesses. Though sadly the game never promotes this in its design. Players will often randomly stun a Yokai without knowing exactly why until they hear about it somewhere, which is a shame. A stronger visual reaction to the usage of their weakness, like a more exaggerated breaking of the horn, could have given more input to the player about what is going on. A good example being the Cyclops enemy, which when hit in his eye will stagger and grab his eye in pain; teaching the player through a specific animation that hitting the eye is a good idea.
The larger foes are also immune to a lot of your later combat options, parries will never work against Yokai for instance. While it can be expected that parrying a fist larger than your body is not a good idea, reworked animations depending on the enemy could have been an option. What remains now is a list of abilities of which only half is usable in the end-game which is filled with Yokai and not humanoid enemies.

Bosses are of a more straight up design and dilute to the player keeping a solid distance of the boss, waiting out their attacks and punishing while they are open. Akin to the more classical Dark Souls, Onimusha and Ninja Gaiden style of boss fighting. Some still have a key weakness to a certain element or body-part, but nothing major. Again we feel that the designers are unsure on what abilities the player may have which is most clear in the Umi-bozu bossfight. Here we are presented with a boss weak to fire so the game offers us bonfires during the fight that we can use to enhance our weapon with flames in case we don’t have that ability ourselves. This removes a feeling of your investment being worthwhile to players that built their character around the abilities of the flame, while at the same time making players that didn’t wish they had.

It has to be mentioned that this isn’t an aspect that is unique to Nioh, but one many games struggle with. The designers of Bloodborne designed the game around the fact that the player was upgrading their weapons, so if they didn’t the final fights could last well over thirty minutes. And the first Diablo was built so that one didn’t need strong gear to survive but relied more on player skill; resulting in gear-lucky players demolishing the game. The more options on the table the bigger the balance issues become.
Yet even with the lacking balance the game is still a fine start of what can be a shining new franchise. The knowledge and know-how of combat from Team Ninja is definitely on display but needs a more clear identity, currently playing it safe. Nioh deserves to be more than the aforementioned “Samurai Souls”. The goal for Nioh 2: Dark Souls should wish it was “Medieval Nioh”.


  1. Hey, Raeng. It's Plaz, I'm little unfamiliar woth all the little nuances of commenting here. :P Love the detail you went into in describing the combat. Shame about its shortcomings, but regardless, it's interesting to read what you have to say about it. Serves to increase and sustain my interest in this until I can get my hands on it. Reminds me I need to resub to your channel since I lost my old YT account. :/

    Ah well, I'm gonna go do that right now. :)

    1. Hey man! Good to see you here too! Just comment the way you like, I am just glad to see a comment around these parts and to hear you enjoyed the article! Nioh is a good game and I've sunken a ton of hours into it, but its flaws are there. The greatest fun comes from making overpowered builds like mad and seeing them in action.
      Writing an Ninja Gaiden article as we speak, taking quite a while, really want to do it justice.

      Take care man and hope to see you here again soon!