Stop us if you think you've heard this one before.
You wake up in prison in your underwear, immediately breaking out and making your way through the jail fighting guards along the way. The enemies you kill drop items and experience points known as Amrita. Upon reaching a shrine you can use the Amrita to level up your various attributes, but if you're killed before you reach it, you'll lose all of your accumulated experience and a grave site will appear where you were slain. On your next life, if you manage to make it back to your place of death, you'll recover all of the Amrita that you dropped, but if you're killed en route, then your experience points will be lost in the ether, and all of your hard work will have been for nought.
Perhaps it seems trite or lazy for us to immediately bring up Dark Souls when talking about Nioh in this review, but the similarities between the two are so stark and so numerous that it would be remiss of us not to mention it. Structurally, the gameplay loop is practically identical to Dark Souls, but it's the ways in which Nioh differs from the Souls series that are the most compelling.
Our hero is a Western sailor named William Adams who's travelling to warring Japan in the early 1600s in pursuit of an enemy, and ends up with the unenviable task of battling demonic creatures. Cut-scenes flesh out the narrative between important battles, the game quickly establishes characters both virtuous and villainous, and it's always clear what you're doing and why. Nioh also takes this user-friendly approach to gameplay, by explaining the various combat systems to you in optional tutorials that become available as you progress through the release.
You'll have to use various hacks and slashes to damage your opponents, and you can either deflect attacks or dodge out of the way with strafes and rolls. Every action that you take will deplete your ki meter, and if you run out of ki you'll be stunned for a couple of seconds, and more than likely killed a couple of seconds after that. Enemies in Nioh hit hard, and even the lowly grunts are far more dangerous than the standard cannon fodder that you'll take on in most action role-playing games. Every enemy also has a visible ki gauge, and much like William, they'll wind up stunned if it's depleted, leaving them open for you to unload hellish damage.
The speed at which your ki meter replenishes can be temporarily boosted by tapping R1 in time with a blue aura that surrounds William at the end of each combo, and utilising this quick ki recovery method wisely can often turn the tide in battle; it's a fantastic system that keeps you on your toes. William can also employ three stances for each of the weapons he wields, with the high stance offering bigger damage at the cost of defence, the low stance doing the opposite, and the mid stance being a balance between the two. Switching to high stance when an enemy is stunned could be all you need to finish it off, but then forgetting to switch back could spell trouble for you the next time that you're attacked.
As for structure, the game is broken up into missions that take place in numerous different regions of Japan. Each mission is self-contained and usually ends in a boss battle; these fights ratchet the already daunting level of difficulty up considerably, sometimes to the point where the challenge may feel insurmountable. The boss creatures aren't quite as showstopping as the ones that you'll encounter in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, and sadly, their reliance on hard hits and high health rather than varied tactics means that most of these fights degenerate into wars of attrition as you chip away at your opponent little by little between attacks. Losing a battle when victory is in sight is devastating – if Push Square had a swear jar we could probably afford to take the whole crew to Barbados on this author's contributions alone – but the rewards for finally finishing off a troublesome enemy are abundant, both emotionally and materially.
Nioh uses a loot system that is similar to the kind seen in games like Borderlands. Each weapon and armour drop is colour-coded based on rarity, and comes with its own stat boosts and perks. Finding a high level weapon or piece of armour is consistently exciting, and since the game allows you to replay levels at will from the mission select screen, you can level up your character, improve your understanding of the combat mechanics, and try and collect bigger and better loot all at the same time.
Elsewhere, there are optional side missions that offer worthwhile rewards that can be undertaken between missions, and you can also visit a blacksmith to forge new weapons, buy armour, or sell items that you've found on your journey. And if you're having a hard time surviving a particular mission, you can go online and request help from other players who can enter your world, or you can enter theirs and team up to take on the demonic horde. Meanwhile, if you're a glutton for punishment, then there are even ultra hard 'Twilight' versions of some missions that offer valuable loot and incredibly deadly battles.
Nioh is about as approachable as a game of this ilk can be, and while that may offend the hardcore sensibilities of some Souls fans, it's a title that will likely appeal to many players who want a gameplay challenge but are turned off by the obtuse nature of Dark Souls' storytelling and the murky explanations of its mechanics. The experience is marred by some unfortunate difficulty spikes and lacklustre bosses, but the rich loot, levelling systems, and fast, often thrilling combat do more than enough to justify Nioh as a worthy contemporary to From Software's efforts – and an impressive return to form for Team Ninja.