As a kid, I was lucky enough to be exposed to a large number of different gaming systems and platforms, cutting my teeth on the Game Boy Color and Nintendo 64 before moving on to newer options like the PlayStation 2 and Xbox as I got older. Being a kid, I was often limited in what games I could play to whatever my parents deigned to buy for me or whatever my friends let me borrow, and having so few options meant I had no problem devoting myself to more difficult selections like Capcom’s Onimusha series or Team Ninja’s newer Ninja Gaiden games.

Looking back, I find it funny that such games wound up defining my early gaming experiences since Nioh, the newest game from Team Ninja, borrows heavily from the above two franchises to present an experience that is as unique as it is challenging.

Live (And Die) By The Sword

An easy way to describe Nioh would be to say that it’s a mash-up of Dark Souls, Onimusha, and Ninja Gaiden, and in fact I even said as much back when I wrote a preview for the game in May of last year after having played the first in a series of public demos which Team Ninja released over the months leading to Nioh’s launch.

However, having now played the full game, I want to amend what I said before and say instead that, Nioh can certainly feel like the above games at times, but it is also very much its own beast and you can’t really appreciate just how hard Team Ninja worked to make Nioh stand on its own until you play it for yourself.

Sure, much like From Software’s Dark Souls series, Nioh can be painfully, sometimes borderline unfairly, brutal in its difficulty. It can also be a hard game to become fully accustomed to since, on top of its unrelenting difficulty, Nioh also has several different combat mechanics which one must absolutely hone if they want to make it to the game’s later stages.

These mechanics include things like stance-switching (high, mid, and low stances for each weapon offer different benefits and penalties), carefully managing your “Ki” (stamina) so that you don’t run out in the middle of a battle and leave yourself wide open to a counter-attack, and mastering the use of the “Ki Pulse” technique (a well-timed button press which allows you to instantly recover lost Ki).

Much like in the Dark Souls games, players navigate hazardous environments laden with deadly enemies and traps, reach checkpoints to mark their progress and eventually open up shortcuts back to those checkpoints, level up protagonist William’s stats, and, if they are felled by an enemy, must make it back to the spot where they died if they want to recover the Amrita (currency used to level William up) they dropped.

Aside from those previously mentioned elements, that’s pretty much where the similarities to Dark Souls end (aside from the sharp difficulty curve, of course). There’s a certain rhythm to Nioh’s combat which, once you’ve gotten the hang of it, feels much more intense and fast-paced than what you’d find in Dark Souls, and it can be highly rewarding (and dare I say fun) if you take the time to master it.

Of course, taking the time can in itself by quite a struggle. Nioh is an incredibly long game (I’d say an average completion time is around 40 hours) and there’s little a player can do to make the going easier. Sure, the game’s robust Diablo-esque loot system (one of Nioh’s high points in my opinion) can help the player deck William out in gear that can help his survivability, but even with the best armor and weapons you won’t get very far if you hope to just button-mash your way to victory. There are certain weapons and items which can make specific combat encounters and/or boss fights easier, but in Nioh there’s definitely not much of a difference between “challenging” and “slightly less challenging.”

An Imprecise Cut

Despite its sometimes borderline sadistic amount of difficulty, I’m not going to ding Nioh for being a hard game since that’s exactly what Team Ninja wanted it to be. Sure, it would be nice if the game had some sort of “Easy Mode” option, but none of From Software’s Souls games do so I see no real reason why Team Ninja would have to make such a compromise. My only real critiques of Nioh are things of a more personal nature.

I would have liked to be able to create my own customized character, especially since William doesn’t really have a lot of personality of his own, but again I’m willing to concede that Team Ninja had its own vision for the story it wanted to tell and the characters it wanted to use in said telling. The game’s environments also started to feel a bit stale after a while and, despite their haunting beauty, they didn’t have the same luster and variety as what can be found in a typical Souls game. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Nioh’s environments are boring (they certainly aren’t from a navigation perspective), but they do all start to blend together after a while, and it’s also hard to appreciate them when you’re constantly keeping an eye out for environmental traps.

Reforged Steel

Given all that I’ve written above, I know it can seem a little hard to figure out whether I’m recommending Nioh or not, so I’ll just say this: Nioh can be an incredibly rewarding game as long as you’re willing to give it the patience and time it deserves. It’s certainly not a game you should approach with a casual mindset, but that’s only because it demands as much respect as it gives. If you’re looking for a challenging yet rewarding single-player experience, some intense co-op action (other players can be summoned for boss fights and other activities), or even a new PvP experience, you’ll find in Nioh a fitting tribute to the challenging action-RPG games of yesteryear which didn’t pull their punches.