It’s Game of the Year time again, and let’s be honest here; it’s a safe bet that nearly every single list will be topped by Nintendo’s heavy hitters: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Being the natural contrarian that I am, and safe in the knowledge that my personal selection for best game of the year won’t hurt either of those franchises, I decided to go with something different for my choice. Moving forward, though, let’s keep in mind that this article will be centred on my favourite game of the year, not necessarily the one I think was the very best in every category. This game isn’t perfect, and certainly has some flaws, but it was right up my alley in the criteria that I look for in a game. I don’t care for story, scope, or the prettiest graphics. I don’t care if a game has something profound to say, dripping with deep philosophies and characterization. I don’t care about cinematics, representation, or loveable and charming characters or how they interact with each other. And I really, really don’t give two flying f-bombs about multiplayer.
What I do care about first and foremost are deep, robust gameplay mechanics and high levels of challenge. I like a game with a steep learning curve, complicated but attainable combat depth that offers a huge sense of satisfaction when perfected, and plenty of variety for weapons and character builds. I will also (usually) enjoy any game that apes Dark Souls in one way or the other. With this set of criteria in mind, my personal selection for Game of the Year is none other than Team Ninja’s absolutely fantastic ARPG Nioh.
Nioh follows an English sailor named William Adams, who washes up on the shores of Sengoku-era Japan and is recruited by Hattori Hanzo to help rid the island of its infestation of Yokai, which are supernatural monsters that love to maim and murder. The setting is a popular one for fans of Japanese history and mythology, and allows for a great combination of Ninja, Samurai, and magic abilities that William can use to whup Demon ass across a Japan torn asunder by strife and civil war.
The basics of the gameplay in Nioh are familiar to anyone who has played a Souls game before. Players will navigate each level, battling monsters and opening up shortcuts while collecting Amrita, which are Nioh’s equivalent of souls, blood shards, or experience points. The more monsters you kill, the more of these you get, and these can be cashed in at shrines in order to expand William’s selection of abilities and stats. Of course, if you die at any point, you lose your Amrita and are forced to start at the most recent shrine with all enemies re-spawned. It’s a familiar mechanic at this point, but one that doesn’t become super tedious thanks to a brilliant combat system that absolutely nails the “easy to understand, difficult to master” idea.
Blocking, parrying, and attacking all use “Ki” AKA stamina, a bar that depletes with every action but can be refilled by releasing a “Ki pulse”, which has the added effect of removing the energy draining miasma generated by enemies. Adding to this system are three stances—High, Middle, and Low—that offer different combinations of strength and speed. Switching between these stances on the fly—at the right moment—will also help replenish Ki as well as offering various other bonuses when done at the correct time. Linking together a string of perfect combos, switching stances and weapons, is immensely satisfying in Nioh and really makes you feel like a Ninja master. It’s a lot faster than the Souls games, and, while complicated, eventually feels surprisingly natural and fluid once the muscle memory and mechanics sink in. There are also ranged weapons, Ninja abilities, and Onmyo buffs, which all come together in a complex yet cohesive combat system with a fantastic amount of variety. The weapons are also discovered via a Diablo-esque loot system, which while not perfect, ensures that no two builds are exactly alike. The combat system is addictive and incredibly challenging, but for someone like myself who prizes these mechanics over all else in a video game, that’s exactly what I want. I like trial and error. I enjoy getting my ass kicked over and over again until I finally nail that perfect run. It’s what kept me coming back to Nioh despite an overwhelming amount of quality titles released this year.
Unfortunately, a lack of variety and a lot of repetition in enemy and level design does cause Nioh to feel very same-ey after a while. However, every now and then Twilight missions will become available, which switch things up and offer a fresh challenge in a familiar setting. The level design is excellent, but is held back by only being offered in small, independent chunks selected from a menu rather than a single, sprawling world.
Nioh isn’t a perfect game. It didn’t innovate at all, and definitely features some glaring flaws. It’s pretty repetitive, the story is cliché as hell, and killing the same types of enemies over and over for tens of hours will become fatiguing for many players. However, no game this year did combat as well as Nioh, and many months later I’m still finding new ways to craft a character and link together the perfect string of attacks. It’s got the best third-person combat mechanics of any game this year, it’s incredibly hard, and incredibly rewarding. That alone makes Nioh my game of the year.
A retail version of the game discussed was provided by the publisher for a previously published review. You can find additional information about CGMagazine’s ethics and review policies and procedures here.