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Understanding Nioh: A guide (update)

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Like Dark Souls, but faster and more confusing

Nioh is a complex and rich and brutal and huge action role-playing game. An example: It took us more than eight hours just to unlock Nioh’s core mission selection screen. That’s intensity by design, and although Nioh doles out its inherent complexity bit by bit, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Read this guide, and you won’t have to spend eight hours figuring out what’s going on.

The best way to explain Nioh is to explain away its complexity. That makes it more manageable. In this guide, we’ll start with the basics, teaching you just what Nioh is and what you’ll do when playing. Then we’ll move into a more detailed analysis of Nioh and its systems, from combat to stances, leveling, shrines and more.

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll have a huge advantage in a game that wants nothing more than to kill you.


Table of contents

What is Nioh?
The basics
Shrines
Stats and leveling up
Skill points
Prestige points
Combat tips
Weapons
Living weapon
Stances
Ki
Armor
What to do when you die

What is Nioh?

Nioh is an action role-playing game from Team Ninja, a developer with a reputation for creating brutally difficult games. It takes its inspiration from the Dark Souls series, itself a punishing action RPG franchise.

Although it shares many similarities with From Software’s franchise, Nioh adds many of its own twists. To stay alive, even Dark Souls veterans will need to learn Nioh‘s language.

In this section, we’ll focus on Nioh’s three most important parts: combat, level design and items. Everything else we discuss builds upon these foundations.

Combat is frenetic and punishing

If you think of Batman: Arkham Asylum’s (brilliant) fighting mechanic as a rhythm game, you can think of Nioh’s as a rhythm game for dubstep. It’s not-quite-frantic (it’s a little frantic) button mashing, but you’ll be stringing together button sequences in some tight spots. Those are literally tight spots because your surroundings are as much your enemy in Nioh as the humans and demons are.

You’ll be fighting, a lot. You’ll be running amrita — the game’s leveling currency — farming loops to boost your stats and replaying sections to go retrieve your amrita when you (inevitably) get killed. Just like in Nioh’s inspiration, Dark Souls, enemies will reappear for you to fight all over again. And just like a Souls game, no enemy can be written off as easy. A wrong move or a missed block will let the third enemy you face drain your health as fast as the hundredth.

Levels are like a plate of spaghetti

Beyond the fighting, Nioh’s level design is both complex and full of items. You’ll constantly smash crates to find gold, check every nook and cranny for items and find shortcuts where levels fold back in on themselves. There are usually two ways to get anywhere in a given level, and discovering the alternate routes are sometimes the key to survival and finding better items.

There are useful items everywhere

Did we mention the items? Boy, are there items. You’ll be dealing with items a lot.

Any given sword or piece of gear falls in a range of stats and comes with a list of special effects unique to that specific piece. Two swords you pick up might both be called a bastard sword, but they’ll have different stats and bonuses.

You’re also going to be looking for consumables, ammo and upgrade materials. You won’t be able to upgrade anything for a few hours, but you’ll find the parts for the process early on. And you’ll pick up gold from smashed crates, pots and fallen enemies. Each level includes a virtually ceaseless stream of items.

Understanding your first several hours and missions

Many of Nioh’s core gameplay mechanics take time to unlock. Things that you’ve read about or seen in early gameplay videos don’t appear for several hours. Let’s walk through how you start, so you know what to expect.

Tower of London

The Tower of London serves as your training-wheeled introduction to the game — don’t think it’s easy by any means, you’re just going to get more popups and hints about what you’re not doing or doing wrong.

You start unarmed and get to explore fighting relatively sparse enemies in a controlled location. You’ll also learn to swap out items and gear on the fly. You don’t have access to stances and ranged weapons. This is all just a prelude.

A Long Journey Begins

After a few choices that serve as a proxy to character creation (and give you a few early boosts to your stats), you get an actual tutorial that introduces you to several new mechanics.

Isle of Demons

The mission that follows the tutorial is the "thrown in the deep end to learn to swim" approach to gameplay introduction. It’s by no means impossible, but you’re going to quickly learn what works and what doesn’t — and to never get comfortable. A lot (but not all) of the game’s core mechanics will be introduced here, and it’s a challenging-yet-rewarding place to grind out your first several character levels.

It’s only after defeating the boss at the end of "Isle of Demons" that you unlock things like the blacksmith and the mission selection map.

What am I looking at? (Understanding the HUD)

At first blush, Nioh’s screen looks like a pretty standard HUD — and it is, but like most things in Nioh, it’s just turned up to 11.

Nioh’s HUD, numbered
  1. In the top left are the things you’d expect. There’s a special attack meter — your living weapon gauge — your health and your stamina (or life and ki, in Nioh-speak). The light blue line on top is your life and the green line below is your ki.
  2. The top right is your compass that points you to an objective, and it glows red when a demon is nearby. (Don’t think of it as a minimap. It’s just a compass.)
  3. At the bottom left are your Dark Souls-style item shortcuts. In Nioh, though, you have two of them and you swap between them with R2. This gives you eight shortcuts across two customizable loadouts.
  4. Next to the item shortcuts, you’ll see a current count of your samurai, ninja and onmyo skill points.
  5. About halfway up the right side of the screen are your equipped ranged and melee weapons. You get two of each, and you swap between them by holding down the right shoulder button and hitting the D-pad (up and down for ranged and left and right for melee).
  6. Below that is your current stance. (Check out the section on Nioh's stances for more.) You swap between high, mid and low stances (and sheathing your weapon) with the right shoulder button as well, then pressing triangle, square, x or circle.
  7. Under that, in the very bottom right, is your current gold count and then your current amrita count. These are the game’s currencies — gold for things like items and services and amrita for leveling up.

All about Shrines

When you arrive on the Isle of Demons, you’ll find your first shrine. Shrines are Nioh’s version of Dark Souls’ bonfires. They let you prepare for fights to come and restore your health, but they also reset all of the enemies.

You’ll start with six options at a shrine. Later in the "Isle of Demons" mission, you can find a kodama and unlock a seventh. Here’s what you can do with each of them.

Change guardian spirit

Before the "Isle of Demons" mission, you answer two questions that serve as Nioh’s character and class creation system. In it, you chose a guardian spirit from three options. But there are far more than three guardian spirits in Nioh — there are 22, in fact. You’ll start off with only the one you chose, but you’ll add more as you complete missions.

At a shrine, you have the option to change which guardian spirit you’re currently imbued with. Each guardian spirit has different stats, buffs and requirements (where your spirit stat needs to be). You can compare the different guardian spirits on this screen before you swap one out for another.

Level up

This is where you go to spend all that hard-won amrita and level up your character. You get to boost one stat per level at ever-increasing cost. (See our section on Nioh's stats for more.)

Make offering

As we mentioned, you’re going to find a lot of items. Some of them will be indispensable. Others, not so much. So what do you do with all that junk? Later in the game, you can take it to the blacksmith shop and sell it for cash or break it down into its components. But you have another option. Each item also has a amrita value. If you make an offering of the item at a shrine, the item will be lost, but you’ll get amrita in exchange. (For more on this, see weapon familiarity.)

Ready jutsu

William’s abilities extend beyond just swinging a sword (or an axe or a spear). He also has some ninja knowledge and the ability to make magical talismans. When you unlock these skills with ninja and onmyo points, this option at the shrine lets you prepare them — you can pick which ninja or magic things you bring with you. Ninjutso includes things like shiruken and poisons. The stat and defense buffing talismans are part of your onmyo magic.

Boons

Boons appears to be where DLC will be located. There’s nothing here yet — check back after the game launches for more.

Summon visitor

Somewhere in the avalanche of items you find will be an item called an ochoko cup. Use these here to summon another player into your game for co-op play.

Receive kodama blessing

Kodama are those little green guys wearing pottery on their heads that hang out at the shrine. You’ll find kodama scattered throughout Nioh’s levels. When you give them directions back to the shrine, they’ll allow you to purchase additional bonuses with gold — things like increased rates of armor, health elixir or gold drops.

Enhance guardian

The final tile will be blank until you beat Nioh. After that, it lets you spend amrita to level up your guardians.

Stats and leveling up

So you know that you level up at a shrine, but what exactly are you leveling up? Nioh gives you eight stats to choose from. They mostly map to the stats that you know and love, with a couple modifications.

This screen is intimidating at first, but veterans will recognize both D&D and Dark Souls in its DNA.

Nioh stats

Stat Main effect Bonuses Weapons
Stat Main effect Bonuses Weapons
Body Health Also impacts resistances and gives you samurai skill points Spears
Heart Ki Also impacts your hit points and life Bows, Swords
Stamina How much you can carry (equipment weight) Some boost to life Cannons
Strength Punchin’ mostly Also affects equipment weight max and gives you samurai skill points Axes
Skill Ability with more technical weapons Also gives you samurai skill points and makes your ninjutsu skills more powerful Guns, dual katanas
Dexterity Ninja skills, their power and getting more ninja skill points Adds power to certain weapon’s attacks Ninjutsu
Magic Onmyo skills, their power and getting more onmyo skill points Grants an greater defense against the yokai realm Onmyo magic
Spirit Strengthens your bond with your spirit guide Increases the power of your onmyo magic Guardian spirit

Each of these skills map to a type of weapon. Increase the associated stat to unlock the full potential of a weapon.

Skill points

When you level up William at a shrine, you may receive skill points in one of Nioh’s three categories — samurai, ninja and onmyo. Cash these in for new abilities on Nioh‘s various skill trees.

Samurai skill points

Samurai skill points are for weapon skill trees. Each weapon type has 45 skills. They teach William additional moves (like kicking at the end of a combo) or new abilities (like sneak attacks).

Ninja skill points

Ninja skills are more sneaky than the brute force skills above. Ninja skill points get you things like thrown weapons (shiruken and kunai) or poison (to add an effect to your attacks). Also, smoke bombs.

Onmyo skill points

Onmyo skills are your magical abilities. In practical terms, these skills allow you to create talismans — consumable items that grant a temporary buff to one or more of your stats or defenses.

Prestige points

The titles tab of Nioh's options menu

Throughout Nioh, you’ll earn something called titles. These titles are awarded for completing tasks in the game — dealing cumulative ki damage in excess of 7,500 or defeating 150 humans with a sword. Titles earn you reputation points, and reputation points add up until you get a prestige point. Confused yet? You can track all of this on the titles tab of your options menu.

There are two task lists — Agyo and Ungyo — and you can switch between them with the R1 and L1 buttons when you’re on the titles tab. Their lists require different actions and grant different rewards.

You use Agyo and Ungyo prestige points to purchase upgrades and buffs to your abilities by clicking on the prestige summary on this screen. You can get things like increases in the amount of gold you pick up or decreases to the amount of damage you take from a fall.

Combat tips

With all of the paperwork and spreadsheets out of the way, let’s talk about Nioh’s two flavors of fighting: close quarters and ranged.

Close quarters combat

No matter what close ranged weapon you choose, combat unfolds in the same way. Here are some general tips for surviving:

  • Lock onto enemies with R3. It focuses your fight and prevents you from swinging at the air instead of your enemy.
  • Watch enemy movement. Like the Dark Souls series from which Nioh finds inspiration, learning how enemies move and attack will show you when to attack.
  • Watch everyone’s ki. You and your enemies both have ki (stamina) meters. Watch yours to make sure that you don’t run out and become staggered. Watch your enemies to find opportunities to attack.
  • Evade. Yes, it drains your ki, but a well-timed dodge can put you right behind an enemy that has just run out of steam. Those same dodges are going to keep you alive in a boss battle, so get comfortable with the process early.
  • Watch for a red reticle. There is a samurai skill that lets you deal a devastating blow when your enemies are knocked down or out of ki. Get it early and watch for their target reticule to turn red.
  • Get yourself a kick. Another samurai skills let you add a kick to the end of a combo that depletes ki. Get it early as well.

Ranged combat

It’s hard to keep your ammo supply topped off, so it’s tempting to be careful about using it, but you can’t ignore your ranged weapons. Even at the lowest levels, well-placed shots taken from a distance can quickly thin the herd of upcoming enemies and give you a fighting chance.

  • Headshots count. Zoom in with R3 and shoot enemies in the head to do a lot more damage. Like, one-shot kill damage for a lot of low-level enemies.
  • Watch the targeting reticule. It will turn red when your shot targets your enemies weak points. (It’s usually the head.)
  • Claim the high ground. There’s a lot of high ground in Nioh’s level design. Use it. Clear out enemies not only in front of you, but in areas you hope to get to. Having them out of your way is only a good thing.
  • Don’t forget about your ninjutsu. Shiruken and kunai are not ranged weapons, per se, but these thrown items deal more damage than stones (which you can also throw) and can turn the tide of a battle.

Weapons

You’re going to find so many weapons. Some are for getting your hands dirty, up close and personal-style, and others are for taking out a demon from a distance. You can use any of them, but you should find the one that matches your strongest stats and your style of play.

Stats and their weapon affiliations

Stat Weapon/ability type(s)
Stat Weapon/ability type(s)
Body Spears
Heart Swords and bows
Stamina Cannons
Strength Axes
Skill Dual katanas and guns
Dexterity Ninjutsu
Magic Onmyo magic
Spirit Guardian spirit

Melee

Melee weapons fall into five categories — swords, dual swords, spears, axes and kusarigama.

  • Swords cover everything from the first bastard sword you pick up in the Tower of London to the most elegant katana. They’re the most balanced and least specialized weapon — and therefore easiest and most accessible to use.
  • Dual swords are a pair of swords that are individually weaker, but can string together deadly combos.
  • Spears give you a longer reach and enable some sweeping attacks, but they’re harder to control in tight spaces.
  • Axes deal huge damage, but they’re heavy and slow.
  • Kusarigama is a Japanese word that translates to "chain-sickle" and the weapon is a sickle with a chain on it. It’s a simple name for a complicated weapon that combines a lot of aspects from the other weapon categories.

You’ll encounter a lot of weapons throughout Nioh and it can get confusing in a hurry. If you get lost, use the icon under the weapon’s name to help you classify it.

Ranged weapons

Ranged weapons are both more rare and more easily classified. They fall into only three categories — longbows, rifles and (hand) cannons.

  • Longbows deal the least damage, but are fastest to reload and fire.
  • Hand cannons deal a lot of damage, but are slowest to fire.
  • Rifles fall somewhere in between.

Your ranged weapons require you to find ammo — your rifle is useless without any bullets. You’ll pick up most of your ammo from defeated enemy drops.

It’s tempting to write off ranged weapons as a minor distraction in a hack and slash action game, but they’re indispensable. Enemies in Nioh have weak points (it’s usually the head) that you can target with a ranged attack and take them out with a single shot (even with a longbow). These headshots from a safe distance can take a battle from overwhelming to manageable with just a few shots.

Weapon familiarity

Nioh’s weapon familiarity meter

In short, the longer you use a weapon, the stronger that weapon gets. For certain weapons, as you approach total familiarity — there’s a gauge at the top of the weapon’s stat block — you’ll unlock additional special effects and stat and attack buffs.

Because of your attachment to the weapons you use the most — and your higher familiarity — they become more valuable. The higher your familiarity, the more amrita you’ll get when offering the weapon to a shrine.

Which weapon is right for me?

You can pick up and use any weapon at any point in the game, but you should consider a few things before you settle on a favorite. Think about your style and what stats you’re most likely to dump points into.

Stances

Nioh stances and ki usage

Stance Ki used when attacking Ki lost when hit Guards block attacks Ki used when evading
Stance Ki used when attacking Ki lost when hit Guards block attacks Ki used when evading
High Lots Lots Nope Little
Medium Some Some Yes Little
Low Little Little Yes None (attacks blocked)
Ki usage when attacking, blocking and evading

Even Nioh’s combat system has an additional layer on top of what you’d expect from any other action RPG. After you escape the Tower of London and visit the dojo for the first time, you’ll learn three stances. You can change your stance on the fly during combat and sometimes have to choose your stance based on your enemy.

  • High stance sacrifices defense for offense — you’re going to deal more damage, but you’re also more open to attack.
  • Medium stance falls in the middle, balancing offense and defense.
  • Low stance emphasizes defense at the expense of offense — you’re better defended against attack, but you’ll deal less damage.

Different enemies require different approaches. You can break through the defenses of a constantly-blocking enemy with a high stance attack, or you can buy yourself some time to figure out an aggressive enemy with a low stance.

Sometimes, the physical height of your enemy can determine your choice of stance — high, medium and low also describe the height of your swings. If you find yourself swinging over the head of a crawling demon, switch to low stance, and your hits will land.

Living weapon

In the top left corner of your HUD, you’ll see your guardian spirit’s round icon. Over time, the gauge in a ring around that icon will fill up. Hitting both triangle and circle together will call on your living weapon.

This changes your life and ki gauges into the living weapon gauge. This gauge depletes over time or when your enemies land an attack.

When your living weapon is active, you are immune to damage and your weapon deals extra damage. You can also press triangle and circle again to trigger your spirit guardian’s special attack.

Do not forget about your living weapon

We cannot stress this enough. Your living weapon is the key to defeating tough enemies — from some of the larger, tougher yokai, up through bosses. Don’t think you’re going to be able to get by on your weapon skills alone. Call on your spirit guardian for help. Your living weapon’s attacks can cut a 10 minute boss battle in half.

Understanding ki

In Nioh, ki is your stamina. You need ki to attack, block and evade. Every attack, block and evasion consumes a portion of the green ki meter in the upper left of your screen. Fighting and winning in Nioh is largely dependent on managing your ki.

When you're out of stamina, you can't swing your weapon or evade attacks. If you run out of ki, you'll stand exhausted, huffing and puffing and unable to move or defend against attacks.

Ki regenerates over time. Swing your weapon or sprint, and you'll lose ki. Wait a few seconds, and you'll regain what you lost.

Ki pulse

You can regain ki rapidly with a ki pulse. As you're attacking, blue orbs will gather around your body and will coalesce around you as your attacks conclude. Press R1 at the moment those orbs enter your body, and you'll execute a ki pulse.

A ki pulse immediately restores a chunk of your lost ki and speeds up the recovery of the rest of your ki meter. A perfectly timed ki pulse will completely restore your ki.

Ki and the yokai realm

Nioh’s demons (yokai in Nioh-speak) can create a circle of black smoke called a yokai realm. (They kind of look like a transmutation circle from Fullmetal Alchemist.) When you're in the yokai realm, your ability to regenerate ki is greatly diminished.

Keep your distance to keep your ki. You can usually lure a demon out of the yokai realm they created to avoid this effect.

A ki pulse inside of a yokai realm will disperse it (and still restore your ki at the same time). You can avoid yokai realms for a while, but demons will keep creating them. The longer a fight goes on — and it can be a long time for a boss fight — it starts to get crowded, and they’re hard to avoid. At some point, you’ll need to learn to disperse them — even while fighting for your life.

Ki and your equipment weight

If you’ve played a Dark Souls game (or D&D with a strict DM), you know about encumbrance rules. William is not a pack mule. The heavier his armor is, the slower he moves. Higher equipment weight rates also drain your ki faster.

You can check your equipment weight rate at any time by checking on William’s status, and a popup with the same information will appear at the top of the screen whenever you’re swapping or equipping new items. You’ll also see the information during leveling up at a shrine.

As your equipment weight rate climbs, the color of the percentage changes. Green is good, red is bad. By the time you get to red, you may have the highest defensive multiplier you can cobble together, but your ki will drain too fast to allow you to fight.

Armor

On the other side of the combat equation is defense. You’ve got five slots for armor — all the way from your head to your feet — plus two slots for accessorizing.

Armor, like weapons, is divided into categories — light, medium and heavy as indicated by the (L), (M) and (H) after the name — and each item has stats that fall on a range. Armor may also have special effects like your weapons.

Beyond the defensive multiplier — the basic protection stat offered by the piece — armor grants you protections against specific types of damage like fire or paralysis. These defense buffs are listed below the special effects.

What to do when you die

In Nioh, you are going to fall in battle. Maybe it’ll be against a bus-sized hellbeast, or maybe it’ll be against a low-level lackey, but you’re not going to make it through Nioh without dying. A lot. You better get used to that, or this is going to be a long and frustrating game.

But all is not lost when you die in Nioh. When you fall in battle (or by doing something stupid), you keep all of your gear and everything you’ve picked up along the way and you reappear at the last shrine you prayed at. All of the amrita you had stored up is safely stashed where you fell, just waiting for you to come get it — after, you know, fighting through the same bad guys that just killed you. If you’re familiar with the Dark Souls franchise, you know how this works.

The catch is, your spirit guardian is at your gravesite as well — not with you. This means you can’t call on your living weapon until you reclaim it (and that pile of amrita).

You have two choices at that shrine where you’re resurrected. You can run off to go avenge your own death, reclaiming your guardian spirit and your hard-earned amrita. Or you can interact with the shrine and recall your guardian spirit. This makes it immediately available to you, but you’ll lose all of the amrita you had.

Bloody graves

When William falls in battle, there’s a chance that the site of his death will spawn a bloody grave in someone else’s game. The same goes for you, your William’s (Williams’?) graves will appear in others’ games.

When you see these graves, you can interact with them to summon the fallen warrior to duel with. If you’re victorious, they’ll drop a piece of their gear for you.