Nioh: Dragon of the North | How Soaring Ambition Can Lead To Small Steps

I promised them the Land of the Date,
With them by my side, my ambition soared to the heavens like a mighty dragon.

These words, spoken by the antagonist of the Nioh’s first downloadable content entitled Dragon of the North, also speak volumes on the game itself. The original product promised a great number of things and now even more with this expansion - and with its fans by its side the ambitions soared. But did the dragon of the north soar too high into the clouds or did it breach the heavens?
Dragon of the North is exclusively playable to those who have beaten the game, it being a continuation where the main story left off; a unique move for downloadable expansions. This gives developer Team Ninja more control over the challenge presented as they could be sure players were used to certain attack patterns, combat options and tactics by this point. As such they constructed a campaign that starts off in the snow, an immediate breach of the flow we were used to with nearly four new enemy-types introduced back to back. The foes on display here are a large berserker type enemy, the Namahage(生剥), with a move-set built around hard to read slashes, with some breaks in between hits to confused players further. Another is a soldier that appears generic until his head pops revealing a large worm, the Rokurokubi (轆轤首), within. Lastly there are two variations on existing enemies added into the mix and a recolored foe to fit the more snowy vibe. Taken as a whole the variation in these new enemies is mixed, offering new types of engagements but the general concept remains the same: slow hard hitting enemies which rely on patterns to be defeated instead of wits. The lack of a small but quick foe is a noticeable one increasing by each playthrough. Though the Revenant enemy, who has the same moves available to him as the player, is seeing more frequent usage though it is still not enough and his weakness to both parries and sweeping strikes make him a nuisance at best. Taken as a whole the combat is taking small steps in the same direction instead of reaching for new heights.

But, just as they try to soar Team Ninja also looks back on the journey so far; faults were spotted in the way they had constructed Nioh. As a result the expansion introduces several changes, the biggest change being a change of the level-cap - going from 750 to 400 - players that were higher level were de-leveled as a result. Harsh but necessary as Nioh’s difficulty was getting lost in a miasma of overpowered builds readily available online. William quickly became a swiss army knife that would cut through all instead of being a specialized character per player. Yet in a nice twist those specialized builds are now stronger than they were before thanks to higher bonuses. In addition to this new abilities were also added into the mix such as new Guardian Spirits, a few new spells - some good and some debatable - and a new weapon: the odachi.
As a weapon it sits firmly between the regular katana and the axe weapon offering a distinct middle ground of speed and hard hitting offensive with slow finishers. The weapon’s design methodology is centered around stance-dancing, with more than three quarters of its special finishers ending with William switching to a certain fighting stance at the end allowing for a lot of customization. Perhaps one would like his finisher in High Stance to go to Low Stance so he can quickly dodge to safety, or perhaps customize it so that it goes to Mid Stance which goes to Low Stance at its own end. A weapon that focuses entirely on stance-dancing is unique in Nioh, but also in the genre at large; few weapons have focused on varying the fighting style of the player. Even more so with a slow-hard hitting weapon as the Odachi - one would more easily see this happening with a weapon like the nun-chucks or tonfa should they ever be released. This style of fighting is a more common occurrence in fighting games where certain characters have different fighting stances which moves switch between, such as Ivy and Maxi in Soul Calibur II or Gen in Street Fighter IV.

Yet the player is still able, despite the lower-level cap, to decimate the game. It is clear that the number of William’s level wasn’t the issue, but the combination of abilities going into the bizarre and being hard to balance around. Certain new encounters are a blast to play legit, but one can easily chuck kunai from afar if the build is right or rush on through with a blazing Living Weapon setup. A system needs to be put into place that limits the options available for balance to breach the skies. Either that or Nioh has to embrace the crazy the player-base is putting out and go crazy in return.

Thankfully this crazy is previewed within the bosses of the Dragon of the North with each fighting in a different style compared to those of the original game. The main bosses existed within a flow of learn pattern, abuse pattern and punish - with bosses having a few main attacks and a grab for variation. Here it is different with each of the three new bosses fighting with a different core mechanic. Date Shigezane(伊達 成実) punishes the original play-style of bait and punish by having excessively long attacks strings with brutal range forcing a more in-your-face style approach at all times. Date Masamune (伊達 政宗) is the opposite, focusing on endurance with him using Living Weapon and slowing effects throughout the area, urging a more cautionary engagement. Lastly Maria, shamefully re-using the move-set of Ninja Gaiden 3’s Regent of the Mask, is a high octane fight with her dashing in and out with quick strikes. She can faint her attack string into a grab to punish a overly defensive player, but her dodges contain so much i.frames that making punishes her difficult and the fight arbitrarily long. What was supposed to be a fight of two agile players clashing blades turns into a long fight of bait and punish. As an enemy she is exactly what this game needs, but overdone.

In another attempt to add a challenge a new difficulty was added, “Way of the Demon”. Unlocked after beating the game on the original “Way of the Samurai” and the later “Way of the Strong”, this setting beefs up enemies even further and adds new and improved red enemies, funnily enough dubbed ‘tomato’d’ foes. These replace existing ones while adding new modifiers such as unique buffs, resistances and so forth. But these do little to change the fast paced protagonist stuck in a slow paced game or to alleviate the commonly used tactics and force players to switch it up; all they do is take longer to kill. So while novel it again does not solve the problem the game is suffering from more and more: repetition. This also makes the game more intimidating for newer players who just picked Nioh up, having to slog through the full game three times before reaching the end-game, only to realize there is nothing to do beyond the finish line outside of experimentation with builds. “Way of the Demon” would’ve benefited greatly from a more focused approach, remixing enemy combinations, giving bosses allies to help them out or even adding bosses as regular enemies more often as is often done with the Onryoki boss in the main game.

As the northern dragon continues to soar we too are giving a moment to reflect. Nioh’s first downloadable expansion takes careful steps into new terrain. It looked past its previous misgivings and tries to correct these in ways it sees fit, yet it hasn’t quite breached the heavens as it was hoping to. The land it promised us is closer by the actions of the Dragon of the North - but it is far from there. They simply...

...could not show them the land as I envisioned it.
- Date Masamune

postscript notes
  • A short article on the first DLC, nothing special but wished to get it in to get a full view on the game once all has been said and done. That and I just really wanted that cover image on my website; that looks beautiful.
  • Date was called the One Eyed Dragon for having only one eye, his remaining socket covered up with a katana-hilt. He lost his eye thanks to the pox, which rotted it into submission. Stories go that it eventually hung from his eye socket and that Date ripped it out with his bear hands, considering it a liability in battle; how true that is? We can’t be sure.
  • It will be interesting to see how the following DLC will live up to what was put into work here. The cogs of Nioh are turning, but will they turn enough?


  1. I found your site from your Azel vid, glad u r around. Nioh is not Alexander.

  2. *azel article*. It's sad to see a genre die out but I think it will live on.

    1. Cheers man, glad you're enjoying the site! The genre will never truly die as long as we, the players, keep it alive!


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