I have to admit I’m surprised more games haven’t tried to capitalise on the Souls formula in recent years; apart from Lords of the Fallen and maybe Dragon’s Dogma to a lesser extent. Gears of War and Call of Duty were practically an industry template for an entire generation, so either the big publishers learned from their mistakes (unlikely), or this type of game is much harder to replicate. Published by Koei Tecmo and developed Team Ninja (of Ninja Gaiden fame), Nioh picked up a lot of buzz during its re-reveal last year due to its apparent similarities with the Souls games as well as its setting of Feudal Japan. This wasn’t always the case, though. This story goes way back. And I mean, way back.
Originally announced in 2004 under the name “Oni,” it was said to be based on an unfinished script by filmmaker Akira Kurosawa with the intention of releasing it alongside a companion film of the same name. During E3 2005, however, the game was re-branded as “Ni-Oh” in a new pre-rendered trailer and slated for release in summer 2006. Ironically, Ni-Oh was the first-ever PlayStation 3 game to receive an official release date; although, that particular build would never see the light of day. 2006 came and went without any word, and apart from the odd nod here or there over the past decade, we received nothing concrete until Tokyo Game Show 2015 where it was officially re-revealed as “Nioh”.
When I first learned about Nioh, I was immediately in two minds. As these titles have been so scarce, I am always up to see another take on the Souls formula. However, 10+ years of development hell certainly isn’t overly encouraging. Souls games are driven by a strong vision, and without that, I’m not so sure it could work—it certainly didn’t for Lords of the Fallen, which was okay but not very memorable. Although, it has been awhile since anything big happened with Feudal Japan in the gaming world, and from everything I have seen and played so far, I don’t think identity is going to be an issue. It’s definitely no Dark Souls in terms of art style or world design, but it has made a very strong impression.
The alpha demo for Nioh (strictly available until May 5) provides access to two sizeable areas; the first being a fishing village set aflame by mysterious invaders while the second is set in the city of Dazaifu where demonic beings from the Yokai realm are running rampant. What immediately took me by surprise is that the game is very loosely based around historical locations, events, and people. Set in 17th century Japan, the lead character, William, was inspired by William Adams, the first Englishman to travel to Japan and the first known Western Samurai. While his background does differ, instead being the son of a Japanese lord and a Western woman, I thought the historical references were a nice touch.
The best place to start in explaining Nioh is how it’s similar to Dark Souls—or “Dying Games” as the genre has been creatively referred to by producer Kou Shibusawa. A lot of the fundamentals will feel familiar: when you kill something, you accumulate a currency known as Amrita (Hindu word for immortality), and, should you die, all of your Amrita will drop in that location with only one chance to recover it. In addition, when you die, all the enemies respawn; which also happens if you use a “Shrine”—a functionally similar concept to the bonfire system in the Souls games. This is where you start, and it’s also where players can upgrade stats, sell items, summon another player, or tweak skills and perks.
Much like when I approached Dragon’s Dogma for the first time, even though it had similar controls to a Souls game, trying to play it as such just leads to frustration. While you do click in the right stick to lock onto an enemy and must carefully calculate how you attack, the way combat works in Nioh is arguably more similar to Bloodborne in that the enemies are typically quick and aggressive. You will only circle an enemy while guarding, though, and guarding is a big deal in Nioh (as is closely watching the stamina of both yourself and the enemy). That said, I have to admit that fighting more than one enemy at a time is currently way too unbalanced, so I’d like to see that improved upon prior to release.
I think it’s fair to say the gameplay does feel a bit sloppy, so I did experience a few deaths where I felt the controls had let me down. I expect this may turn off some newcomers, but being an alpha, I’m not worried just yet as it’s nothing that can’t be polished. I think what I like most about Nioh is how heavily loot-based it is. Practically every enemy will drop something, so, similar to a dungeon crawler, the drive for loot eases the strain of repetitiveness (a barrier-to-entry common in the genre). In turn, I found myself constantly changing up my arsenal, appearance, and experimenting with items. I also like that you can sell excess gear at shrines for Amrita and to build up a stock of elixirs and other rewards.
I was surprised by the depth and versatility of the combat mechanics. There are three main weapon classes: Swords, Spears, and Axes. Each weapon type (categorised under “Samurai Skills”) is privy to a series of upgrades and well as customisable combos. When fighting, you can equip two weapons at any time; each of which has a quick and heavy attack. Further to that, though, you can switch between three different stances at any time (low, mid, high), which can be used to employ different combos and tactics based on the enemy type you’re fighting. There are also “Ninja Skills” which primarily consist of projectiles, and “Onmyo Magic” for enveloping weapons with elemental magic and bonuses.
The demo is actually quite lengthy (I’ve already invested several hours), though that was in part due to its masochistic nature. Most of my playthrough was spent in the fishing village, as that’s where I cut my teeth. I enjoyed a lot about it, but also got frustrated at times because I was instinctively playing it like a Souls game. However, after getting my head around its nuances and working to defeat the boss at the end of that stage, I walked away feeling positive about my experience overall. I especially enjoy the balance of aggression and defence; an almost middle-ground between Dark Souls and Bloodborne. I also like the tactical depth in seeing damage counters and the stamina bar on your enemies.
Thematically, Team Ninja’s approach to the art style and language resonates well with me. I’m not convinced the game would be so captivating had it not been set in Feudal Japan, but it’s a good thing that everything synergises so well. It feels different, which is great, and I like how it embraces Japanese spirituality (a nice change from the decrepit themes so common in the genre). The systems unique to Nioh, such as choosing an animal spirit guardian, the ki meter and living weapon mode, fighting the ghosts of those who have fallen, and hunting for shrine spirits known as “Kodoma” to activate special bonuses; each adds something special to make the game feel fresh despite its imitative components.
As far as “Dying Games” go, Nioh definitely stands out from others that have tried to capitalise on this genre. It’s still rough around the edges, requires some balancing, and lacks visual polish, but that’s not unexpected from an alpha demo. The option to choose between optimising the frame rate or resolution is also something I’d like to see in more console games. Sadly, though, at this stage, it’s difficult to talk about any of these titles without comparing them to the Souls series and then trying not to obsess over all their smaller nuances. Nioh isn’t necessarily any more approachable than a Souls game, but I do think the setting of Feudal Japan in combination with a dungeon crawler-esque approach to loot could engage a broader audience. The versatility of its combat system also shakes up the formula in interesting ways. I expect that Nioh may be polarising in how it’s received right now, but I liked it and believe it has great potential.