We go hands-on with Nioh, Team Ninja’s Souls-inspired adventure
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and when it comes to Team Ninja’s latest game, Nioh, it seems pretty evident that the Ninja Gaiden developer is quite smitten with From Software’s “Souls” series. From the game’s dark and oppressive environments and methodical combat to the punishing difficulty the demonic enemies provide, Nioh proudly wears its inspiration on its armored sleeve. That’s not to say it’s merely a pale imitation of what’s gone to become one of today’s most popular gaming franchises, as Nioh’s dreary vision of a hellish Feudal Japan is captivating, and the game’s tight, stance-based combat system is honed to a katana’s edge.
Those who’ve cut their teeth on any of the entries in From Software’s punishing franchise will feel right at home the moment they step off their dinghy and onto the rocky shores of Nioh’s opening area. The ruined village is littered with the corpses of fallen players, and ghoulish swordsmen who slowly amble to their feet before raising their blades and moving in for the kill. When clashing swords with foes the combat feels almost lifted from Dark Souls, as you deliberately guard your enemy’s attacks and strike whenever you find an opening. Each swing of your sword drains your “Ki” meter, which functions as your stamina, and depleting this meter will leave you temporarily stunned which usually results in a quick and humiliating defeat at the hands of an opportunistic demon swordsman. That said, you’ll have to strike a fine balance between offensive and defensive play to make it far in Nioh, as enemies are always quick to capitalize on your mistakes.
Enemies drop Amrita when killed, a currency that can be gathered and then spent at shrines scattered throughout the world to level up your character’s various stats. These shrines, which act very much like Dark Souls‘ bonfires, also allow you to restock your supply of healing elixirs (read: Estus) and assign various Guardian Spirits. Represented by different animals, these familiar-like entities each bring a different bonus to your character when assigned, such as granting you a special melee ability, or various stat buffs such as improved stamini, speed and other useful bonuses to give you an upper hand. You’ll want to return to these shrines frequently as well, because if you die and are unable to recover your body you’ll lose any Amrita you had previously acquired for good.
Like many of its other features, Nioh‘s combat system may seem to closely mirror that of the Dark Souls games on the surface, but it is actually built around a pretty interesting mechanic that adds quit a bit of diversity to each encounter. Each weapon can be wielded using three different stances, and each of these comes with its own unique moves that capitalize on various situations, such as rapid thrusting combos with a spear that can buckle your foes, leaving then in a vulnerable heap or punishing slashes with your katana that can leave your enemy headless. Holding your weapon in a forward stance is balanced, and suitable for most encounters, while wielding it vertically dishes out more powerful blows at a greater cost to your Ki guage. Lastly, wielding your weapon in a low stance is perfect for striking an enemy as they ready their attack. Oftentimes you’ll need to cycle through these various stances mid-fight to adjust to the flow of battle. But bear in mind that enemies can do the same, making each melee feel like a fluid and dynamic affair.
Those looking for a challenge will definitely find one in Nioh, as even the game’s first few encounters are something of a trial by fire. Thankfully, the enemies you kill frequently drop weapons and armor that are leagues better than what you start out with. Even still, until you’ve managed to gain a few levels and fully deck out your character in some gear with good stats you’ll probably want to stay away from mobs of enemies that can chew through your health bar like a badger on methamphetamine. You’ll find some good ways to even the odds though, as you can toss rocks to lure out enemies and separate them from their allies, as well as potent gunpowder bombs that can inflict some serious damage on groups of enemies that are clustered together. Once you finally get some sturdy gear and familiarize yourself with the mechanics things do become noticeably easier, and after a few hours you’ll be able to eviscerate a handful of goons at at a time with a barrage of sweeping blows with your spear, showering you and your weapon in chunky viscera. This organic sense of growth is immensely satisfying and will keep you slaying away gleefully for hours to become a real force to be reckoned with.
Sure, Nioh‘s similarities to its obvious inspiration are a borderline criminal, but that didn’t do anything to stop me from enjoying the hell out of the several hours I spent with the title during its Alpha period. After all, game’s Sengoku-era aesthetic is a welcome change of pace from the gloomy Gothic locales we’ve been trudging through in the Souls games for the past few years, and the tense, stance-based combat makes combat consistently engaging and entertaining. With Hidetaka Miyazaki apparently done with the Souls series for now, it seems like Team Ninja is off to a great start in keeping that sadistic action-RPG torch burning with Nioh. We can’t wait to see how the full game stacks up when it releases exclusively on the PlayStation 4 later this year.
So, did you participate in the Nioh Alpha? If so, what did you think of your time with the game? Be sure to sound off in the comments section and let us know!