Nioh has had a long journey from concept to game. It was actually originally announced in 2004 under the slightly different name Ni-Oh, with plans for it to launch in 2006 on the PlayStation 3. Not only that, Ni-oh was also a tie in to the first non-documentary film directed by Hisao Kurosawa, from a script written by his father, Akira Kurosawa himself! The script is titled Oni, and is a slightly surreal take on William Adam’s journey from wayward navigator to shogun’s confidante. James Clavell’s 1975 novel Shogun is also very loosely based on these historical events. A slightly more accurate (albeit still heavily romanticized) take can be found in the 1868 book Will Adams, The First Englishman in Japan, the entirety of which can be read here.
The film was cancelled, and while the game was said to still be in development by Koei Tecmo (then just KOEI) it stayed so under the radar it may as well have been cancelled too. However, out of nowhere in 2010 Koei Tecmo announced that Team Ninja was still working on the game, but there was still next to no real information on what it would be like beyond it being an action game focused on Japanese mythology.
Despite the film never being made, however, players still assume the role of a stranded mariner named William. This implies that a more character focused narrative will be present in the final game concerning our shipwrecked protagonist, but nothing of the sort surfaces in the demo. William’s design is also inexplicably a dead ringer of everyone’s favorite sardonic supernatural slayer, Geralt of the Witcher series. An odd choice.
Fortunately, despite his unceremonious introduction, our hero is proficient in the arts of combat, magic, and ninjutsu from the outset, with the only limit on his abilities being how one wants to distribute the
souls amrita acquired by killing enemies at the game’s bonfires shrines. This may make Team Ninja’s creativity seem lacking, but while the challenge players expect from FromSoftware’s Souls series is in full swing, Nioh is also built on an excellent foundation that helps it stand out. It’s would be unfair to say this game is just a clone of Dark Soul.
On the surface, however, such an assumption is understandable. Team Ninja being inspired by FromSoftware’s games is obvious from the moment one starts Nioh‘s demo and sees the in-game HUD and animations, but which FromSoftware games Team Ninja was inspired by is where is a bit more interesting. The last two times Nioh was announced by Koei Tecmo were in 2004 and 2010. So it seems like no coincidence that it’s a moody game of yōkai horror (Otogi: Myth of Demons, FromSoftware, 2003) with a savagery and speed to its combat in a world beginning to end that much more closely matches Demon‘s Souls (FromSoftware, 2009). None of these concepts are new to video games, but their execution in Nioh shows a clear line of influence from these games right down to Nioh‘s world being broken into discreet missions with a short but bleak world building description of each area – Something used to great effect in the Otogi series and Demon’s Souls.
That said, while FromSoftware fans of all stripes will feel at home with Nioh on a superficial level, Team Ninja has impressively crafted a unique method to its massacre with its own share of triumphs and annoyances, making it feel like a natural continuation of FromSoftware’s games instead of a knockoff.
Where FromSoftware’s more recent Bloodborne often requires one to lash out madly like a cornered animal to quickly regain life, Nioh demands a strict and precise rhythm to keep one’s stamina (called ki in the game) filled. The game rewards switching stances at just the right time between attacks by having their ki gauge refill faster, allowing players to inflict a measured but unyielding series of attacks. Good timing also gives players the opportunity to stun and perform dramatic finishing attacks on an enemy that results in a gruesome and/or cathatric decapitations dismemberment.
This deliberately paced carnage is an intelligent way to simultaneously merge the rhythm players expect in the Dark Souls games with Nioh‘s much faster combat and the calculated strikes that hit like a freight train which pop culture has taught us to expect from any fantasy character wielding a Japanese sword. It also preserves a principle that’s been present in every FromSoftware adventure game going back to the original King’s Field: A single enemy can be dispatched without too much trouble, but the challenge increases exponentially with each additional enemy that joins the fray.
Basing ki recovery on how disciplined one can be while switching stances under pressure is a brilliant way to preserve a sense of dread at the thought of fighting many enemies at once while still giving Nioh‘s combat a unique feel that offers players the tools to deal with seemingly impossible odds. While those playing FromSoftware’s later games will quickly run into instances where going berserk in the face of overwhelming enemies can often result in a narrow and unexpected victory, in Nioh once must be much more focused with each additional enemy added to an encounter. The only reward for even a second of recklessness is an immediate death. If one runs out of ki, they’re immobilized for a few seconds. Not just unable to attack, not just unable to run or dramatically dodge incoming blows, but stuck in one spot desperate to catch their breath. Against the game’s many ruthless enemies this generally means it’s game over. Fortunately, enemies can become winded just as the player can, and those wishing to fight more defensively can use this to great advantage to catch them off guard by baiting them into performing their most dramatic attacks.
Rather than having to seek out NPCs or perform tasks in an esoteric order throughout the game world to access these abilities, they’re all available from the get go at the shrine where players will restart the demo after dying. The first of these upgrades are a set of skills that can be learned for every weapon type. FromSoftware experimented very subtly with something similar as early as King’s Field II, but didn’t commit to giving each weapon a unique special attack until the release of Dark Souls III just last month.
Nioh‘s variety of options for upgrading one’s arsenal is stunning in comparison. Instead of just spending amrita to increase a weapon’s damage or attribute, there is a large number of new attacks and techniques linked to each weapon type, letting the player prioritize their spending early on to the exact type of swordplay they prefer. This also goes for the game’s magic (called onmyo in-game, evoking fantastical accounts of onmyōji like Abe no Seimei) and ninjutsu disciplines. The former involves various elemental attacks, while the latter involves various gadgets and traps that can be used to distract and confuse enemies. So when that exponential spike in difficulty happens as the player stumbles into several foes at once, they actually have several options at hand to deal with the ensuing battle.
This level of flexibility for character development along with the large number of viable combat options is outstanding. The only thing that hurts it is the very random access to new weapons. Rather than finding these naturally through exploration with the occasional rare treat dropped by a slain enemy, the most dependable way to acquire them is to find points where other players have died. Here one has the option to fight a computer controlled version of that player’s character to the death, with some of their equipment as a reward. Given the nature of the demo, however, the majority of these computerized revenants will only be armed with the most basic equipment. Defeated enemies have a chance of leaving behind items for the player, but this is very unreliable. I re-started the demo a few times to get a feel for this and in some instances, five minutes into the game I would have a variety of swords and polearms to choose from for different situations. Other times I would go through the entire demo with nothing but the starting sword.
This is exacerbated by the game’s inventory being based on the type of loot grinding one finds in online action games like Destiny in an MMO, and is one area where directly imitating the Souls games more would serve Nioh well. Every weapon has a different move set – an impressive feat as this takes into account three different stances worth of attacks and combos for each one – but instead of each new weapon found being an encouraging opportunity to experiment, players will often instead be inundated with many instances of the same weapon with very minor differences in its durability or attack power. Nioh‘s customization is flexible, but being able to do big damage to enemies efficiently is still the endgame of its combat, making these subtle differences totally superfluous beyond which one has the highest attack power.
The reason for that durability stat’s uselessness is the other major inconsistency with the game’s combat: Weapon durability is very poorly conveyed in the game itself. It’s very difficult to tell how much a wasted attack is wearing a weapon down, and to make matters worse restoring the durability of a weapon is a very rare event in this demo as it requires the use of a very uncommon item. This makes for a huge conflict with the everything else about how the game’s action works.
The combat and controls demand that the player experiment often with different weapons and stances in different situations to work out their favorite uses for each one (and there is even a weapon familiarity attribute that increases with heavy use to improve one’s proficiency with each!), yet at the same time players are very quickly punished for exploring each weapon’s options by said weapon quickly breaking. Something has to give for this to work, weapons either need to be able to take more of a beating, or they have to do away their rarity so that players are guaranteed to have a good variety to play with given time. Either way this is the game’s most glaring flaw.
Aside from that, what we have with Nioh‘s alpha is the basis for an outstanding experience made by people who clearly understand how to create action and pacing that complements their game’s setting. It will be interesting to see what changes are made to the game after the alpha has run its course to see if Koei Tecmo can take this very strong foundation and see it through into releasing a great game.