I’ve completed the first level of the Nioh Beta, and as a big Dark Souls fan, I’m ready to share some thoughts on Team Ninja’s shot at a Souls clone.
There are few game franchises out there more near and dear to my heart than Dark Souls, From Software’s RPG masterpieces. So enthralled with those games I am, the idea of getting another take on the core ideas of the series from a new source excites me, even if the most prominent example to date, Lords of the Fallen, left a lot to be desired.
Enter Nioh, or as I’ve been affectionately referring to it, “Samurai Souls,” the new PS4-exclusive game from Team Ninja. While Nioh’s production history dates as far back as 2004, albeit looking very different from today, the current game has decidedly taken a cue from the Souls series in everything from gameplay, to presentation, to network features.
Of course, it’s not the first game to do this. As mentioned before, Lords of the Fallen got a lot of press for being a Souls clone, though, as I said, I personally thought that left a lot to be desired. Salt and Sanctuary is another game which wore its influences on its sleeve, mostly to its own advantage (though at a certain point being a 2D Souls game is basically just being a new Castlevania game). So how does Nioh fare? Pretty well, actually.
From the moment you move the character for the first time, it looks sounds, and feels like a Souls game. In terms of moment to moment action, if I had to compare it to a certain game in the series, I would compare it to Bloodborne, with speed and aggression being the most important characteristics. While there is blocking, that often seems like a good way to run out of Ki (the game’s stamina system), and if you run out of Ki you’ll find yourself in deep trouble, as it’ll not only prevent you from dodging or attacking, but from moving at all if you’ve found yourself hit (of course the same is true of any enemies you might encounter).
Luckily, Ki is easier to instantly regenerate than stamina is in the Souls series, as a quick tap of the R1 button at the right time will instantly regenerate the Ki used during your most recent combo (heavy and light attacks are shifted to the triangle and square buttons, respectively). This system reminds me of the way you were encouraged by Bloodborne to play aggressively.
Nioh also feels like it prioritizes dodging more than ever. A single tap of the X button will execute a quickstep, with a double tap performing a full-on roll. Fighting the first boss available in the beta, this was absolutely a necessity to master, as the boss heavily telegraphed its attacks, but hit like a truck if you failed to dodge (if you want to watch me kill this boss, and get an idea of what the game looks like in motion, click here).
A scarce few healing items (elixers) are provided when using a shrine (think bonfire), but beyond that these are few and far between, so avoiding damage as much as possible is essential (this is all in my experience, there may well be ways to build characters more into block than dodge, but it wasn’t what I immediately felt the game was leading me toward).
Another interesting system are the different stances weapons can be held in. Any weapon can be held in a heavy, mid, or light stance, with speed and damage balancing out, and with different enemies requiring different approaches. Beyond this, you also have what amounts to a “super” meter filling as you acquire souls (or “amrita” as this game calls it), allowing you to deal massive damage and avoid some incoming damage every so often. You’ll need it for the extremely high health Oni mini-bosses scattered throughout the burning village of the first level available in the beta.
Honestly, there are so many other systems that I found intriguing, I could go on all day. Bloodstains allow you to fight an NPC version of the player who died. Your own bloodstain is actually a “spirit animal,” and you’re somewhat stronger while you have it, even able to sacrifice the souls on a bloodstain to summon it back while at the shrine. It even has Diablo-styled colored loot drops! Sweet, sweet epics in a Soulsalike? I like the sound of that.
Structurally, the game more similarly resembles Demon’s Souls, with separate, disconnected levels available from a map. It’s actually contextualized as “missions” with “sub-missions” also being available. The one sub-mission I completed was very short, being three wave-based encounters of three waves each, the whole thing taking about 15 minutes total, compared to the much, much more lengthy full mission I completed.
What about the story, I hear you asking, hypothetical person who is as obsessed with the lore of the Souls games as I am?
The game is on an unproduced script by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa titled Oni, the game follows a fictionalized version of real-life historical figure William Adams, English sailor turned Samurai demon hunter (at least in the game). Judging the merits of the story based on this beta seems unfair, given that pieces of it may very well be missing, though I will say it seems to be attempting to strike a balance between the ultra vague environmental storytelling of the Souls series, and a more traditional game narrative. Also, this happens:
I like that bit.
As you progress through the game and pick up items on corpses (familiar territory for the Souls series) voiceover will start playing, as though William is reliving the memories of the dead, and more importantly, filling in pieces of the story for the player. It’s a neat way to introduce explicit narrative to the exploration of the world.
That said, from what little I’ve seen, the story doesn’t seem particularly interesting. That may change later on, but it left very little impression on me so far. Except the bit with the cat.
I like that bit.
I’ve said a lot of good things about the game, complimenting both the ways it is similar to the From Software games, and many of the ways it is different. So is it perfect? Absolutely not. What about the stuff I didn’t like about the beta?
First of all, let me talk about the level design, as it seems a bit uneven. As of writing this, I’ve played through the entire first level available in the beta, a brief sub-mission, and the very beginning of the second level available in the beta. The first level is essentially split into two halves, the forested shore you start off on, and a burning village you head toward. The forest was great fun, and felt pretty solid to me. The burning village on the other hand… For one thing, this section felt too long, especially with the enemy type being almost exactly the same as in the forested area. Secondly, navigating it was sometimes difficult, as the flames are casually placed in the middle of tight corridors where you need to dodge enemy attacks. Dodging into flames accidentally killed me more than once. While the movement and combat are definitely enjoyable, I won’t pretend the game feels quite as good as the Souls games do, either.
It also felt like the same Oni miniboss was placed a few too many times in this section, requiring you to, essentially, do the same difficult fight four or so times in a row (luckily these did not respawn). The houses in the village also have a serious case of looking a bit too much alike, as the same layout is used repeatedly for interiors. Having these problems with level design when you’re trying to pull from a game whose level design is (with some exceptions) so incredible doesn’t look good.
I also have concerns about the length of the game. While the first level was a decent length, I’d want there to be at the absolute least ten or so more of them after that, and I found that I already had a large number of the one collectible available in the beta, little spirits called Kodama, after completing this level. By my count there are 25 of these Kodama available in the game (five of each of the five types), with nine of them being listed as available in the first level, six more in the level after that.
Of course, that may all change and rebalance as the beta goes on, they may have hidden more than they would have in the base game in the early levels of the beta, or a million other explanations for that. Still, if it were indeed only 4-5 levels, that would be highly concerning, regardless of quality.
A mild complaint, and another one which may only be applicable to the beta, was the complete lack of any sort of character customization as far as I saw in the beta. Granted, William being a defined character as opposed to a generic player character, this does make sense, but I always love a good character creator.
At least the Fashion Souls is good so far. I call this one “The Pantsless Shogun.”
All of that said, the beta is showing a whole lot of promise, and I think Souls fans have reason to get excited for this one. The good news is, the beta is available for anyone with a PS4 and PS+ until September 6th, so if you’re reading this before that, I highly recommend downloading it and trying it for for yourself! They’re even offering some sort of exclusive content for the full game for those who complete each level of the beta, for those up to the challenge. In fact, I think I’m going to go try to beat that second level myself.