Nioh is looking like it might be one of my favourite games of the year. Miraculous, actually, because 2017 is the year I hung up my love for soulslikes permanently. As a formula, the Souls games don’t really lend themselves too well to imitation, primarily because much of the draw of the seminal dark fantasy game is in its unknowable mystery. The world was a beautiful, lost enigma, one that you could never hope to fathom. But thanks to the internet and a multitude of fan communities, the secrets of the games are, by now, quite common knowledge amongst souls enthusiasts like myself. The lore of the world, the layout of Lordran, the stats and the multitude of character builds, the tragic stories of the games hopeless inhabitants have been extensively detailed in a multitude of wiki’s, youtube videos and, of course, blogs much like this one. So when you try to copy that formula, a souls fan will be able to pick apart the individual influences and homages to the point where you have to question why it is you picked up that game in the first place. I’ve done all this before. It isn’t a mystery anymore. The law of diminishing returns means that any new takes on FromSofts legendary game need to bring something vastly different to the table each time, or they risk looking completely redundant upon arrival.
So in a way, then Team Ninja is well placed to do something with the soulslike formula that you wouldn’t have expected. If I told you that Dark Souls would be great if it was faster, bloodier and sexier, you’d scoff. But somehow, that’s what Nioh is. It’s taken the elements we like from the Souls games and put them into a Diablo spectacle fighter. And while much of the Souls games is spent in dingy, doom laden halls talking to lost souls about philosophy, Nioh is mostly spent showering the walls in the blood of demons and collecting their multi coloured loot. Thematically it won’t make you think much, and of course, the story is pure fantasy pulp fiction to match, but it actually works to the games strength. Not being bound by the creative and intellectual binds that make a Souls game a Souls game means Team Ninja can be a little sillier and take a lot more concessions towards more traditional video game logic. This is a world where Sengoku Period warlords are able to summon spirit animals and shoot lightning from their spears – it’s not exactly authentic but it is great fun. Great, pulpy, action adventure fun.
But the thematic silliness isn’t the only departure from the Souls bible of game design – Nioh doesn’t just give you a stamina based fighting mechanic to play with. It reinforces it with a heavy dose of action RPG loot grind goodness. The kind of RPG where killing a boss can shower the arena floor in a veritable rainbow of shiny loot for you to hoover up into your endless inventory. The kind of RPG that feels like smashing open a pinata and watching the sweets cascade onto the living room floor every time you kill an enemy. So much so that it eventually becomes quite the chore to manage your vast inventory of goods later on the in the game. Nioh also just feels much more like a video game where as Dark Souls is so immersive at times it feels like you are that lonely warrior stuck in the limbo of death. In Nioh it’s quite happy to just tell you “hey, you unlocked a thing! isn’t that great?” whereas Dark Souls would on purpose refuse to tell you and just let you randomly stumble on it.
That being said though, there’s quite a spectacular learning curve to Nioh, even among long time souls veterans like myself. It ain’t no slouch, that’s for sure, so even though it’s much more rewarding and video gamey than we’re used to soulslikes being doesn’t mean it’s going to go easy on you. Combat in Nioh somehow manages to feel far deeper than anything we’ve seen previously but still be wildly fun to match. You still have to time your attacks properly and learn the attack patterns of your foes, but each weapon now has three whole separate stances to master, each with their own attacks, combos and individual moves to learn by way of levelling up. The speed per fight is also blisteringly fast at times, with most engagements over in a matter of seconds. Not because it’s too easy, just because each swing of a weapon is so devastating for both sides and within those milliseconds of lightning fast katana swipes, one slightly misjudged swing of your blade can result in a very quick death. The margins for error in Nioh are wafer thin and that’s what makes the game so eminently fun to play. That tension between blistering speed and devastating power feels so incredibly exciting. it’s not uncommon to spend a moment circling your foe first before they become shredded on your dual katanas. At first, it almost feels too quick but once Nioh clicks, it all feels so fluid and technical and… natural.
It’s not all unfair, though, there are lots of little quirks of the system you can exploit to your advantage and much like the series progenitor, there is a veritable library of character builds you can experiment with. You can spec your character in any way you want. You can be a shuriken throwing ninja that can kick people to death. You can be an honourable, heavily armoured samurai that dispatches people in quick, precise movements or a heavy tank that swings axes and hammers. And there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from mixing and matching all of these together. All of these choices augment the visual style of Nioh too as attack animations have so much flair and style to them than it just loves to make you feel satisfied. Nioh simply wants to put a smile on your face. If you can dispatch a huge Yokai with a flurry of swords, before kicking his flailing body over as one final insult, it’s hard not to smile at just how fun it is.
Team Ninja has shown so much passion for Nioh, too. Someone is clearly keeping an eye on player feedback because even six months after release there is still a regular wave of fine tuning patches and refinements that subtly change the finer details of the games in ways I will probably never be able to understand but the passion is worn on their sleeves and it should be applauded. Not only has the DLC kept firmly in line with the main game, but it’s raised the level cap, introduced extra tiers of loot drops and even extra difficulty modes for those high-end players. Did I mention they added a PVP mode free of charge by the way? Because they did, and it’s fantastic. That the game is so well loved by its own development team is a mark of shining praise on Team Ninja for creating something from the heart.