When the alpha to Nioh, the highly-anticipated PS4-exclusive, was released, wary ripples gradually formed in the community, regarding whether it’s more of a Dark Souls rip-off than its own conceptual project.
Apart from several technical similarities between the two titles, they have very little in common otherwise, making Nioh a welcome, and very much original, project.
An authentic and action-packed release, it paints an immersive world with realistic colours, as many of the characters are historical. Related through the eyes of William Adams, the protagonist, you explore feudal Japan as the world’s first Western Samurai, in his search for the Amrita – a crystal believed to be able to turn the tide of the Anglo-Spanish war in Elizabeth I’s favour.
In his attempt to locate said artefact, William will face numerous human and supernatural foes. This is where the first misconception comparing Nioh to Souls crept in: that the linear gameplay and farcically-difficult enemies and bosses essentially equated the two games in the same dynamic.
This is partially true, as the enemies’ fighting stances, unfair numbers and buffs, boss’ unrelenting HP, and the protagonist’s annoyingly limited stamina bar, all resonate with the blood bath that we all had to pass through in Souls.
Nioh, however, balances this bloodbath on the spectrum of ability and skill, giving a well-rounded experience as opposed to a mockery of the player.
Whereas Souls developers openly focused on the satisfaction aspect of defeating an enemy – the ‘do whatever it takes, drop them off a ledge, beat them with a shovel’ desperation-type conflict – ultimately leading to an intense (and addicting) sense of relief and accomplishment post-battle, Nioh focuses on approach and intentionality.
Your moves are not random and panicky, you need to approach the enemy from a particular stand-point, customizing your strategy to the specific foe. This was a smart decision on the developer’s part, as the game’s design is therefore purposeful, making this a very elaborate puzzle-solver of sorts.
That is to say, the developers included some relatively easy hacks to defeat each individual enemy, your job is to find them. This accent gratefully takes us out of the realm of blind hacking and endless block-n-rolling, as we’re no longer guessing and stabbing thin air (in theory).
Don’t get me wrong, the game is no casual stroll. The relatively-manageable base enemies make the difficulty of the bosses all the more apparent, and they are difficult.
Diverse and interesting, yes, but still frustratingly tough.
Not just the bosses, but all enemies are endlessly varied, however. Combined with the extensive, exotic list of Japanese specialised weapons, and specific approaches for each opponent, this left no room for repetitive movements or audible sighs as I approached a new enemy, as there are many that you will only come across once, making even the most basic battles unique.
The developers clearly focused on finding that golden ratio between making the game too challenging and not challenging enough, a claim supported by the fact that co-op is only unlocked after each level has been passed solo.
So no pairing up and breezing through – the game is fine-tuned to the experience of just one dedicated player. This caused some controversy, as this uncompromising position wasn’t announced pre-release, but makes the title’s self-assurance admirable, in my opinion.
The Last Guardian-esque, convoluted and fuzzy storytelling style, favouring the big end-reveal over comprehensive developments, is also apparent. I personally am not a fan of the long build-up and the short revealing climax – I believe it puts too much pressure on the revelation to deliver to too wide a range of expectations – it does work in Nioh, as the pieces form a realistic, poignant picture with a plausible and neat ending.
Plus, of course, there’s the historical aspect. A relatively obscure story is here celebrated with all the potency it entails, as the social and historical traditions of the world’s East and West are combined in plot, mentality, and development approaches. This project, not unlike numerous Final Fantasy instalments, is authentically a foreigner’s perspective on a far-away culture’s traditions and ways of life, fusing and exploring both.
To sum up, I’d say Nioh learned from the weaker points of the Dark Souls paradigm, not stole from it. While it matches Souls in gothic ambience and fantastic score, it levels out some of the sharp and incongruous parts of the Souls universe. It then wraps those up in a great big blanket of history and lore, and elevates the player’s contribution by focusing on intentional skill and less on chance, thus demanding the gameplay to be taken more seriously. Overall, a tremendous experience, made so much more rich by the underrated historical moments it presents and celebrates.