Dark Souls was hailed as the return of the hard-as-nails, but rewarding single player experience. Harkening back to a time where games would be developed to be hard as hell as to pad out game time, due to storage space limitations. I remember the hype everyone got wrapped up in upon its release, the endless praise it received. I had also grown tired of the relentless, insistent, hand holding that had started smothering games. Power fantasies are great and all, but being a nigh-indestructible killing machine loses its edge pretty quickly. Occasionally, we like to have our teeth kicked in and, god forbid, be CHALLENGED. Oh, cruel, meticulous gods! Have ye no mercy?! So, some time after the initial release, I picked up my own copy.
I looked forward to finally testing my skill and mettle along the way.
But I never found that chance. I found the game tedious, slow and unpolished. But not hard. I found everything BUT the actual combat difficult. But I’ll rant at length about that another time. The point I want to get across for now though, is that I didn’t hate Dark Souls. Ultimately, I was disappointed by it… And it saddened me. The potential promise of the game withering before my eyes, and the feeling sticks true to each and every successor that came afterwards. Naturally, any criticism I brought up in conversation both in reality and on the internet was met and excused with the typical “you’re not good enough” response. Which is probably why I dislike the crazed fanbase more than the series, perfectly happy waddling in mediocrity.
The few of you normal fans out there? You’re alright.
The first time I saw Nioh was when I was looking for something new on my PS4 and decided the demo section of the store may be a good place to look. It caught my eye as I lazily scrolled through countless games. It was obvious it was Dark Souls inspired and so I was initially sceptical of enjoying it, but figured it at least deserved a fair shot and wrote a reminder to download it the next day. But as I came back to it the next day, it was unavailable. A quick search later let me know it was a timed alpha and I’d unfortunately missed that boat. I was annoyed at the stupidity of it being timed, but avidly searched for the date of the next demo. August. Over two months away. I scribbled it down on a notepad and began counting days.
Funnily enough, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
I downloaded it the instant it became available, more or less anyway, I kept refreshing the store every couple of hours until it finally arrived. It had been gnawing at the back of mind for so long I was practically feverish to see if this was what I’d wanted out of Dark Souls for so long and if the good folks at Team Ninja had managed to craft a gem out of Nioh and deliver that experience to me. One thing that IMMEDIATELY caught my interest was that you were presented with a choice as you loaded the game. You’re given two choices in which to play the game: Action Mode lowers the quality of the graphics but delivers flawless 60FPS gameplay, while Movie Mode drops the game to a stable 30FPS but makes the game look stunning.
I obviously chose Action in the blink of an eye, but just the fact this choice exists at all makes me SO happy.
You play as William, loosely based on William Adams, the first Western samurai. In the beta, you land on a craggy shoreline with naught but the clothes on your back and a katana, tasked with killing the Yokai (demons) that infest it. Though you’ll be fighting through many human adversaries as well, the first encounter being a lone person. The game doesn’t hold back either. This was a game inspired, conjured even, by the promise of Dark Souls, but infused with the pace (and grace) of Ninja Gaiden. Even the first enemy can very easily overwhelm and kill you if you’re not prepared, as I saw from the piles of graves surrounding him. It’s invigorating, it keeps you on your toes at all times, flinch or panic and that one fluster could by met with your demise.
And I GODDAMN LOVE IT. Each fight won is a victory well deserved. Each death a lesson to be learnt.
As you may have noticed in the bottom right corner of each screenshot, Nioh has an interesting system when it comes to combat. Stances. Each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but it isn’t limited to the player. Enemies can use this to their advantage too, forcing the player to adapt to the situation and master their technique, swapping between them often while fighting. A constant battle of trying to retain the upper hand in combat and stay one step ahead of your opponent. High stance delivers devastating but slow blows leaving you open to attack, but it’s the easiest way to break your opponent’s guard. Low stance allows you to attack far faster while being far more evasive at the cost of damage and middle is the defensive form between the two.
But there’s more to the combat than that. See that green bar up there? That’s your ki.
All melee attacks weak and strong, blocks, dashes and rolls will consume a certain amount of ki. This depends on the weight of your armour and the stance in which you’re attacking. Managing your ki is incredibly important as running out will leave you vulnerable. If you’re hit without ki, you’ll be staggered and winded leaving you open to an execution move and if that doesn’t kill you, the kick afterwards might, and if THAT doesn’t kill you, you’re still open to attack as you get back to your feet. Fortunately, managing this is another aspect of skill to master due to the ki pulse. Upon losing ki, the amount consumed will begin to glow blue, if you press R1 as it reaches its original point, the ki is returned. Mastering this is vital for survival.
It’s the difference between the final blow to kill your foe or the dash that will save your life.
But if you thought that wasn’t technical enough as it is, there’s also skills that can be performed with the weapon of your choice. Be it katana, dual katana, great hammer, spear or axe and there will be more in the full game. These add to the constant feeling of mastering what you do best. They all have unique abilities of their own with incredibly detailed animations. (Though I need to say all the animation in Nioh is bloody incredible.) But even these have to be timed excellently in order to be utilised, nothing is earned for nothing in Nioh. But the risk is most definitely worth the reward as they can change the tide of battle in an instant if you seize the opportunity and let me tell you, it’s ridiculously satisfying to pull off correctly.
For instance, take this revenant my friend and I decided to fight.
Mix all that together and you have Nioh’s incredible combat. It’s such a cool premise to be fighting against the forces of Japanese mythology with historical authenticity woven into it. In the weapons you use, the technique, the other characters you come across. It’s simply fantastic. Revenants are Nioh’s version of invasions from Dark Souls, minus the awful netcode and players. They are either bots or the restless spirits of real fallen players. You can beckon an A.I. duplicate of them from the Yokai realm to fight at your own will. Be it for the equipment they have or simply the challenge. Gotta tell you, beating a level 20 as a level 4 feels pretty sweet, especially considering nothing they potentially drop is level locked. You can equip everything immediately.
It’s wonderful not to interrupted by idiots who want to ruin your progress.
Nioh isn’t open world but instead consists of single levels on a world map. I prefer this as it feels like a far more focused experience from place to place. Once you enter a level you can’t leave until either you beat it or use a rare item to return to the map screen. Though if you need help, you can offer an ochoko cup at a shrine to summon a player. Fortunately, with the secret word system, it’s fairly easy to find a friend. Talking of the shrine, there’s a couple of interesting things to mention. It fully heals you and allows you to level up, but that’s the typical stuff. What I want to talk about are the friendly spirits who want to help you on your journey! Both the lost ones who need a home, and those always by your side in the heat of battle.
I’m talking of both kodamas and spirit animals!
This little guy (if it is one) and all his brethren are Kodamas. Little, child-like spirits who often wander and find themselves lost but are friendly to people who help them. By leading them back to the shrine, they’ll reward you with their loyalty by offering you a passive bonus as well as giving you gifts when you sacrifice unwanted loot to the shrine! But first you have to find the little guys and they manage to get just about everywhere… Fortunately, the world map indicates how many are in each area and how many of those you’ve found. You can tell what they offer by their choice of hat, the more you rescue, the stronger the effect. In both demos, despite there being money, there was no way to buy healing supplies at shops.
So these guys were my favourite type of Kodama, as they offered a higher chance of finding elixirs!
Then there are the spirit animals called guardian spirits. You can choose which you want freely at the shrine and they’ll accompany your soul sharing their strength passively to aid you. If you’re to fall in battle, they will guard your grave, or more accurately, your spirit and the Amrita you had upon death until you return to claim it. (Clue’s in the name.) But they also have one incredible trick. When charged, they can jump out of your body and into your world, appearing by your side damaging and staggering enemies, before leaping into your weapon to transform it into a living weapon. Not only do you now hit hard as hell, but you’re also very briefly INVINCIBLE. But, like Ki, every action drains the timer, as well as damage proportional to the amount taken.
This makes them perfect for unleashing a finishing frenzy of attacks or as a last resort before death.
In Nioh, if you die, you return to the shrine you last prayed at without your guardian spirit, as it’s busy doing its job, obviously. But if you’re in co-op and your recently deceased partner returns from the grave, your guardian spirit will jump to your partner’s soul until they reach their own spirit. I think that’s a fantastic touch to the co-op. I was surprised how well the co-op worked in general actually. Practically no lag, and the little that was there only made the other player look a bit jittery. It never effected the combat or the flow of the gameplay and I have to commend Team Ninja for getting that right. In a game like Nioh where every millisecond counts, it’s essential that your control is never stolen away from you.
Loot is also universal which means no squabbling. You can also drop items/weapons to each other!
You can see one of the mini-bosses responsible for the murder of my partner in the screenshot above, a Yoki. As tough as they can be, they’re nothing compared to the boss at the end of the two stages available that I played in the beta. But they are absolutely fantastic. They can induce some colourful language, for sure, just like the rest of the game, but they’re fair but brutal. The satisfaction of finally beating them though is worth the pain you must suffer. I wish I had a heartbeat monitor hooked up to me while I fought them so I could show you how damn fast my heart was beating in both excitement and sheer stress and fear. In the first stage, you need to reach the ship at the end of the village. Upon finally getting there, you board the boat.
And you’re met with this handsome devil, or should I say demon?
I find it really damn cool that Yoki’s (basically powerful humanoid Yokai, though aren’t they also called Oni? Anyway…) were people who died with unsettled grudges or those who let themselves be consumed by hatred and transformed into demons, forming a physical manifestation of their emotions. Oh, and if you’re wondering what the white fire is, it’s essentially a warning for a big attack. The dark pools are Yokai realms where your ki will stop regenerating, purified with either a ki pulse or by throwing salt. Moving onto the second boss of the beta, first you must fight your way through a series of caves full of Yokai and people. Not only to put an end to the mysterious disappearances but also to save someone from her clutches.
Time to meet the lovely lady herself.
In case it hadn’t sunk in with those screenshots. (No, I will not apologise.) It turns out to be a vampiress, using seduction to lure the local men to their deaths so she could feed, and just like with Onryoki, the fight is awesome. The variety of attacks keep you guessing, (Especially with Onryoki, once his chains are shattered.) as you look for those short chances to land a blow, all the while balancing your ki between attacks, blocks, dashing, rolling and sprinting. Both of these bosses test the limits of your skill and your nerve, with their huge amounts of health it’s also becomes an endurance test. That only adds to the pressure as you whittle down their health bar and they do the same to you. There isn’t a single moment you can get comfortable.
Always stay alert. Nothing stings more than dying to a boss on single digit health.
But, again, just in case you weren’t bleeding enough, Nioh introduces Twilight mode. completed stages (Except for the duel.) have significantly harder versions alongside the standard at certain times. These raise the suggested level by 20-30 levels usually, adding much tougher, harder hitting enemies in new areas or replacing old enemies altogether. These levels are essentially the boss version of the old level. Not to mention the old boss still lies in wait for you at the end with brand new tricks and, of course, being tougher to kill. These missions are completely optional and are just for those looking to see if they can stand the heat. These missions are ludicrous but the sense of accomplishment that fulfills you when you finally succeed…
…It’s worth doing for that alone. There’s a reason the 10th Nioh screenshot has that caption.
Oh, and the music… The soundtrack for this game is nothing short of incredible. It nails each scene perfectly without fail and I even know a few tracks off by heart. From loving it! Not from it being burnt into my memory from rage, I promise! I’ve been listening to the entire beta OST while writing this. (Saving the alpha for the full game!) But if you get a chance, you should listen to it. I mean THIS is the track upon fighting the first mini-boss. I’m really missing this game and can’t wait for the full release, which I’m glad I can say considering the alpha was a different beast and might have put me off even trying the beta if I’d played that first. Though unfortunately I missed out on a stage and its boss that didn’t make it to the beta as a result.
This game has won my heart with how great it is and the promise of it simply being bigger and better in the full game. Since the developers were one of the few out there who actually utilised having an alpha and beta to make the game the best it could possibly be and nailing it in the process. It would be nice if other developers took this to heart considering how many… Ha… “Betas”… Are actually just glorified demos to promote the game for free and have absolutely no effect on the final product. Oh, hey DICE, didn’t see you there! Nioh is exactly what I was hoping Dark Souls would be while exceeding those expectations and has skyrocketed to the very tippy-top of my anticipated games list. February can’t come soon enough…
But over absolutely everything, the thing I love most? Nioh proves all those idiots who doubted me wrong!