It has taken a suspiciously long time before anyone attempted to emulate the success of Demon’s Souls and its offspring the Dark Souls series. Only two years ago did Lords of the Fallen take a somewhat random stab at it (and died). From Software’s own Bloodborne was so similar that it spontaneously generated the “Soulsborne” genre name and wasn’t even regarded as a competitor. Maybe it’s simply too difficult a task to fill From’s shoes. Would be kind of poetic, wouldn’t it?
Last year a game popped up that was a curious mix of elements: Nioh. Here was a game developed by the emasculated Team Ninja at Tecmo (even though its crown jewels aren’t exactly highly regarded), led by Koei’s Kou Shibusawa (wait, who?), set at the end of a Japanese era very close to Koei’s heart (Sengoku, what else) with a heavy dose of folklore, and carrying a swagger that screamed “Soulsborne” every five seconds.
Its first beta test was more akin to an alpha and for a lot of people it was kind of frustrating. Not exactly a good start. Fast forward to the third beta test and here’s a game that’s comfortably self-assured, taking the best bits from Soulsborne games and the gear grind from Diablo III all dressed up in Japanese folklore.
It’s also a bit easier than a Soulsborne.
Grinding the soul
OK, not that easy. While the first enemy encountered in the Final Chance beta is fair, the second and third ones attack in tandem and immediately make it clear that you’ll still die a lot in this game. And have to hunt down your souls (called “amrita” in this game) to boot. However that’s just classic Soulsborne; it’s Diablo’s gear grind that will most likely keep you going.
Whenever the levelling becomes too hard, still being able to farm slightly better equipment from enemies is a godsend. You won’t feel as helpless in your attempt to scale the difficulty curve during, say, the first encounter with Phalanx in Demon’s Souls. As you keep dying and slowly learning the ropes, the lure of gear will still give you a sense of progression. Where Soulsborne’s are bleak, unforgiving and harsh, Nioh winks at you as it slams you into the ground slipping some goodies into your inventory.
Here is also where hardcore credentials come into play. A lot of Soulsborne veterans might view this gear grind as cheating. No delayed gratification for picking up the Lightning Spear here. Instead, just mash mobs to get stronger. It’s maybe a bit too similar to RPG grinding (these people will also happily farm Old Yharnam for hours, but never mind that). A feeling that is emphasised by being able to offer up unwanted gear for more amrita. It’ll take you ages, but it enables you to level exclusively by grinding gear.
There’s also the curious deviation in controls, which is Nioh’s own little twist to whatever is now established as the Soulsborne genre. You can switch between the weapon stances high, medium, and low. Each has its own merits and faults. Each stance also allows for a normal and fierce attack, meaning you have six different attacks to choose from, each part of a combination sequence (think Dynasty Warriors).
Add to that your ranged sidearm and a sheathed stance that allows for a charged iaido-attack and it all sounds a bit much. Oh, and dodge is on the cross button instead of circle with the attacks on square and triangle, while switching stances is under R1 plus all four face buttons. Did I also mention you have a Living Weapon mode (think Musou Rage) by pressing triangle and circle together?
Yeah, don’t expect to pick this up immediately if you’re used to years of playing Soulsbornes. Even if the dance of taunting, dodging and hitting is nigh identical. Nioh also features a different approach to multiplayer. Killed players leave “revenants” in your game, which are enemies you can fight copying gear and behaviour from the player in question. Just activate one of the graves dotted around.
Co-op can be achieved – get this – by selecting a player from a list at the world map. Yes, it really is as simple as just selecting your friend. Crazy. This is probably the best improvement on the Soulsbornes and it makes co-op a great and sensible feature. There’s also a possibility of inviting random players to a level you are already playing through a consumed item.
Wait. Levels? Yes, Nioh does not feature an interconnected world. Instead, separate levels have a start and finish. Once started you can’t escape a level unless you kill the boss, or sacrifice all your collected amrita. That last bit is slightly curious, as you can exchange your amrita at in-level shrines to level up, meaning you don’t really have to lose your amrita.
There’s also a weird thing going on with character design; you cannot create your own character, but a hot spring shows your character in the almost-buff. Compare to say Bloodborne, where you can change the minutiae of your character’s face and body, despite it being covered up most of the time.
You could say it’s a great game despite all of these quirks, but actually it’s a great game because of it. It’s a mellower Dark Souls, a genuinely great co-op experience and more appreciative of replays. I suspect it will draw the ire of the more hardline Soulsborne fans, claiming a dilution of the genre, but all I can see is a distinctive Western-flavoured Japanese take on the Japanese-flavoured Western style from the Soulsbornes. That’s poetic enough for me.