Nick D. takes at how Team Ninja’s Nioh’s take on the Dark Souls formula – what worked and what didn’t.
To say that Team Ninja’s newest hit Nioh owes a debt to FromSoftware’s Dark Souls is a bit of an understatement. Everything in Nioh from the general flow of combat to the way environments are designed screams Dark Souls. It’s not surprising considering the rising popularity of the Souls formula and the lacklustre reception that more traditional hack and slash games in the vein of Team Ninja’s own Ninja Gaiden have been receiving. Yet, Nioh manages to not feel like Dark Souls 4. The reason being that Team Ninja made very particular attempts to alter the formula. In some cases, these worked wonderfully. Other cases though didn’t fare nearly as well, and left people scratching their head.
Bad – The Main Character
In Darks Souls, you are always playing some nameless create-a-character. The games let you customize your appearance at the beginning and give you some decent options so that no two chosen undead will look exactly the same. The obvious advantage is a custom character lets players role-play in the dreary environments. While ordinarily voiced characters tend to benefit the story more, Dark Souls’ barebones narrative, combined with its stark and isolating locales mesh really well with a voiceless protagonist.
Nioh bucks this formula. Players take the role of William, and Irish-born former pirate, coming to Japan after a villainous Englishman. William, unlike any protagonist in Dark Souls is fully voiced and actually takes part in the story of the game. Such a change might seem for the better from a narrative perspective. However, Team Ninja completely flubs the character of William. That is to say – he might as well have been a create-a-character. William very rarely has anything to say, and what he does say is uninspired and, honestly, could be cut from every scene. Instead of giving players freedom to select race, sex, and bodily attributes, they are stuck with a hulking brute of a man (with some beard options) that doesn’t impact the story. While it’s true that Team Ninja found success with similarly uninvolved Ryu Hyabusa from Ninja Gaiden, there isn’t any benefit to William being an actual character.
This is a shame because, if executed properly, a voiced character that was involved with the plot could actually have elevated Nioh further. It’s difficult to get involved in inter-personal relationships with voiceless characters, but William isn’t any better. Hopefully a future Dark Souls-like game will try this again with more success.
Good – Combat
Dark Souls has very straightforward combat. It’s about as rudimentarily hack-and-slash as it gets. What makes it so memorable isn’t the system itself, but the absurd weight given to every strike, backed up by enemies that require you to master the system instead of flailing like most action games. Souls spinoff Bloodborne changed it up by giving an alternative form to every weapon, thus opening up the possibilities for more interesting combos instead of the same cautious strikes that Dark Souls is so known for.
Nioh feels like an evolution of this idea. Instead of having dozens of weapons with unique movesets like Dark Souls, there are five weapon types, each with movesets and abilities (and many weapons to collect of the type itself). The moveset of these weapons can be altered on the fly with the game’s stance system. Every weapon has a low (fast, weak), medium (all-rounder, defensive), and high (slow, powerful) stance. These stances can be switched to on the fly and mastery of the ebb and flow of combat with these stances is necessary to master Nioh’s steep difficulty curve. In addition, after every attack or chain of attacks, players can press a button to regain ki (stamina for attacks and evasive maneuvers). This forces the player to never totally check out of combat and keeps momentum going.
These changes to the combat structure make all the difference. Dark Souls is not a game of flow. It is a game that thrives on hit and run and exploitation. Nioh, on the other hand, has a very distinct flow to combat that is completely in the player’s hands. A player can completely turn the tide of battle by effectively swapping to high stance to break an enemies ki bar so as to follow up with a critical strike, or swap to low stance to dance around an enemy that would otherwise be beating them down.
Bad – Loot
Dark Souls has one of the best loot systems out there. Unlike games like Diablo III, or Borderlands 2, players aren’t given constant upgrades to their gear through loot drops and treasure chests. However, almost nothing you get in Dark Souls is disposable. It’s always worthwhile to explore in these games because there could always be some awesome treasure that’s just around the corner. This adds significant value to exploration. Cutting past a terrible twin pair of deadly alligator beasts only to find a secret PvP covenant feels amazing.
Nioh takes the Diablo III approach. Players are inundated with thousands of pieces of armour and weapons, not to mention items, crafting materials, and ammunition. A smart player will ignore the blacksmith for the most part because they will be upgrading their gear constantly due to the onslaught of drops and rewards from successful missions. The problem with this approach is that nothing is really worth getting. An amazing exotic axe is great, but you’ll soon get ordinary normal axes that are stronger.
This has a drastic impact on the game. Exploration isn’t all that important. You might get a really good weapon by destroying that lightning monster that used to be a boss, but, by the next level, you’ll probably have a weapon or two that are just as good. The inventory system also suffers. There’s just so much and no way to properly sort through it all. With three different ways of getting rid of loot (offering for disposables, selling for money, or breaking down for materials), players are often lost trying to figure out exactly what to do.
Other game systems also get hurt by this. The aforementioned blacksmithing gets hit the hardest. There is pretty much zero point to using the expansive blacksmithing features in Nioh. Why would you spend tons of money levelling up a particular weapon or materials crafting one, when you will obsolete them almost instantly? There are items with bonuses for completing the set, which may find value in these services, but that’s pretty much it.
Good – Games within the game
Dark Souls is a game series about a single thing – progress through it, killing bosses until the end. There aren’t mini games, nor bonus objectives for players to get. There are some background quests to do, but they are so obscure and difficult to trigger that most gamers won’t even see them unless they’re looking at a guide. This is definitely part of the hardcore charm of the series, but it is also liable for stagnation as the series continues. There is also a healthy PvP community, but multiplayer is hardly a focus for the series and the meta is developed by players rather than the developers generally.
Nioh brings several ideas to the table. In the game, you can join a clan and compete against other clans for glory, a resource you can spend on items and unique benefits such as changing your appearance to that of another character. Another thing is the addition of collectables in the form of Kodama, which allow you to increase your health item pool, as well as providing you bonuses to drops. Side missions also exist to provide higher or simply additional challenges for more rewards. Finally, there is the reputation system that acts like Diablo III’s prestige system in that you accumulate reputation points and spend them on minor, permanent improvements.
These seem minor, but they help the game from feeling like too much of the same thing. The reputation system, in particular, makes a huge difference. You largely get reputation from accumulating titles by accomplishing different feats. Chasing this feature will have players trying different combinations of gear and kills in order to get the most out of the titles. For example, a sword master might take a stint as a spearman in order to claim some spear-related titles to get some more reputation.
Mixed – The Story
This one is impossible to judge, in my opinion, yet it is the biggest difference between Dark Souls and Nioh. In Dark Souls, the story is carefully hidden from the player. Unobservant gamers won’t even realize that there is a story other than the bare premise at the beginning of the game. However, there is so much lore scattered through the worlds that flesh out the larger plot and tale that many gamers have found a treasure trove of narrative hiding just out of sight.
Nioh scraps this idea and puts out a standard story. William is of to Japan and interacts with characters that are loosely based on their historical counterparts. Every mission you take is prefaced with some text that explains why you are doing what you are doing, including the side quests. Nothing is really left under the surface and everything is told directly to the players.
The reason this is impossible to judge is that some players will naturally prefer the obscure story of Dark Souls, while others want a more traditional narrative to cling onto. After all, it’s difficult to get invested in a deadly quest when you don’t really know why you’re involved. All that being said, Nioh‘s story leaves a lot to be desired. The plot points are mostly boring, and it never really takes off. Still, many will appreciate the actual effort to have characters and a plot to follow along with.
Nioh brings a lot to the table as what many would describe as a Dark Souls clone. It manages to follow the exact same beats as its mother series, while veering off just enough to be its own entity. While doing so, it managed to make some impressive improvements to the formula such as combat and variety of gameplay. On the other hand, not every experiment works out, and Nioh finds itself bogged down by a poor main character and 5000 metric tons of useless loot.