Team Ninja’s Souls homage is looking like its best game in years
As elevator pitches go, ‘ Dark Souls meets Ninja Gaiden’ is almost irresistible. Especially in Nioh’s case, since it’s the work of Team Ninja, latterday steward of the Ninja Gaiden series. Yet there’s plenty of room for concern amid the optimism. Gaiden has, since the departure of controversial figurehead Tomonobu Itagaki, lost its way somewhat. Team Ninja’s stock has fallen, the days when it was considered among the finest developers of action games on the planet long gone. After the lacklustre Ninja Gaiden 3 came the forgettable Dead Or Alive 5 and the gender-politics scandal of Dead Or Alive Xtreme 3. As for the other half of the equation? Souls clones don’t tend to go so well, as evidenced by Deck13’s forgettable 2013 action-RPG Lords Of The Fallen.
Happily, there’s a tremendous amount to be positive about in Nier. This is the work of the Team Ninja of old, a slick, satisfying, violent action game that seeks to test the wits. Given the improvements made between
Nioh’s alpha and beta phases, its maker is willing to listen to its fans’ feedback, rather than simply pander to their baser instincts. And while the Souls influence runs deep in
Nioh’s DNA – bonfire-like shrines in worlds patrolled by pockets of tough enemies, currency retrievable from your bloodstain, co-op partners that can be summoned when you’re struggling – there are enough new ideas here for it to stand out on its own.
Some of them do have their roots in other games, but such is the way of game development. Combat involves a three-stance system that evokes Nidhogg and For Honor, but is a question of the speed, not the angle, of your attacks. Low stance delivers fast, light attacks; high the slowest and strongest; and middle is, well, somewhere between the two. As in the Souls games, your actions are governed by a stamina bar, here styled as Ki. As you spend Ki by attacking, the bar will briefly glimmer blue; tap R1 during this phase and you’ll trigger a Ki Pulse, automatically regaining a chunk of meter in a system that recalls Gears Of War’s active reload. The Souls games have always involved paying careful attention to your stamina bar, but this takes it a step further, and adds consequence to ignoring it. Should your Ki be drained, your avatar will stop and bend down to catch his breath, leaving himself wide open to attack. The protagonist in question is an English samurai, William Adams, in a fantasy version of Japan’s Sengoku period in the early 17th century – an honest expression of the developer’s intent to make a game that’s culturally relevant to its home country, while also appealing in the west. While the Souls games use western medieval fantasy for their settings, Nioh’s is embedded deeply in Japanese history and folklore. William Adams is recruited by legendary Sengoku ninja Hattori Hanzo, and charged with ridding the world of yokai – a handy catch-all term for ghosts, monsters, demons and spirits – while also battling with human enemies as he pursues the ninja who brought him to Japan.
Based on an abandoned Akira Kurosawa script, it’s as intriguing for its narrative as it is its action, and it’s perhaps little surprise that Sony has picked up the publishing rights for Nioh in Europe and the US. It’s a standardbearer for PS4 Pro, too: two modes, Action and Movie, adjust framerate and visuals to the player’s tastes, and on Pro that means a choice between 4K at 30fps, 1080p at 60fps, or 1080p with advanced visual effects at 30fps.
Its influences may be obvious, and its developer’s reputation not what it used to be, but from what we’ve seen, Nioh looks like an awful lot more than the sum of its parts.
While the Souls influence runs deep, there are enough new ideas here for it to stand out