In-Depth look at how Nioh Diverges from the Souls Formula
Last week we looked at the similarities between Nioh and the Souls franchise in “Make no mistake, Nioh is a Souls Clone”. Showing how it compares to the Souls franchise and how innately it is still a Souls game.
From its systems and level design to game mechanics like precise melee combat and high damage output, it is clear that Nioh caters to the same audience that enjoy the experience of playing Souls games.
But what about gamers who have gotten tired of playing Miyazaki’s Souls games every year? After all, since 2014 From Software has released Souls-like games every year; starting with Dark Souls 2, then Bloodborne in 2015, Dark Souls 3 in 2016 and now that barely a year has passed Nioh comes through the door in early 2017.
Is there enough different in Nioh to prevent avid game players from suffering Souls fatigue? Does the game bring enough changes to the Souls formula to prevent the value of Souls mechanics dilute, and avoid gamers from losing interest in playing these games like they have with annual franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty?
With Nioh, Koei Tecmo brings its own brand of flavor to the Souls action RPG formula; mechanics, that while same in concept, differ enough in execution to not only entice to a new audience, but also offer a fresh take that re-energizes the listless veterans of the Souls-like games.
How Nioh is Different From Souls Formula
The way a game chooses to tell its story shows how it plans to engage the player with the threads that give context and bind together the game’s hours-long action RPG experience.
Every Souls game begins with some sort of cutscene containing background narration that vaguely references the context behind the quest that player is set off on. That is the only time that a player is ever spoon fed concrete information via a compulsory cutscene.
For the rest of the game, players are left to their own devices to pick up the deliberately distributed and inconspicuous story threads at their own discretion.
The story in most Souls games is more about discovering the history and lore behind the environments, items, armors, weapons and NPCs, and less about experiences and accomplishments of the main protagonist.
Souls games provide a trail of hints for the player to piece together and make connections from the information gained by finding the very deliberately placed items, visual details in level presentation and design as well as the NPC locations and their quests.
This aspect of the game is kept fairly optional as the player is free to discover or ignore NPC dialogues, environmental details and item descriptions that are the sole method of learning about the lore of the game world.
On the other hand, Nioh takes a much more direct approach with its storytelling; telling tale of the journey taken by its main protagonist, William, by taking the more conventional path, where the narrative is overtly explained through devices outside of gameplay.
Nioh uses the age-old technique of exposition heavy cutscenes to not only progress its story but also as a method of introducing players to new characters and important NPCs in the game.
The story is told in a very conventional manner where the players are treated with a cutscene before and after every main mission, keeping them abreast of all narrative developments; not requiring them to scrounge the world for every morsel of information, thereby keeping every story element straight forward and accessible.
The game also has a more linear story progression than any Souls game, which clearly establishes motivations and objectives behind each main and side-mission, via displaying a wall of text dialogue from the NPC quest-giver before every mission.
Speaking of storytelling, Nioh’s most apparent feature that differentiates it from past Souls games is that it is set in Feudal Era Japan. While this change of setting is mostly superficial with respect to its effect on the game’s level design and tone of its narrative, it turns out to be far more consequential in how the game treats its presentation values.
Let’s take a look at the conventional Souls game formula first; even though Demon’s and Dark Souls games take place in a Medieval European setting, they use this background as a mere stepping stone for establishing their own take and interpretation of what constitutes as Medieval Fantasy lore.
All Souls and Souls-like games take place in a fictitious world, consisting of fictional locations, characters that are completely invented for its fantasy narrative and lore that does not adhere to any of the established historical mythologies from that era.
Contrary to that approach, Nioh makes full use of its premise by not only exploiting its unique aesthetic for visual set dressing but also utilizing the rich historical mythos in its narration and presentation; keeping feel of the game fairly authentic to the sensibilities of the setting of Feudal era Japan.
Set in the 1600, during the last years of the Sengoku period of Japanese history, Nioh’s game world takes direct inspiration from the era in Japanese history plagued by centuries long military conflict of its warring shogunates.
Even though the game uses elements of dark fantasy, its fiction is established within the confines of real world history of the 17th century. From the backdrop of colonial era power struggle in Europe to the bloody outcome of armed unification attempts from opposing fiefdoms in Japan, Nioh uses real world locations, real world conflicts and real world figures to tell its fictional story.
While taking liberty with real life events, Nioh features a cast of explorers, warlords, samurai and ninjas like Hanzo Hattori, Willam Adams, Edward Kelly, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Oda Nobunaga, Ishida Mitsunari, Tenkai, Okatsu and Yasuke, all historical figures from that era of history.
The game also extensively utilizes Japanese mythology to populate its world; from the traditional monsters of Japanese mythos like Onis and Yokais to benevolent forces like divine Spirit Animals and Kodama spirits, as well as use of arts like Ninjutsu and Onmyodo to tools like charms, amulets and prayer beads.
Nioh continues its reverence of traditional Japanese culture with its audio-visual design, which bears quite a lot of resemblance to presentation aspects of Hideki Kamiya’s PS2 masterpiece: Okami.
Not only are the visuals of Nioh full of traditional Japanese architecture and creature designs, but it also extends this authenticity to its cultural lineage by presenting all its Japanese NPCs with Japanese voice acting, and usage of terms like Nioh, Ki, Daimyo and Yokai throughout its campaign.
Even weapons and samurai armors are labeled under their traditional native names, where instead of using head, torso, arm, lower and leg gear they are categorized as Kabuto, Do, Kote, Hizayoroi and Suneate.
Apart from its dark fantasy setting, Nioh also borrows heavily from the action RPG mechanics of the Souls franchise; and like it does in its storytelling and presentation, Nioh also changes things up when it comes to its core combat and gameplay aspects to distinguish itself from basic Souls formula.
Stamina management is a core concept that shapes the precision based melee combat that Souls games thrive on; It is something that impacts all movement, offensive and defensive options at the player’s disposal.
Whether it is using heavy and light attacks, blocking and parrying enemy strikes or just dodging and running away from enemies, every action costs varying amount of stamina, and depleting character’s stamina bar at an inopportune moment results in some form of severe penalty; which is usually death.
Nioh doubles down on this mechanic by taking a more nuanced approach to this stamina, or Ki, management mechanic; while it penalizes player for using all stamina and features traps that prevent stamina regen, it also balances this out by placing the same restriction on enemies, and giving more options for the player to conserve or utilize Ki in battle.
The game not only lets players achieve near-instant Ki recovery with timed button press, it also features visible Ki gauge alongside enemy health bar; allowing players to use stamina draining tactics on their enemies, including use of a skill to force opponents to stagger them by instantly sapping their Ki.
The inclusion of ability to instantly switch between 3 different stances, allows players to mix and match between slower high damage attacks that sap large amounts of Ki and quicker low damage attacks that use less Ki while giving more mobility; whereby giving players even more flexibility in how they use their Ki/stamina.
Another feature that is synonymous with Souls games is its unique mix of synchronous and asynchronous online multiplayer.
Watching other player’s moment of death via blood stains, reading and leaving cheeky hints and comments, summoning players and NPCs for help, and invading another player’s game is a tradition that has become a huge competent of the Souls franchise.
While Nioh does feature one type of synchronous play mechanic found in Souls games, which allows players to summon other players to help them beat a mission, it however does not allow other players to place cryptic hints, view death stains of other vanquished players or conduct direct PvP multiplayer via invasions.
Even though the game nixes the mechanic of invasions, it replaces it with a form of asynchronous PvP system that allow players to voluntarily summon enemies from their “bloody graves”. This mixture of Blood Stains and Invasions lets players fight Revenants, that are A.I. ghosts of fallen players with the same stats, weapons and armor that they had at point of death.
These fights work similarly to the NPC phantom fights, however in Nioh the process is purely voluntary where players can fight these Revenants to either add an extra element of challenge to their play, or for a chance to earn the Revenant’s armor or weapon equipment as loot.
Speaking of loot, Nioh also diverges from the established Souls formula in how it treats its weapon, armor and equipment variety.
In most Souls games, as the player progresses in the world, he or she is slowly provided with progressively more powerful and fairly extensive variety in weapon types, however Nioh works in a different manner by limiting the melee weapon types into 5 main categories, but giving player hundreds of variants of each weapon type as loot drops.
Loot in Nioh works in a very Diablo-esque manner, in that every equipment is categorized as either common, uncommon, rare or one-of-a-kind type of weapon, armor and item, each category contains varying amount, percentages and permutations of passive effects linked to it.
This loot can be earned by defeating enemies, searching bodies, opening chests and completing missions, each dropping weapons, armors, items and tools at such a rate that the player is inundated with thousands of items with dozens of variants of the same equipment in their inventory.
Nioh also takes a different road to upgrading player equipment, where not only does each weapon build familiarity with use, leading to gains in its stat percentages but players can also craft new weapons, imbue new effects, merge stats and levels of two weapons or change the visual appearance of a weapon or armor to that of another.
Aside from loot drops and equipment upgrades, another important facet of game progression in Souls games is how player advances through levels and zones of the game world.
While Nioh takes the same level design of finding shortcuts to checkpoints while fighting litany of enemies to reach to the boss on complete a level, where it differs from rest of the Souls games is how it connects these levels and zones together.
Whereas the world of Dark Souls and Bloodborne feature an interconnected world where each level and zone is connected to another in some shape or form, that is not the case in Nioh, where levels are self-contained and are completely detached from one another.
The game is devoid of any in-world hub, neither an integrated open world like Dark Souls games or even segmented hub world like Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne; the world design in Nioh features the old-school world map/ mission select function, where each story mission and optional sub-mission is clearly marked on the region map and more regions are unlocked as player progresses further in the story.
Instead of physically traveling to a level, every unlocked mission in Nioh can be accessed by highlighting and clicking over its icon in the world map, and each level can be completed multiple times as completing a level resets everything, from shortcuts and traps to loot spawns, treasure chests and even the bosses.
These are some of the ways Nioh differs from the usual Souls formula, and how its gameplay has the potential to offer a welcome fresh take for anyone growing tired of the usual mechanics offered by every Souls-esque game for the past eight years.