With its release in early February, Nioh has been showered with praise; as many reviews and articles have come up highlighting its distinctiveness, focusing on its unique aspects and the ways it differs from recent From Software games.
On the face of it Nioh does indeed look quite different from games like Demon’s and Dark Souls; the imagery of using katanas to cut up demons in Feudal Japan, is quite different from feel of using sword and board style attacks against undead and dragons in medieval castles.
Even though it has a different look, flow, User Interface (UI) and its own nuances, it is important to realize that Nioh is still a stamina based 3rd person action RPG, set in a historical fantasy setting, with melee centric combat based on precision strikes and proper spacing.
The probability of a player liking Nioh is directly related to his or her personal experience and affinity with the game systems of the past Souls games.
Unless someone’s enjoyment of the Souls games was deterred by a specific UI choice, setting or presentation, it is unlikely that the changes that Nioh brings to the table, would be able to change the mind of anyone who didn’t enjoy other Souls-like games in the market.
With that in mind, let’s look at the ways in which this game is still firmly rooted in the formula designed by Hidetaka Miyazaki in his 2009 classic; Demon’s Souls, and how Nioh’s game design is tied to the mechanics of the Souls games.
Similar Setting and Level Design:
Let’s start with the most obvious difference between past Souls games and Nioh; The Setting.
Whereas Demon’s and the Dark Souls games take place in Medieval Era Europe, Nioh is set in Colonial Era East Asia; and while that might sound completely different, what makes them similar is how these games choose to utilize their setting to establish context for their story and gameplay.
Without going into spoilers, Nioh introduces players to its unique setting the same way Souls games do; by starting them out in a quest without any concrete background or overview of context of the world around them.
No matter who the player character is, he or she always starts out in the same manner.
Whether it is the Slayer of Demons in Demon’s Souls, The Chosen Undead in Dark Souls, Bearer of The Curse in Dark Souls II, The Ashen One in Dark Souls III or simply William in Nioh, the player character is a lone person, on a quest he doesn’t understand, venturing into a foreign land that he knows nothing about.
From the fictitious Medieval European setting of Boletaria in Demons Souls, Lordran in Dark Souls, Drangleic in Dark Souls II, Lothric in Dark Souls III to the historical but fantasy based setting of Feudal Japan in Nioh; all of these locations feature a dark and gloomy world that is entirely composed of levels that are desolate locales and decrepit environments.
Each of these levels are structured like labyrinthian arenas; with different paths that loop up onto themselves, and stage progression that consists of opening short cuts, like kicking down ladders and opening gates, to get to the nearest checkpoints.
Bonfires, or Shrines as they are called in Nioh, are game’s checkpoints, that not only act as a revival point for the player character upon death, but also reset the level each time player interacts with the checkpoint object.
As was the case in Souls games, interacting with the checkpoint results in revival of all non-unique enemies that were vanquished prior. Enemies move back to their initial locations and patrol patterns, but environmental obstacles that were dealt with remain solved and shortcuts remain opened.
These areas are designed in such a way that progressing through each level requires players to internalize the level geometry and enemy placement in their mind, and prepare themselves for any and all impending traps, whether they are environmental in nature or ambush-like enemy tactics.
Same Basic Game Mechanics:
This design similarity is not limited to Bonfire-like checkpoints; Nioh appropriates a lot of Soul games’ elements into its world.
The game basically changes the presentation and terminologies of familiar objects while keeping the effects of things; hence in Nioh: Shrines = Bonfires, Revenant Graves = Bloodstains, Elixir = Estus, Onmyo = Magic, Charms = Rings, Amrita = Souls and Ki = Stamina.
As mentioned before, Souls games are action RPGs where the core gameplay is based on precision melee combat with stamina management; and Nioh is no different in this regard.
Like in Souls, Nioh gives players options to mix and match the use of magic, melee and long range weapons for their offense. Each option requiring player to be mindful of enemy positioning, which the players can auto-target by locking onto their foes via right stick.
Players can buy or loot enemies for decent amount of weapon choices, including fast options like swords, spears and bows, as well as heavier options like axes and hand cannons. Each new melee weapon variant offers new moveset, having their own light and heavy attacks, which can be stringed together into combos.
Defense also works similar to Souls franchise, wherein player character can either block an incoming offense or use roll and dash to doge enemy attacks.
All offensive and defensive actions have a stamina cost, and character cannot attack or dodge when the stamina bar hits zero. Game further penalizes blocking enemy attacks at low stamina by stun locking player character in a guard break animation, leaving the player open to additional enemy attacks.
This makes stamina management the key component of Nioh’s combat gameplay.
As with every Souls game, players need to keep an eye on their stamina use, or suffer a swift death; as enemies in the game have high damage output, where even the most basic enemy has the ability to kill when given chance.
It is a gameplay mechanic that is built to reward patient precision and penalize rash button mashing, and is all about ascertaining and exploiting enemy movement and attack patterns.
Identical Gameplay Loop:
And as with every Souls game, Nioh’s gameplay loop makes players focus on stamina management, pattern recognition and precise combat through its unforgiving game design, that awards every greedy attempt, hasty advance and sloppy mistake with death.
Death is something to be expected and not to be taken lightly, as it results in the player losing all unspent experience currency, which was previously known as Souls, but in Nioh’s case it is called Amrita.
This results in a pattern which would be familiar to any and all Souls veterans; Grinding the area and farming enemies for Souls/Amrita, and then racing back to a Bonfire/ Shrine to avoid losing it all due to sudden death, and trying to keep the XP currency long enough to level up.
The actual act of leveling-up is also a familiar one, where players can allocate their XP in stats ranging from Life, Endurance, Stamina, Strength, Skill, Magic, Blessing and others. As with any Souls game, Nioh players need to choose where they allocate their XP and develop enough stats to effectively equip a weapon or an armor, or enable use of magics and abilities.
Nioh also inculcates in players, the same Soulsian need to explore every nook and cranny of levels to find rare items that boost different stats when equipped, or to simply find and hoard resources to make and/or level up equipment like weapons and armor.
Another element of scouring out an arena is the need to clear up the stage of enemies, and finding an appropriate route to enable a safe run to the stage boss.
As is the case in Souls games, when the players enter a boss room in Nioh, they are trapped inside an arena with bosses that are damage sponges and have a very high attack output. Only way to achieve victory is for players to keep dodging boss character’s near one-hit-kill moves, and taking their time to learn its movements and tells for its moves.
They key to tackling bosses is not to spam consumables, rationing usable items for appropriate moment, whittling down boss’ health to discover and learn their second or third form; meanwhile dying again and again to figure out the appropriate strategy for each form in order to finally defeat him/her/it.
Lastly, just like Souls games of the past, Nioh does not hold players’ hand, allowing them to discover game mechanics and find out the ins and outs of every weapon, every level and every boss by going through the Souls Gameplay Loop which is as follows:
Exploring level→ Fighting enemies→ Gathering Loot→ Amassing XP Currency→ Leveling Up→ Defeating Boss→ Progressing to New Area and Repeating the loop until death.
So what if Nioh is a Souls Clone?
All of these similarities in game world, level design, mechanics and gameplay loop point towards a conscious adherence by Nioh developer; Team Ninja, to the template set by the Souls series.
There is however no shame in being a Souls Clone. It is not by any means an affront to the quality of the Nioh’s mechanics and presentation, nor its potential in the level of enjoyment and entertainment it offers.
With the additions to weapon stances, pacing, world map and loot system as well as change in setting, HUD and UI design, Nioh is still not as blatant of a Souls clone as CI Games’ Lords of the Fallen. In fact, its approach towards a Souls clone game is actually much more similar to Souls creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s own Souls clone; Bloodborne.
Aside from the obvious connection that, just like Nioh, Bloodborne is also a PS4 exclusive Souls-type, the game also features changes to the formula similar to Nioh’s.
As Nioh changed its setting to Fantasy Feudal Japan, Bloodborne changed the Soul’s staple Mythical Medieval setting to that of Victorian Horror.
Like Nioh, Bloodborne also replaced previous Souls games’ deliberate ‘Sword & Board’ system in favor of much more briskly paced combat system, changed terminologies for familiar items like Souls to Blood Echoes, added nonperishable currency, included a timed recovery mechanism, and added transformable Trick Weapons similar to Weapon Stances in Nioh.
Despite it being a clear Souls Clone, Bloodborne is a game that was not only widely celebrated by gamers as an amazing gameplay experience, but also garnered a lot of critical acclaim and won several Game of the Year awards from many gaming sites and publications.
There is nothing stopping Nioh from being the same amazingly fun breath of fresh air for the players that love the style of gameplay that Souls games offer.
Let’s not forget that the FPS genre started as a Doom Clone, as were countless fighting games such as Mortal Kombat and Fatal Fury categorized as Street Fighter Clones before the formation of the Fight Games genre.
There is no denying the fact that Nioh follows the template of the Souls games, but there also is no telling if the success of games like Nioh could lead this niche category of action RPGs, known as Souls Clones, into becoming its own burgeoning game genre.