Nioh is an action-RPG from Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo, made in the Dark Souls mould and releasing for PlayStation 4 on February 7.
There is no avoiding it: Nioh’s biggest claim to fame is that it takes the Dark Souls formula to a fantastical version of Sengoku-period Japan, replete with Samurai and supernatural creatures. The game features shrines rather than bonfires and yokai instead of demons, but many of the basics will be familiar.
Players are tasked with making it through a series of difficult levels while defeating the monsters that inhabit them. To do so, they must pay attention to enemy placement and master the combat system. An online connectivity function will even leave bloodstains where other players have died.
So far, so Dark Souls.
However, the developers at Team Ninja are no newcomers to the hardcore action genre, and are taking inspiration from many sources including their own Ninja Gaiden reboot and Capcom’s Devil May Cry. In addition, twists to the core formula will catch even seasoned Dark Souls players off-guard.
Rather than a player-created avatar, the main character, William Adams, is already a skilled samurai at the start of the game, with success in combat relying more on mastery of his abilities than weapons and armour. To this end, Nioh features a ‘stance’ mechanic that allows for three different styles of fighting to be switched between on the fly.
Progression is also different, with the story taking place in separate levels rather than a single overworld. When players find the grave of another online player in-game, rather than offering a helpful hint as to their demise, activating it will raise an AI Revenant that must be fought for extra experience and money.
Finally, the story itself is much closer to Team Ninja’s previous games than those of From Software. Nioh brings together a wide assortment of historical and fictional characters in a complex plot inspired by classic samurai movies. The real William Adams was known as the first European samurai, though was probably not a proficient yokai hunter.
Nioh is one of several thought-to-be-vapourware titles that have lately been revitalised for the new generation, including last year’s Final Fantasy XV and Doom. Based on an unfinished script by legendary director Akira Kurosawa, the original Ni-Oh was announced as a PS3-exclusive in 2005. Developed in-house by Koei, it was supposed to mark the start of an ambitious multimedia franchise.
Though never officially cancelled, Ni-Oh missed its projected 2006 release date. Since then, Koei released no substantial information, other than to say it was still in development.
Between the project’s disappearance and its re-reveal at E3 2015, the game had undergone several restarts behind the scenes. First conceived as a JRPG, this iteration was scrapped for “not [having] enough fun elements,” according to producer Kou Shibusawa. Development was transferred to Omega-Force, developers of the Dynasty Warriors series, but Shibusawa seemed determined to achieve more with the project. Work on Nioh was once again halted.
Around 2010, the game as it is now began to take shape, when Team Ninja was brought in to assist Koei. Though at first it was helping develop the action gameplay, Team Ninja subsequently took over full development.
Apart from the time period and the blonde-haired samurai, almost nothing of the original project has been retained for this version, making it less Duke Nukem Forever and more 2016’s Doom.
Over the last six months, Nioh has been changing again, hopefully for the last time in its long history. The demos that Koei Tecmo released in 2016 were rough, but well received, and Team Ninja delayed the game to incorporate player feedback.
Whether this creates a better experience will bear out in a little over a month, but even in those rough alpha demos, Nioh offered something that Lords of the Fallen could not: a game that is inspired by the success of Dark Souls, without sticking to all of its traditions. Familiar gameplay hooks like strategic combat, menacing environments and stamina management contrast with a cinematic story and a loot system that is more Diablo than Dark Souls.
Finally, the historical setting and influence of uniquely Japanese folklore on the enemies have resulted in a game that just looks different to everything else available today. As exciting as Dark Souls-like games can be, there really is nothing like Nioh, so it definitely makes our list of the ten most anticipated games in 2017.