When word broke recently that Dark Souls 3 really was set to be the last game in the series, many fans were sad to learn that one of the best and most challenging Action RPG series was coming to an end. However, it wasn’t long before a game called Nioh was announced to be releasing later this year that drew heavy inspiration from the popular From Software series. After completing the demo recently I can honestly say that Souls fans will be all set if Dark Souls really is over, as Nioh is a blood relative of it and is just as fantastic in its own way so far.
Despite being so heavily influenced by Dark Souls, the game originally existed long before the Souls series ever happened. The game was originally announced in 2004 and was set to be a launch title for the PlayStation 3 in 2006, but then it fell into development hell and only regained its footing recently. While games with such a long development cycle don’t usually bode well for the end product, there is an incredibly strong foundation here with Team Ninja’s Nioh.
One of the most striking things about the demo was just how lengthy it was, giving players access to two whole areas that were bursting with viscous creatures, hidden secrets and a whole lot of sinister Japanese Warring States period atmosphere. It all begins with our protagonist arriving on the shore of an ominous island, where you quickly can tell that the game lives and breathes with Dark Souls mechanics. Shrines replace bonfires as your saving/leveling up/enemy reset spot, and blood stains left by fallen players now bring about an AI-controlled battle with that player’s character rather than showing you how they died. Regular enemies are tough as nails, and if you end up in a situation where you’re taking on more than one at a time then you’re in some serious trouble.
These enemies also drop Amrita (souls), which you use to level up your characters various stats like strength and stamina. If you happen to be killed, you lose all your Amrita and must regain them from the spot you died just like in Dark Souls. There are also many shortcuts to be discovered that give you a more direct path to the limited amount of Shrines in the game, and many hidden secrets to discover throughout the course of the demo.
There’s a lot more going on under the hood in Nioh than in the Souls series
While the above may give you the impression that Nioh is nothing more than a Dark Souls ripoff, it not only executes on that formula fantastically but also adds in many of its own ideas to spice things up. The stamina meter found in the Souls series is present here and must be watched at all times, but now you can pull off a move that allows you to recover a lot of instantly with the right timing. Enemies also have a visible stamina bar, meaning that you can time your attacks for when they run out of stamina and are temporarily stunned to lay out your own dose of lethal damage. You also have the option to switch from high, middle and low attack stances on the fly, which all impact your attack damage and stamina consumption.
There is a lot more going on with Nioh under the hood than there was in the Souls series, as there are also skill trees for each of the game’s weapon-types that allow you to unlock new abilities. These will allow you to gradually pull off more and more deadly moves the further you get into each skill tree, though some of them also typically leave you wide open to an attack that could leave you vulnerable. The combat tension that the Souls series nailed so well is just as good in Nioh, with each and every encounter feeling like an epic showdown where you need to bring your A-game in order to survive.
It wouldn’t be a Team Ninja game without a little flash, and that is delivered this time by way of the Guardian Spirits. The demo allows you to choose from 4 different spirits, which can be activated once you’ve filled up the required meter through attacking and killing enemies. Unleashing these spirits grants you with greatly-buffed stats and a wider range of attack for a limited amount of time. It’s a great new addition to the formula that helped immensely in a few situations where I was surrounded by a hoard of enemies, as I was able to take them all out in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible in Dark Souls.
Another area where Nioh ups the Souls series formula is in its loot system, as just about every enemy drops tons of loot for you to sift through. You’ll constantly be finding new weapons, armor and items to check out and see if they’re worth keeping, or getting rid of them by offering them at the shrine to get some extra Amrita. It would be nice if Team Ninja streamlines this process a little in the final game, as your gear menus become crowded very quickly and tidying them up can take longer than is welcomed. The gear that you have equipped will also degrade over time and you need to regularly keep an eye on it, as gear becomes weak and breaks fairly regularly. However, in my time with the demo it was always pretty easy to find the items needed to repair them, without having to worry about switching them out for something that was in working order.
Getting through each of the two areas of the demo leads to an incredibly challenging boss fight, which were both thrilling. Attacks are hard to read and the sheer size of these bosses means that trying to get out of the way of them is extremely tricky, especially when you’re stamina is constantly low. However, Nioh opens up some great opportunities in its boss battles thanks to the aforementioned enemy stamina gauges, which can result in you knocking even bosses to the ground and leaving them in a temporarily-stunned state while you pound away at them.
The alpha demo for Nioh is one of the best demos that I have played in a while, as we were given a solid chunk of a game that is already in such a high-quality state. The game’s creepy setting and ridiculous challenges are a blast to play through, and it all gives a great sense of what Team Ninja is set to deliver later this year. There is some tweaking that can be done to make the final game even better, but at this point they are very minor and boil down to nitpicks. If everything translates well to the full game, then we definitely have the game that will carry on the Dark Souls torch with confidence.