Few games in recent memory have simultaneously captivated and alienated the gaming community as effectively as Dark Souls. The intense difficulty paired with engaging risk/reward combat have been a staple of the series since it’s inception, and what keeps hardcore fans like myself coming back for more. It makes sense then that several developers have taken notice to this trend and attempted to emulate the Souls formula.

Enter NIOH: A “Souls-Like” samurai throw-down from Team Ninja set to the stunning backdrop of a feudal, demon-infested Japan. While it borrows heavily from Souls in it’s basic mechanics, it also builds upon that foundation in new and interesting ways. I had a chance to sit down and play a handful of hours of the game last weekend during it’s dramatically titled “Last Chance Trial”, and oh boy do I have a lot to say.

One thing is made crystal clear immediately following the first few fights in Nioh: being good at Dark Souls will only get you so far in this game. Although the influences are clear as day, there are a few notable differences in mechanics. The game starts your controller setup like a more traditional third-person hack-n-slash game, where the face buttons attack, and the shoulder buttons do various alternate actions. After perusing the optional controller modes for a short time, I was able to find a more familiar R1/R2 attack setup, although the Interact and Run/Dodge buttons (O and X) are backwards from what I’m used to, and remapping these two buttons is impossible. That wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, but was just a pinch annoying.

Controller gripes aside, the combat as a whole is tight and responsive, if not strangely stiff in a few key places. The addition of the “stance” system is particularly fun to play with. Essentially for each weapon you get, you have 3 stances you can take that affect the way you attack, and the moves you are able to do. There is a High, Mid, and Low stance. The high stance has the strongest and slowest move-set, and eats up your stamina in just a few swings. On the flip-side, low stance gives you access to huge combos and flurry-style attacks, which are great for finishing off or punishing reckless foes. Mid stance is just what it sounds like, and generally a good starting point when entering a fight. My main complaint with this system is that doing more advanced maneuvers like switching stances mid-combo or mixing weak and strong attacks together into a combo isn’t possible. So for example: If you start a combo in mid-stance using weak attacks and need to switch to a high-stance heavy attack to make the last hit count, you can’t. You’d have to either finish the combo, or cut it short to switch to a high stance, and by then you’re eating the business-end of a demon’s toenail.

“You came to the wrong neighborhood, fam.”

This also stems from one of my biggest problems I have with the fighting system, the L1 button. You switch between weapons, stances, item quick-slots, and unsheathe your weapon by holding L1 and pressing the corresponding button. Not only can this be cumbersome and hard to remember mid-fight, but switching weapons requires you to take your thumb off of the left stick, and press a directional button. If you are on the move trying to put some distance between you and a foe, you have to come to a dead stop, switch weapons, then start moving again. This can be infuriating when you are sprinting just out of a tough enemy’s reach. I even tried awkwardly holding the controller in such a way that I could press both buttons without letting go of the thumb-stick, but the game literally stops your movement animation when switching anyway. Although these mechanics personally irritate me, it may not be nearly as big a deal for others, and I was able to adjust after a bit. Also once I got past focusing on what I didn’t like, I ended up finding a feature I didn’t fully understand at first, but came around to thinking was pretty amazing.

Like the series that inspired it, Nioh has a stamina or “ki” bar that you must manage closely during combat. Attacking, blocking, dodging, or running eats up varying levels of stamina, which regenerates fairly quickly when not performing any of these actions. It pulls out a new trick with the ki systems though, in that you can press L1 to regain some or most of your lost stamina after a combo. The general gist is that when you attack, instead of the bar fully draining, it leaves a white after-image in a similar way that Bloodborne’s “rally” system works for health. This is also represented brilliantly on your character. Each swing of your weapon slings off a flurry of little ki droplets, like it was drenched in water. The droplets remain suspended around your character until the combo ends, then the ki pulls back in towards your body. The closer to your body it gets before you press L1, the more ki you get back. Additionally, if you time it right as the ki hits the center, you can do a Ki blast, which dispels areas infected with demon magic. This adds a whole new layer of strategy to combat, because you don’t always have time to do this during a fight. Will you take the time to recover your ki? Or will you dodge the giant demon fist flying towards your skull? Think Fast!

Now it may sound rich to some, but most of the usual safety-nets that Souls players have become accustomed to are virtually non-existent in Nioh. For example: i-frames do not exist in this game, which means you are not invincible while dodging attacks, not even partially. Pressing the dodge button right before you get hit is not enough to prevent you from taking damage. You have to actually predict if the swing is going to hit you mid-air when you dodge. This raised the stakes significantly for me, because my mind is trained to dodge into and through attacks rather than around them. You also can’t spam the roll button in a panic, because if you dodge after your stamina is depleted, your character is temporarily stuck in place for a few seconds, and is completely open to attacks. I found this out the hard way.

I could go into so much more detail about every minute little difference or nitpick, but I think that covers all of the substantial stuff. It’s safe to say that Nioh has a lot more depth to it’s combat than Dark Souls, and I cannot express anything but excitement for it’s upcoming launch. It’s awesome to see a company other than From Software finally getting what makes Dark Souls enjoyable, as well as putting a fresh spin on the formula. Long live the Souls-like!


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