'Nioh' Takes Team Ninja Back to its Roots

The creators of 'Ninja Gaiden' aim to riff on 'Dark Souls' in feudal Japan

With 'Nioh,' Team Ninja hopes to get back to what they're best at: deep, challenging games Credit: Koei Tecmo

After even a brief glimpse, you'd be forgiven for dismissing Team Njnja's Nioh as just another Dark Souls clone. But that'd be a little unfair. After all, doesn't the studio behind the notoriously challenging Ninja Gaiden series have an at least equal claim on that brand of brutal, bracing gameplay? Tom Lee, Team Ninja's creative director, certainly thinks so. According to Lee, there were a good few years when the sort of games that his team had spent their lives trying to master felt woefully out of vogue. Game publishers convinced themselves that the players wanted something else – games that were more accessible, tuned to appeal to a "global" audience, as Lee puts it. "It was a really confusing time for us," he said during a recent hourlong demo of Nioh.

Things are different now, of course. It's OK again for big budget console games to be hard. Whether it was an honest reflection of our tastes as players or merely a wrongheaded attempt by publishers to cater to an illusory audience, the Wii era's popular wisdom no longer applies, and games like Dark Souls can emerge as credible blockbusters. "Finally, it feels like it's the time to come back and do things that we know how to do," Lee said. "That's why this game means so much to us."

Nioh, due out February 9, clearly has a lot riding on it. Here are some key takeaways from the recent demo.

Yes, it's hard
Whether you attribute it to Dark Souls' pervasive influence or Team Ninja just doing what they do, Nioh is hard. It demands rigorous awareness and is full of devious little tricks to punish careless play. Those reared on Souls might even have a harder time, at least at first: Nioh walks and talks enough like a Souls game to lull you into false confidence, but its underlying systems are just different enough to catch you off guard. Blocking attacks, for instance, feels riskier in Nioh as your stamina – or Ki, as it's called in Nioh – depletes (and thus your guard breaks) much more quickly. If this happens during the wrong battle – with a group, or a versus particularly tough enemy, for instance – it usually means you're dead. The same is true for your enemies, though, and during the moments when I paid extra attention to their stamina bars, life was much easier. Parrying attacks, meanwhile, requires ironclad timing, and you can execute a "Ki pulse" to speed up your Ki recovery, like doing an active reload in Gears of War. You can also switch between three fighting stances depending on how you want to approach a fight. In short, it seems like getting good at playing Nioh will take some doing, and based on what I played, it's not going to go easy on you as you learn.

It takes a historical kernel and runs wild with it
Nioh's setting is basically Capcom's Onimusha meets Shogun, the 1975 historical novel by James Clavell. Its protagonist is named after and based on William Adams, a historical figure considered to be first Western samurai in 17th century Japan. In both the game and in history, Adams served Tokugawa Ieyasu, the feudal lord whose dynasty would go on to rule Japan for more than 200 years. In Nioh's version, of course, there's magic, and demons, and spirit animal guardians, and far from a marooned Englishman on whom was bestowed a title, Adams is an actual samurai in the katana-and-kote sense. His arch nemesis is Edward Kelley, a nefarious figure based on the Elizabethan English occultist and alchemist of the same name, who seems to be running wild in war-torn Japan. One of Kelley's confirmed exploits: stealing the soul of Tokugawa's rival, the warlord Ishida Mitsunari, and turning him into a demon. Mitsunari was the boss of the stage I played in the demo, and he was most definitely hard.

And then there's the demons, or yokai, that seem to be hanging around the fringes of this war. You fight plenty of humans in Nioh, but it's the yokai who are most memorable. There are the kinds you often see in paintings: vicious, ogrish, and bulky, engulfed in flame and made of nasty horns and assorted jagged protuberances. The undisputed star of the demo I played as a creature called a Karasutengu, a murderous bird demon that brutalized me repeatedly with its foul magic and deadly avian staff work. A quick trawl around Nioh's subreddit turns up a bunch of other yokai, like the Gashadokuro, a giant skeleton which, according to Wikipedia, is made up of the bones of people who died of starvation, and the Umibozu, a titanic sea spirit with a penchant for wrecking ships.

They're not all bad, though. You'll encounter plenty of kindly spirits called Kodama in your journeys, who probably inspired the mushroom retainers in the Mario games, and hang out atop the shrines that you pray to in order to level up and mark a checkpoint (think Dark Souls' bonfires).

It diverges from Souls in a few crucial ways
Though you'll have to retrain your muscle memory and adapt to some key details, Nioh definitely conforms to the Souls paradigm. Where it diverges, though, is doesn't half step. You'll get tons of loot in Nioh, to the degree that your inventory will almost immediately overflow with weapons and armor. If you played the alpha version of Nioh last year, you'll remember just how quickly your weapons and armor degraded to the point of uselessness. It's not so bad now – it didn't happen once during my hourlong play session – so barring the odd upgrade, you'll likely end up offering your surplus gear at shrines for "amrita," the currency you use to buy stuff and level up.

Nioh's biggest divergence is its structure. Instead of a contiguous interconnected world, Nioh is broken up into stages, more Demon's Souls than Dark Souls. This isn't to say that the levels aren't explorable. The one I played in the demo was actually plenty big, enough to require at least one Souls-style shortcut. But if you're chasing that particular dragon – which, to be fair, the Souls games have stepped back from after the first Dark Souls – you probably won't find it here.

The good news is that Nioh has it where it counts. The demo was put together, polished, and seemed to confidently do its thing, which has this Souls devotee genuinely optimistic.