Team Ninja makes a remarkable comeback with a rich, challenging adventure that aims for From Software's action/RPG crown.
Originally announced in 2004 before Tecmo and Koei merged, NiOh has a lot riding on its success. Being the latest in a burgeoning subgenre of games like From Software's modern classic Dark Souls, it has to contend with the less than stellar track record other pretenders to From's throne have earned. More than that, however, is the fact that Team Ninja has suffered a tarnished reputation in the past few years.
Once renowned for the challenging and fluid combat in Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II, as well as the over-the-top characters and nuanced mechanics of the Dead or Alive fighting game series, Team Ninja has fallen on hard times since outspoken designer Tomonobu Itagaki left the studio in 2008. After successfully updating its previous works with the Ninja Gaiden Sigma games, Team Ninja botched Ninja Gaiden 3 so badly that it turned even the most die hard fans away from the series, while an ill-fated match with Nintendo for Metroid: Other M only further soured Team Ninja's reputation.
NiOh made a huge splash at last year's Tokyo Game Show, looking for all the world like an extremely polished Samurai take on Dark Souls. Its fluid combat, striking visual style, and clear difficulty and complexity looked set to get Team Ninja back on track. Until May 5th, the upcoming PlayStation 4 exclusive just enjoyed an online only alpha demo that players could jump in on. It's slick, it's polished, and it has the potential to be the most accomplished game in the burgeoning subgenre of "Souls"-style games so far. Before I get into what makes it unique, let's talk about why it draws the comparison.
What Makes It Like Dark Souls and Bloodborne?
The basic flow and structure of the game is nearly identical to From Software's signature style. You explore treacherous environments inch by careful inch, fighting lethal enemies in fierce and intimate melee combat while unraveling a cryptic story. Deaths come quick and often and you manage a stamina bar that governs your ability to attack, dodge, and block. You level up your stats through a currency dropped from enemies called Amrita, which is identical to Blood Echoes in Bloodborne and Souls in Dark Souls, including the fact that you lose any in your possession upon death and have to retread to the spot where you died in order to reclaim them.
The control scheme has more in common with Ninja Gaiden than From Software's work, but the general feel and flow of the experience is nearly identical. If you told the average person that NiOh was the latest game from the Souls studio, they'd believe you.
What Makes It Stand Out?
By far the biggest difference between NiOh and From's work is the way that it handles the concept of a stamina bar, called Ki. Like in Souls attacking, blocking, and dodging all use up your Ki. In the Souls games, running out of stamina isn't usually the end of the world: you can't dodge, attack or block, but you can at least keep moving. In NiOh running out of Ki completely immobilizes your character for a few agonizing seconds, rendering you vulnerable to any and all attacks and increasing the damage you take. If you run out of Ki in the middle of a fight, you're as good as dead.
Ki has a few interesting wrinkles to it. First off, that horrible stagger state I mentioned? You can inflict that on your enemies. Your foes are bound to the same rules of stamina use that you are, and some of your attacks deal more Ki damage to them than health, allowing you to knock them into that completely paralyzed state and end a tough adversary all the quicker.
A special technique called a Ki Pulse adds a satisfying sense of rhythm to each fight, allowing you to recover an abundance of Ki by timing a button press correctly after each attack. Think of it as a melee version of Gears of War's Active Reload. It's extremely difficult to pull off at first, but once you do it imparts a true feeling of mastery.
Another key difference between NiOh and Souls is just how incredibly aggressive enemies are. I'm going to be less complimentary here and say that enemies are actually far too aggressive, able to spot you from a surprising distance and chase you to the ends of the earth without being leashed. As with any game of this type, there's naturally an element of "git gud" here, but when you can't put enough distance between yourself and the 5 enemies trying to kill you to take a healing item, it feels like there's a problem. Even at their worst, Souls and Bloodborne always feel fair; you know what you did wrong and can work on correcting it. There were many times during the NiOh alpha where I couldn't devise a different strategy or figure out what I could have done differently to be more successful, but there's every chance that these issues will get hammered out on the road to release.
There are a few more additional wrinkles that differentiate NiOh from its inspirations. Recalling its Ninja Gaiden heritage, there is a skill point system that allows you to purchase new moves and combos for your three weapon types (swords, axes, and spears), such as the ability to deflect a move and immediately position yourself behind the assailant for a follow-up assault. Combat utilizes a high-mid-low stance system: the high stance is slow and heavy, the low is fast but weak, and the mid is well-balanced. Lastly, the game is far more loot centric than From's output, having a lot in common with the drops in Diablo: good armor here makes all the difference in the world.
Like A Samurai
I was pleasantly surprised by my time with NiOh. Despite being an early alpha, the game is already in a very polished state and, barring a few issues with unfair deaths and overly aggressive enemies, the design is sound. Although it is derivative of From Software's work, it is well executed and has more than enough unique design elements that set it apart and make good use of Team Ninja's experience in the character action genre.
It doesn't have a scratch on Bloodborne for me personally, but even in this early state I enjoyed my time with the alpha demo even more than the time I've put into Dark Souls III. The aesthetic is interesting, the combat is satisfying, and there is tremendous depth to the way that Ki can be manipulated in moment to moment encounters. Team Ninja is well on track towards cleaning up their tarnished reputation and putting themselves once again in the top tier of action game developers. With the spit and polish that should come between now and release, NiOh could truly be something special. We'll find out when the game releases at an unconfirmed time later this year, but for now here's hoping we all get a beta demo to check in on its progress soon.