“The Dark Souls of _____” is a notoriously overused descriptor, but we’ll have to make an exception for Nioh, The Dark Souls of Dynasty Warriors games. To say the game is inspired by the Souls series would be an understatement, its core pillars are all wildly similar:

  • The player is tethered to a bonfire-like shrine.
  • Enemies respawn when you use the shrine to heal/revive.
  • Combat is methodical/tactical and punishes hastiness.
  • It’s hard.

This isn’t meant as a knock. The runaway success of the Souls games has single-handedly spawned this specialized genre of 3rd-person action RPGs, and there’s always room to improve or diversify it. I went hands-on with an updated version of the game and some new levels at E3. Here’s what I thought.

While it may owe its base concepts to the Souls games, Nioh’s got plenty of its own ideas. As a wandering samurai named William (based off real life historical figure William Adams), you bounce around from place to place fighting sellswords, yokai, and oni. William has access to Skills, Jutsus, and a Living Weapon attack that transforms based on your chosen in-game Guardian Spirits. Skills are new attacks for your different weapon types, while Jutsus allow access to new tools like shurikens and caltrops.

Weapons work differently than in the Souls games, and Nioh restricts the player to swords, axes/hammers, spears, and Bows. The weapon types are compounded by the fact that William can wield them all in one of three stances: high, medium and low. Each stance changes the weapons attack; high is for slow powerful strikes, medium is all around, and low is for quick, low-damage strikes and increased maneuverability. The game encourages stance switching via a Ki Pulse mechanic that can help the player regain their stamina back faster after attacking.

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The game deviates pretty significantly from the Souls games in how it handles items though, drops are far more frequent, and weapons have a certain level of disposability to them as their durability quickly errodes. Favorite items can be repaired with a consumable, but the player is encouraged to use different weapons and have back-ups.

Having played every Souls game, I feel confident declaring that Nioh is difficult. William can usually be taken out with 3-4 hits, and enemies use combos and frequently team up. While backstabs were a big feature of Dark Souls combat, Nioh takes it a step further, near doubling any damage that’s done to the back of the player or the enemies. Getting clipped while trying to run away to heal is almost always certain death as the enemy AI knows to engage when you turn your back to them. The game does a great job of replicating the “blink and you’ll miss it” action of a Kurosawa movie in that sense.

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The most interesting part of Nioh though is its potential for high-level play. Unlike the Souls games, where even the best player is still locked into a grounded, parry/backstab system, Nioh has a deep set of maneuvers and combos built into it that allow players who have unlocked them to perform some pretty extraordinary maneuvers. Flashy combat has never really been an option in the Souls games, and it’s cool to see Nioh attempting to rectify that by giving skilled players the chance to get away with some Devil May Cry style attacks.

Perhaps it’s just my familiarity with the Souls games that makes Nioh seem difficult, as I’ve partially learned what to expect from them. Nioh is a whole new world, and while it does borrow some tricks, (floor plate that launches 4 darts from behind you, etc) it feels different enough to instill that seed of fear and doubt that made the original playthroughs of the Souls games so rewarding. Nioh is a PS4 exclusive, and a beta has been announced for sometime in August. There’s no hard release date yet, but it’s scheduled to come out before year’s end.

Michael Grimm