Even if you’ve only just heard of Nioh, it’s likely you know at least one thing Team Ninja’s new action-RPG: it’s incredibly difficult. That’s served as the subject of just about every Nioh-related conversation online, and with good reason. If you’re not willing to absorb the intricacies of Nioh’s many systems, it will hand your butt to you on a platter with no remorse.

While Nioh’s cruelty can seem a tad excessive at times, the developers’ divergence from the series that clearly inspired its design—Dark Souls—has resulted in a worthwhile spin on what’s become a time-tested formula. And one that’s definitely not for everyone.

A New Take on Dark Souls

People often sum up Nioh with the phrase "samurai Dark Souls," and that's true to a point. It definitely features the hallmarks of From Software's famous series: dense levels peppered with useful shortcuts, tense enemy encounters, character micromanagement, and an overall emphasis on player responsibility. Where it mainly differs, though, can be found in its fast-paced combat. Though it looks very Souls-y on the surface, Nioh's combat takes a far less methodical approach—meaning if you try to play it like a Dark Souls game, you'll walk away absolutely baffled.

Battles in Nioh revolve around the concept of "Ki," which basically amounts to stamina: the energy needed to attack, dodge, run, and basically do anything. While stamina plays a major role in Dark Souls' combat, Nioh really puts it at the forefront of enemy encounters. Instead of attacking, then drawing back to charge your stamina for future strikes, Nioh tries its hardest to keep you in your enemy's face with something called the "Ki Pulse."

After swinging your weapon, Nioh gives you a short window of time to tap R1 to instantly regain stamina instead of letting it charge passively. Launch a multi-hit combo that drains most of your Ki, and a well-timed R1 press can restore enough of it to fuel even more attacks. Despite how many on-the-fly decisions go into every enemy encounter, this risk/reward system is the beating heart of Nioh's combat.

A Lot to Take In

A screenshot of Nioh for PlayStation 4.

While most game feature of learning curve of some sort, Nioh's amounts to a brick wall that greets you immediately after finishing its somewhat easy tutorial section. As with Dark Souls, it doesn't gradually unlock various elements after slowly teaching you about them: they're all present from the start, ready to be tinkered with.

And there's really no shortage of things being thrown at you in the early hours of Nioh. The previously mentioned Ki system plays a major role in battles, but each weapon can be wielded in one of three different stances that you can switch to at will—each with their own attacks, combos, and unique ranges.

Even as someone who's struggled with and conquered every Dark Souls game, Nioh presents an almost overwhelming amount of things to consider at first. The difference here is that while you can brute force Dark Souls to some extent—or pull in a host of players to help you—Nioh's combat proves too technically complex to button-mash your way to success. Wear down your Ki to too low of a level, and even the weakest scrubs in the first area can fully deplete your health with just a few attacks. If you played the developer's previous work, the '00s reboot of Ninja Gaiden, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Nioh will absolutely punish you for refusing to acknowledge even a portion of the nuance it presents.

Trial By Fire

If Nioh fails in one respect, it's that it really doesn't hammer home the importance of the Ki Pulse nearly enough. The game teaches you this technique, but in a way that makes it feel optional, but not essential—much like parrying in Dark Souls. But if you make it to the first true boss without mastering the Ki Pulse, you'll find yourself running into a seemingly unstoppable enemy with too much health and attacks that can kill you in a few hits—as I did. Unlike most games, Nioh won't tell you if you're playing it wrong. Instead, you'll suffer until you figure it out for yourself.

True, Nioh might be a little too unfriendly when it comes to teaching players necessary information. But, like Dark Souls, if you're willing to commit yourself to a game, conquering its obstacles comes with a much greater feeling of satisfaction that what's found in most other games.

That said, if you're looking for a relaxing game to play casually, Nioh might not be for you. It's the kind of experience that inspires outside research—via Reddit, message board threads, guides, and YouTube videos—to get the most out of it. Not every game should require homework, and not every player necessarily wants through go to this extra effort just for the sake of enjoyment. But Nioh amounts to one of those rare cases when studying a game reveals its hostility actually comes from a place of respect. Nioh might be tough as nails, but beneath its thorny exterior lies a game that actually wants you to get better.

Bob Mackey
Bob Mackey is Games Editor at Fandom. Since joining the games press in 2007, he's written for sites like 1UP, Joystiq, The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, USgamer, and many others. He also hosts the weekly podcasts Retronauts and Talking Simpsons. Follow him on Twitter @bobservo.