When Koei Tecmo’s NiOh was re-revealed, many felt some strong Souls vibes coming from it, but since we didn’t have that much information, and given Team Ninja’s pedigree, it was easy to expect it to be closer to Ninja Gaiden in terms of gameplay.
Today the alpha demo for the game released, and we discovered that the crushing but rewarding difficulty certainly isn’t the only homage to From Software’s popular series.
While NiOh certainly has twists of its own, and the sword fighting pace and mechanics are sensibly different, its underlying gameplay structure is certainly that of a Souls game.
You use bonfir… ahem… Shrines as checkpoints to replenish healing items and hit points. If you die, you lose all your sou… ahem…. Amrita, and you need to run all the way to the spot where you perished to recover them, losing them permanently if you die again.
If shrines are too far from each other, worry not, you can unlock shortcuts to avoid having to kill the same enemies over and over. If an enemy is too challenging, you can use a special item to summon another player. If there are too many bunched together, you can “pull” one by throwing a stone at his face.
Character progression is basically identical, letting you putting points into stats that will in turn determine your level. Incidentally, the distribution of the stats is also close to identical to what we have seen in Dark Souls games.
You can even find graves where other players died, even if NiOh actually lets you summon them and fight them for loot (and boy, they’re hard as nails).
These are just a few of the many elements that basically make NiOh feel a lot like a Souls game without Souls in the title (and From Software’s branding). As a matter of fact, if it was called something like Sengoku Souls it wouldn’t have felt inappropriate, at least outside of the obvious legal implications.
Don’t get me wrong. No disrespect is intended to the mastery of the craft displayed by Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo. NiOh is by all means shaping up as a fantastic game. The demo is absolutely charming, and I had a ton of fun with it so far.
As I mentioned above, it also comes with ideas of its own, like a lovely stance system that affords the player with radically different play styles within the same weapon class, or the clever ability mentioned above to fight other players’ undead forms.
Incidentally, NiOh seems to be, at least for now, even meaner than recent Souls games, retaining their fundamental and delightful fairness. That said, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the good folks at From Software should be feeling very flattered right about now.
The definition “Souls-like” has been around for a while, but in the past it mostly indicated the idea of crushing but rewarding difficulty. Now other developers have started to borrow quite heavily from the fundamental gameplay mechanics of the Souls series, adding their own spin and flavor to create games with a very similar feeling but different settings, narratives and peculiarities.
NiOh is the first really high profile game that we see following the Souls formula this closely, but I am ready to bet that it won’t be the last.
This isn’t certainly the first time that popular games create a sub-genre. Like Metroid and Castlevania gave birth to the MetroidVania breed, we can easily argue that by now the “Souls-like” sub-genre of action RPG has now been consecrated.
This is the result of several different factors: the first is certainly the creative genius of Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team, that managed to forge a series that few would have bet a single penny on, at least initially. Even its first publisher, Sony Computer Entertainment, saw it as a potential failure, refusing to publish Demon’s Souls in the west and prompting Atlus and Bandai Namco to step in several months later.
I’m quite sure that a few Sony executives are still made to sit under a freezing waterfall wearing only a fundoshi for an hour a week in order to atone for that mistake.
Another primary factor is that the gaming industry started to gradually coddle its players more and more in the name of accessibility, turning a large percentage of AAA games into hand-holding experiences that come a bit too close for comfort to playing themselves.
Many gamers had enough of that. Human nature dictates that when one is fed the same thing over and over to the point of boredom, he will naturally gravitate to the other extreme, which is why Miyazaki-san’s ruthless but fair sadism found the perfect niche for their games.
After the increasing success of Demon’s Souls, three Dark Souls games and Bloodorne, other developers and publishers have taken notice. There are many narrative genres and settings that From Software can’t physically explore (they aren’t an enormous studio after all). And I’m quite positive that we’ll see many new entries in this new “Souls-like” sub-genre in the future.
Will they all be as good as the originals, or as NiOh seems to be shaping up? Probably not, but just imagine how many absolutely ruthless and nightmarish worlds there are to explore, one bonfire at a time. I can’t say I dislike the perspective.