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Very few have tried to take their stab at the “Souls” formula seen in From Software’s popular franchise and Bloodborne. Last year we had Lords of the Fallen, which was a Westernized take on a Souls game, but it was too derivative of From Software’s efforts. Surprisingly, there aren’t many Japanese games trying to cash in the Souls train while the genre is still going strong because I guess they’re still after the Monster Hunter crowd. However, Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja decides to step to the plate with Ni-Oh. Ni-Oh was originally announced back early in the PS3 generation until the game was brought back from vaporware at last year’s Tokyo Game Show. A timed release alpha demo came out last week for players to check out and send feedback if they have issues. It is still playable until May 5th, but even as someone who is not into Souls-type games that much, Ni-Oh surprised me once I got out of the initial gambit of deaths.
Ni-Oh in a nutshell is a mix of Ninja Gaiden, Onimusha & Dark Souls. In other words, it has Team Ninja’s experience in deep combat from the modern Ninja Gaiden games, setting that is reminiscent of Capcom’s Onimusha series and the gameplay structure of Dark Souls. You play as a character that looks too similar to Geralt from The Witcher III: Wild Hunt starting with just casual clothes and a katana. Even with those items equipped, one or two hits by enemy attacks and you’re dead. Just like in Dark Souls, your spirit can be reached to retrieve your lost Amarita, Ni-Oh’s version of souls, that can be spent on leveling up stats at shrines, this game’s bonfires. Add stamina management to the table and yup it’s a Souls game at first glance, but the differences Ni-Oh has does separate it from those games enough to the point it’s not derivative.
What sets Ni-Oh apart from Dark Souls is the combat system. Even though you still need to manage your stamina with attacks, dodges and sprinting, weaponized combat consists of stances. Each stance has it’s beneficial uses. Mid stance is all around while low stance lets you have quicker attacks sacrificing damage and high stance is the opposite. Blocking and parrying is critical pending on the stance you use as some attacks can be defended better at certain stances. Multiple stances also widen up the offense your character gaining new attacks once there are samurai skill points to spend. Battling against multiple enemies at once is a struggle at first because blocking attacks does spend stamina (Ki in this game’s case), but you get better armor and weapons, you can come out of them unscathed.
There’s also ninjitsu and magic with the combat, but I didn’t focus on them that much with my character build being more stamina and strength focused. Players can throw shruikens and bust out spells from a distance along with picking off enemies by arrow headshots. One gameplay element that does separate the good players from the bad is the usage of Ki Pulse. After performing a combo, players can recover stamina right away Gears of War active reload style instead of waiting for the meter to fill up. It’s definitely a skill worth mastering because your player will just stand there waiting to be attacked if he’s out of stamina. Lastly, your spirit has a devil trigger function (triangle + circle) where the player can go wild for a limited amount of time.
With all those options at your disposal, you’re ready to kick some ass right? Wrong because even for Souls fans, this Ni-Oh alpha demo is bringing the difficulty back from the early Souls days. As I mentioned earlier, it takes one or two hits for you to be killed with your starter gear. Even once you get better armor, not being careful or mismanaging stamina will lead to easy deaths as well. Sometimes, a slower methodical pace triggering one enemy at a time is the way to go early on as it is in Souls games. Human enemies with swords, axes and bows/arrows aren’t the only opposition that wants to kill you. Zombies can poison you once you receive a hug from them, which is frustrating because I didn’t notice any items that get rid of poison, burning or other status effects. Yokai demons also spawn out of clouds and they will dish out the pain, but killing them once doesn’t make them respawn when you save at a shrine. Of course it ain’t a Souls-like game without difficult bosses to defeat and difficult is indeed the case, but once you figure out their patterns after a few attempts, the two in this alpha demo aren’t that hard to beat.
Another key component that Ni-Oh departs from the Souls formula is the loot system. Enemies will often drop new weapons, armor and items for you to use. Weapons and armor are very numerical based as the higher the number, the strong it is against enemies. There’s also other status effects applied to the equipment beyond just numbers from elemental effects, more damage with a specific stance and ki usage. Loot not as good as what you got equipped can be offered for more amarita when you visit a shrine. Durability plays a factor for weapons and armor, so it’s recommended to have backups in case they get broken in battle. They can be restored by glue and whetstones, but good luck finding the opportunity to use them especially during a boss fight.
Even though Ni-Oh in it’s alpha state, the game looks great and also enacts a feature straight out of PC gaming where you can change the framerate. Prefer the more cinematic route? The option is there to play at just 30 frames per second to see what the game is capable of with better graphical detail, but there’s a 60 fps option despite not consistently staying there sacrificing some graphical elements. The first environment takes place at a village near the ocean while the second unlockable one once you defeat the boss at the first level is in a more ninja-like setting at night with the rain. At times the game is a bit too dark at spots, but the brightness can be cranked up if you prefer that. I do wish there’s some daytime environments in the final game however.
If you’re interested in a new take on a Souls game, give Ni-Oh a shot before the alpha demo ends on May 5th. It does require an always online connection because of the bloodstains where players die at are AI controlled opponents when activated. The initial difficulty spike may turn off players at first, but once you get better gear, the game becomes more manageable than cheap. Team Ninja’s twists on the formula so far work well with the multiple stance combat and the loot system, but mismanaging your build such as not having enough stats to have heavier armor equipped can be disastrous. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this demo of Ni-Oh because of my lack of experience in the Souls games. The combat has lots of potential to be the deepest the genre has seen and it’s satisfying beating difficult bosses that might take hours to beat. Some little tweaks and kinks will be made after the feedback from this alpha, but I’m more excited for Ni-Oh, coming out later this year, than I was when it came back last year in trailer form.