Yesterday marked the release of Nioh, the highly anticipated ‘Souls-like’ from developer Team Ninja, a game that has been in development since 2004.
Nioh began life as a planned adaptation of Oni, an unfinished script by famed Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. Initially announced by the pre-merged Koei as a role-playing game on the PlayStation 3, Nioh (then known as “Ni-Oh”) began life as a much different game than the we wound up getting.
Originally developed by Omega Force, the team responsible for the Dynasty Warriors franchise of games, over the course of five years the game’s producer, famed industry veteran Kou Shibusawa made the decision to scrap what they had and to start again from the ground up. As work was restarted, the game began to slowly distance itself from its original vision until all elements from the Kurosawa script were dropped – all apart from the game’s setting of a late Sengoku period Japan. It wasn’t until 2010 when Team Ninja, the developers of the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive games, were brought in to take over development.
It was a critical time for the studio. In an interview done with Polygon last month, Team Ninja creative director Tom Lee described it as “a difficult chapter… where we felt pretty lost at sea”. The popularity of games like Ninja Gaiden dwindled as the industry shifted away from the hardcore action games of its kind. In an attempt to make Ninja Gaiden 3 more approachable, Team Ninja had ultimately created a game that neither critics nor fans enjoyed, betraying the core identity of not only the series but what the studio had stood for to begin with.
However during the same year Team Ninja were presented with the possibility of developing Nioh, like a deus ex machina for the genre, a new game reinvigorated the thirst for hardcore action games. It was called Demon’s Souls. Directed by the legendary game developer Hidetaka Miyazaki, Demon’s Souls was ground zero for perhaps the most important shake-up the industry has seen in years. With heavy inspirations from the Japanese manga series Berserk, Demon’s Souls portrayed a very different game than those gamers had become accustomed to. It combined an incredibly deep combat system with difficulty that was unforgiving yet fair. It challenged players in a bold and unique way, and eventually would become the catalyst of something much larger.
Winning numerous awards throughout the industry, Miyazaki continued to refine what he had created with Demon’s Souls in his follow-up, Dark Souls, arguably one of the most important games of the past few decades – perhaps even one of the greatest games of all time. While hyperbole often accompanies the Souls series as gaming intellectuals hover near, like moths to a flame, it’s impossible to deny the game’s impact. In earnest, Dark Souls and its tangentially related cousin Bloodborne together have created perhaps the first truly new genre the gaming landscape has seen in years: the ‘Souls-like’.
Akin to the roguelike genre, Souls-likes are ambiguous by nature, which is reflective of the games that inspire it. Mostly defined as action RPGs, Souls-likes are much more than your standard game of knights and sorcery. They embody dark themes, labyrinthian pathways, and most of all, a deep and deliberate fighting system. Depending on who you ask, difficulty could be a large part of the puzzle. From where I stand, the Souls-likes are more concerned with creating engaging and rewarding experiences overall, whether specifically relating to combat or not, rather than just profoundly difficult games outright. While I can only speak personally, those are the most important things that make up any Souls-like for me. For the jaded crowd of enthusiasts that have seen the trend of gaming turn away from them, the Souls-likes are everything they’ve ever wanted. Returning them to the days of games like the original Ninja Gaiden or Ghosts n’ Goblins of their youth where difficulty was a hurdle to overcome. For them, games were not for everyone. It’s in the landscape of today’s accessible gaming world where they find themselves and it’s because of Dark Souls that many have found comfort in their most favourite past time once again, finally challenged in ways they haven’t been in years.
Yet, to many fans’ chagrin, Miyazaki announced that after Dark Souls III, his next project would be something different, teasing at the possibility of returning to the Armored Core franchise. It leaves the Souls-likes without their leader; even if Bandai Namco decide to continue making Dark Souls games, the future of the genre is unclear. Some developers have attempted to create their own take on the Souls-like, with games like Bound by Flame and Lords of the Fallen. However, despite what you think of those games individually, they fail to live up to the high standards that a Miyazaki-made Souls game would define. The most successful Souls-likes are instead games that build upon the foundations of the genre, instead of simply lifting them wholesale. Games like Salt and Sanctuary or Let It Die are promising, but there is only one clear torchbearer when looking towards the future of the genre. It must be Team Ninja’s Nioh.
While it is more often known as the most overly used comparison in all of gaming, for once it seems completely appropriate to do so in the case of Nioh. In fact, comparing it to anything else would be irrelevant, as Team Ninja themselves seem to be completely transparent with their inspirations. Although Dark Souls is a series known for its slow and methodical combat, like any good Souls-like Nioh has taken From Software’s blueprints and added to them, making a much faster and more dynamic game. With the addition of multiple stances, incredibly varied weapon types, a larger focus on balancing stamina, Nioh, while still very clearly influenced by Dark Souls, is a different game.
It’s within Nioh‘s differences that prove its capability of understanding the art of a Souls-like, rather than its similarities. Team Ninja’s attempt at reclaiming its place as one of Japan’s most prolific studios has, either deliberately or not, created a new standard in the Souls-like mould. Utilising a different setting and a more direct approach to its narrative, Nioh clearly sets itself apart from the crowd. Yet, perhaps the strongest reason it should be held as Dark Souls‘ torchbearer is it’s understanding of Miyazaki’s use of the word ‘utsukushi’.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Miyazaki described his approach to creating the world and lore of the Dark Souls series and how ‘utsukushi’ fits in to that. “It doesn’t necessarily mean simply beautiful. Sadness, loneliness, withered – all those things can be explained using this term too.” While the core of Souls-likes clearly cannot be restrained to a sense of tone or atmosphere, it’s within Nioh‘s firm understanding of it that makes it so respectable among Dark Souls fans. In the simplest of terms, Team Ninja gets it. What more could you ask for?