Next up in Souls Week is another game that takes inspiration from the series. Sam Greer makes the case for Nioh 2.
Elden Ring is almost upon us. Excitement is fever pitch. It’s impressive that there remains so much anticipation given From Software have actually released a pretty steady number of titles over the last decade. Yet people crave more.
While there’s always perhaps an unhealthy degree of entitlement and embellished hype at work, I do think it speaks to how well the team at From Software have carved out their particular niche. Even as we’re now living in a videogame landscape saturated by their influence, their works stand heads and shoulders above their many imitators.
Among the numerous Souls-likes out there, aping the specific formula of Dark Souls or Bloodborne (a formula that is by no means wholly original) there’s broadly two categories. Those that hue so close to the familiar aesthetics, tone and mechanics as to be less Souls-like and more Souls-clone. Then there are those which cram those familiar elements into something pretty different, often with very awkward results. I think the defining quality of From Software games is their coherence. Every element whether it be the visual design of its enemies or the way its health systems work, all work together to convey the game’s themes. Lifting the general notions of level design or cool transforming weapons to be dropped into a different setting winds up being clumsy at best and disastrous at worst. The beautiful clockwork beasts that From Software make leave imitators looking like Frankenstein monsters.
But not all of them.
Nioh has something of a more nuanced lineage. While it is to me undoubtedly influenced by the recent works of From Software, with Shrines instead of Bonfires, Revenants instead of Phantoms and so on, it leans on developer Team Ninja’s history with brutal action titles like Ninja Gaiden. Despite its lightning quick fights, the combat isn’t as focused on timing like Sekiro but instead on combos. The central gimmick is ki, essentially stamina, that can be recovered mid-fight to keep swinging more attacks. Its stance system allows each weapon to pack numerous movesets and a skilled player can flow between each one.
Bloodborne players might like it to that games transforming weapons but there’s perhaps even more options to play with. Once you master its rhythms or unlock skills to bolster this, you can unleash a fearsome barrage in a single string of attacks. While positioning, hit boxes and dodging all play a part in making it feel very Dark Souls, this central concept harkens back to those Ninja Gaiden games. As punishing as Nioh can be, it seeks to empower and make you feel deadly. A total badass, if you will. Victories in Dark Souls or Bloodborne often felt earned by the skin of your teeth, clawing each tiny bit of progress from the jaws of defeat. Nioh feels more decisive. You can die as quickly as you can kill, with even the weakest enemies remaining perfectly capable of slaying players who become too comfortable, but you’re not as much of an underdog as in a Souls game. It makes for a dynamic where you simultaneously feel very vulnerable but also incredibly dangerous.
It’s the sequel, Nioh 2, that I really want to talk about.
Both games take place in Japan’s Sengoku Era, mixing real history and people with mythological demons and magic. It’s a strange mix to be sure but, much like Sekiro, it makes for a more earnest narrative experience than the po-faced Ghost of Tsushima with its pseudo-historical falseness. Where the sequel differs, is binning off the previous game’s Geralt of Rivia knock-off William for a character creator.
And let me just say, this is a really fun character creator. Deities gossip about your choices as you tweak your avatar. You can choose the density of curls in your character’s hair! There’s a breadth of options (sadly quite limited in terms of body type) that aren’t quite Dragon’s Dogma levels of varied but certainly raise the bar for these kinds of games and leave me hoping Elden Ring will have a similar degree of fine tuning.
Character creation is largely a bit of fun and the real charm falls on the energetic cast the game surrounds you with as you progress through the story. The conceit is you’re a half-demon now working to make your fortune as a mercenary. It’s a surprisingly humble start where similar games might frontload the rise of a great villain or pile on a huge backstory. The tone is much lighter than From Software’s games (although they too have an often overlooked sense of humour). It’s sillier and less serious about itself which compliments the over the top action nicely.
It further differentiates itself by not having a single connected world but a series of self contained missions. This gives it a more artificial structure but it does make things more manageable and less like a wrong turn will hamper a huge chunk of your playthrough. Each individual mission contains plenty of intertwining level design but without needing to connect them, they can more easily throw in curveballs and change the pace. I certainly miss the intricate interlocking nature of Dark Souls for sure, it’s just nice to have one of these games have more easily defined chunks to play through. My nerves certainly appreciate it.
This is just an appetizer. There’s so much more I could mention. I didn’t even talk about the adorable spherical cats that assist you in battle! Nioh 2 is full of its own ideas and character, demonic transformations and co-op missions, mixing up the familiar formula as comfortably as From Software have with Bloodborne or Sekiro. It has such natural evolutions that I can’t help but wonder if Elden Ring’s new ideas, like summonable enemies, aren’t a result of From Software taking cues from its own imitators. All of which is to say that Nioh 2 sits comfortably in the same ball park. It’s a little schlocky, a little more digestible but it excels at bringing an unprecedented degree of depth to what is now a quite familiar combat format.
Of course, Team Ninja are working on their own follow up in Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. I’m not at all sold on the narrative or visuals of that game but if you are, then you can probably get pretty excited should it wind up even half as compelling in its action as this is. For Souls fans, 2022 is going to put a lot on your plate, but try to make room for Nioh 2. This won’t just keep you busy until Elden Ring, it belongs on your shelf alongside it.