FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series has been the victim of a rash of imitations the past few years. From Salt and Sanctuary to Lords of the Fallen, game makers have been co-opting the Souls unique experience system and bonfire mechanics with a public nod toward inspiration, but a method that suggests “rip-off.” I’m actually fine with this! Souls games are fucking awesome and I want to play as many iterations as possible. Nioh, released last week and developed by Team Ninja, is quite possibly my favorite of the recent influx of “Souls Likes.” It combines the iconic RPG elements of the Souls series, with the breakneck combat of Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden series. Both Gaiden and Souls are known for their punishing difficulty, and Nioh benefits by gleaning the best parts from both to create a fun mashup of balanced combat and grueling leveling. But, in the end, it’s hard to beat Souls’ brooding atmosphere and enemy design, and it’s the combat that really makes Nioh shine.
It’s the nuances of Nioh’s combat systems that are the true heroes here. My favorite is the addition of stances. No matter what the weapon (and there are several), there’s a low, mid and high stance for it, mixing up your combos and adding a measure of strategy to each of your sword fights. As much as I find myself relying on one stance for each weapon, changing up your stance to better attack one of the game’s wily enemies can be the difference maker. But it was also a bit nostalgic for me. It was a callback to a game that was my introduction to the Playstation era of gaming: Bushido Blade.
One of my childhood friends was the first to get a Playstation, and often four or five of us would go over to his house and pass the sticks on any number of games. But Bushido was my favorite. It’s not perfect, but it was a unique take on the fighting genre that upped the stakes by removing the life bar in favor of a realistic(ish) “body damage system.” If you get hit in the leg, you’ll be limping; if you get hit in the arm, you won’t be able to wield a weapon as well. Most hits caused instant death, adding to the terror that if you played carelessly you might be passing the controller off to the next guy.*
Integral to this was the game’s stance system. Much like Nioh the game had a small selection of feudal Japan inspired weaponry that could be wielded in a high, mid or low stance. And though the balance wasn’t perfect and some weapons could carve up the competition (I’m looking at you nodachi), choosing the right stance was integral. If you had a high stance, you were more likely to strike someone’s head for that one-hit kill, but this left your midriff open. If you were in a middle stance, you could defend more easily, but your attacks weren’t as likely to land. In addition to carefully choosing your own stance, you’d want to make sure to pay attention to your opponents to make sure you were exploiting theirs. It made each battle a tense game of chess.
You could also throw sand in your opponent’s face, attack an opponent while they’re bowing and try to lose them in a bamboo forest, leading to some truly epic fights. Nioh is an RPG, so there’s the typical health bar and armor, all the things that make the battles less tense, but the addition of the stance mechanic was a great way of mixing up the action-oriented gameplay and a definite callback to the greatness of Bushido Blade.
*Don’t you miss this aspect of gaming?? Without sounding like a grump at your local Foreign Legion bar (who am I kidding, if you read this site you already know Dan and I are old fogies, screaming at the youngsters and their HD consoles), the best experience of playing games when I was younger was playing something like Bushido Blade or Marvel V Capcom 2 and repeatedly winning so you could play for hours. Those were the good-ole-days.