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As I close the book on Elden Ring for the second time, I look back at the path that brings us to this moment. What Demon’s Souls began has inspired an entire genre in itself, spawning numerous imitators trying to replicate the formula’s magic with varying degrees of success: Lords of the Fallen, Mortal Shell, Immortal Unchained, The Surge, even The Legend of Zelda bears signs of how much FromSoftware’s DNA has dispersed throughout the video game world.
But of all the descendants that came along, only one possessed the potential to challenge the throne in any meaningful way: the Nioh series. Initially released in 2017 and 2020, Team Ninja’s Onimusha/Ninja Gaiden inspired action/RPG drastically improves upon the established paradigm, yet always seems to get swept under the rug and (at best) given little more than token acknowledgment by FromSoftware’s fanbase. Are the inherently higher framerates and faster-paced gameplay holding them back? Could it be the deep, highly personalized combat? It can’t be the crafting or modifiable equipment that bestows partial and complete set bonuses, because I was expecting something like this around Dark Souls II! So, what is it about Nioh that’s kept it on the sidelines of popularity?
A former movie buff in my younger days with an appetite for Akira Kurosawa, the details surrounding what became Nioh were steeped in mystery. Originally an unrealized project that was to be completed by the legendary director’s son (featuring a blonde-haired warrior discovering their destiny), the concept underwent a further evolution, becoming a PlayStation 4 exclusive video game. Combining elements of FromSoftware’s Souls and Capcom’s Onimusha (with hints of Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, and later Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow), Nioh was destined to ring my bell whatever form it was going to take. What remains to be seen is why it didn’t catch on with everyone else.
My first thought is that the region-exclusive Japanese setting might be less palatable to the video game masses than it used to be. If I mention Anor Londo, Smough and Ornstein, or the Four Kings, people can talk all day. But try and bring up Yatsu-no-Kami, Diadara Bocchi, or Saito Toshimitsu, and we’d probably have to keep a wiki handy just for reference purposes (I know I would). There’s a sense of irony here, as so many games have taken place during this specific era in Japan’s history; much of it should be common knowledge for longtime video game enthusiasts.
As historical fiction, Nioh and its sequel take place during the Sengoku period – apparently the only time of Japan’s existence anyone cares to analyze in detail. Seriously, between games like Nobunaga’s Ambition, Kessen III, Onimusha, and now Nioh (reinforced by the novels Musashi, Shogun, and that sweet Netflix documentary Age of Samurai), I’m more familiar with Japan’s civil war than that of my homeland! If overexposure isn’t the issue here, it’s the fact that even with demons, this conflict isn’t that engaging by modern video game standards. FromSoftware and Team Ninja have opposing views on how to present a narrative, and I much prefer the indirect approach Souls takes with its lore. It doesn’t help that regardless of how much historical baggage one carries with them, story-wise Nioh always finds a way to turn it all into complete nonsense.
That being said, this still doesn’t explain the series’ cold reception on behalf of FromSoftware’s fanbase and the blind eye they turn towards it. The humorous excuses I’ve seen over the years border on some form of denialism, with my two favorites being: “I don’t like using katanas” and “I don’t like fighting demons”. The truth is that Team Ninja has taken the Souls formula and expanded on it in ways longtime fans can only fantasize about. Some of these should have logically happened by the time of Dark Souls II; now that Elden Ring has released and they’re still not there, the difference in progress at this point is between baby steps and legitimate strides forward.
From its original release, Nioh ran laps around Dark Souls III. The 60 FPS framerate (which has since doubled on next-gen consoles) was already impressive, but the innovations Nioh brought to the gameplay are formidable enough to make even the mighty Elden Ring look a bit regressive.
The first variable Nioh brought to the table was ‘Ki Pulse’. A feature that would have fit right at home in Bloodborne, a successful Ki Pulse restores portions of stamina in conjunction with how well-timed the button press was. A perfect Pulse not only restores all spent stamina (and can activate certain skills), but also purifies yokai ‘Realm Shifts’ – which limit recovery. This ability to double-down on an attack string or instantly shift from offense to defense without sacrificing position offers a degree of control over the battlefield that’s unrivaled. The fluidity Ki Pulse has over combat makes everything else feel stiff by comparison.
Complementary to this are three ‘Weapon Stances’: Low, Mid, and High. As a general rule of thumb, Low attacks are fast, multi-hitting strikes that do less damage, but are great for harassing opponents up close; Mid is a more defensive style, best used for analyzing a foe’s tendencies with safe, consistent pokes; High utilizes massive blows to severely damage health bars and stamina gauges, leaving enemies open to devastating counter-attacks. While there are only a handful of weapons in Nioh compared to your average FromSoftware game, the depth of personalization each offers helps make up for the limited selection.
Analogous to the Ashes of War from Elden Ring, the skill customization in Nioh allows players to swap multiple moves out in place of others for every weapon and stance. Take your standard Souls forward+R1 kick/shield bash that breaks an adversary’s guard; imagine being able to replace it with a move vaulting your character behind the enemy, or one that sweeps them off their feet, allowing for increased damage and stronger positioning. Extrapolate that across three stances before multiplying the result by a factor of two (for each melee weapon), and the end product would have looked good in 2022, let alone 2017.
Then there’s the whole RNG aspect when it comes to crafting and collecting gear. Taking a page from the Diablo III playbook, hundreds (if not thousands) of possibilities are available to those who can navigate through the process. From set pieces and transferring special effects across equipment, to revising outdated armor and tweaking their various modifiers, the amount of freedom Nioh provides in this respect is daunting even to veterans. If there’s anything holding people back from the series, I would guess that it’s the gravity of choice when it comes to item management.
Let’s try another hypothetical: envision my favorite FromSoftware weapon – Astora’s Straight Sword. Imagine transferring its ‘holy’ modifier (which prevents the undead from resurrecting) to the Black Knight’s Halbred, before fusing that with the Dragonslayer Spear, inheriting its lightning enchantment. Combining a Guardian Spirit who grants ‘Life Drain’ on all electricity-based attacks and accessories that increase all forms of lightning damage by 15-20% – what results is your standard lower-level Nioh build.
Nioh 2 adds a couple of vital techniques to the mix. Soul Cores have a chance to drop from enemies that bestow passive bonuses, but also grant characters the abilities of their foes. Aria of Sorrow fans will appreciate how significantly this altered the gameplay of Castlevania, and the effect is even more prominent on builds here. Once defeated, Yatsu-no-Kami’s Soul Core makes poisoned opponents take increased melee damage; with its poisoned arrows, shuriken, and Gallant Broth, ninjitsu-based characters gain a significant advantage in the early-game. There are over 70 of these cores to experiment with; and like weapons can be melded together allowing for further customization.
Supplementing these are Burst Counters. Similar to the system found in FromSoftware titles, attacks prompted by red flashes can be Burst Countered, draining massive amounts of Ki from foes while gaining Anima gauge used for Soul Core abilities. A fatigued enemy can be given a devastating riposte – key in defeating higher-level yokai. Nioh 2 doesn’t break nearly as much new ground as its predecessor, but the changes are sorely missed when revisiting the original.
Smaller design choices build up over time and are always beneficial to the player. Kodama are diminutive beings hidden throughout levels; upon discovery their blessings can be used throughout a region (increased potion or equipment drop-rate, bonus to experience, etc.). This encourages thorough exploration and helps tailor the goals of a given task. Twilight Missions are stronger iterations of previously conquered areas, with more powerful enemies and greater rewards to earn. Prestige Points are similar to the Paragon Levels of Diablo III, giving incremental bonuses to stats for achieving various titles. A character’s hut can be adorned with tea utensils, arranged to increase the amount of gold and rare items dropped. Factions can be joined via the Hidden Tearoom, bestowing their unique bonuses to those who donate gear for the cause. And everybody’s favorite feature, Bloody Graves, allow players to fight fallen NPC versions of each other, gaining some of their equipment upon victory. Benevolent Graves (introduced in Nioh 2) are the inverse of this, summoning an automated ally to lend assistance throughout a level.
The additions to NG+ cycles are numerous in detail, so we’ll only touch on some highlights. Higher-level equipment with new types of modifiers can be found in Dream of the Strong and beyond, alongside increased blacksmith capabilities. Scrolls are mission/accessory hybrids whose effects can be altered upon completion. The Stone of Penance has players surrender an accessory in exchange for said mineral; in combat, this absorbs a portion of the experience gained and, when returned to the shrine, infuses the relinquished adornment with its ill-gotten gains, potentially increasing its effects. Bosses and regular enemies gain new attack patterns, as DLC-created foes start to bleed into the main story. The Underworld is an homage to challenge stages like the Dark Realm and Bloody Palace from Onimusha/Devil May Cry, where the most elite of rewards can be gained. Much of this was added after my time, but having seen weapons online that are 10x more powerful than the ones I have equipped and 245 levels higher than my current character, it’s safe to say that long-term users have had more to look forward to than finding a Flame Quartz Ring+3.
In fact, there’s so much for FromSoftware fans to love about the Nioh games, it’s almost like they try and find reasons not to enjoy them – namely the mission-based structure. And though this design isn’t nearly as cohesive or immersive as open worlds are for single playthroughs, I’d argue that it’s far more palatable for NG+ runs and beyond. I mean, which do you think caters more towards hundreds of hours of gameplay: wandering aimlessly in an already-conquered world, finding superfluous pieces of gear that have no use, or missions whose definitive parameters consistently reward players with the means to get stronger? I’ll admit to having a Dark Souls character with 4-5 copies of Sunlight Blade and Wrath of the Gods, but some ‘Exceptional’ and ‘Elite’ classes of weapons ala Diablo II should have made the cut – even by 2011 standards. Besides, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne, and Dark Souls III share far more in common with a mission-based system than they do with open worlds, so I’m not sure I buy the criticism in the first place.
Last, but not least, it would be remiss if we didn’t address the secret best part about Nioh 2: using its character creator to generate the most desirable avatar possible. Don’t take my word for it (though I tried my best), one only has to look at all the codes being traded across the web like baseball cards before realizing many of us action/RPG fans may have missed our true callings in life. Maybe instead of studying our Miyamoto Musashi, we should have taken a closer look at the career of Giovanni Versace. Trust me, I know how important jaw protrusion and nasolabial folds can be when creating successful video game characters.
And here I reflect, somewhat wiser than I was before – yet still no less perplexed. Though 7 million units across both Nioh games is certainly respectable, it apparently wasn’t enough to prevent Team Ninja from branching out in several different directions. Perhaps Wo Long’s broader release will bring in the capital necessary to round out a trilogy, but if it doesn’t – that’s okay. It’s not a competition between companies or even fanbases; the reality is that it’s been a win/win situation for everyone all along! FromSoftware is certainly the king of the realm (as evidenced by the exponentially higher sales), but Team Ninja holds a few trump cards of its own. The best part about being players is that we don’t have to choose between either, because we can have both! We’re the ones that get to sit back and happily watch as the titans continue blazing trails forward in the action/RPG realm.
If Nioh happens to occupy the digital shelf of your PS+ library alongside Lords of the Fallen and Mortal Shell, don’t be afraid to give it a try. That lady in Sanjuro may have said “the best swords are kept in their sheaths”, but that only applies if there’s not demon heads that need to be removed from demonic bodies.