Early Impressions: NIOH

In this Crossfader series, our video games staff takes a look at early versions of upcoming releases so that you can know which hype trains to board.


NIOH only got formally announced last month, but it’s been a work in progress for over a decade at this point. The original work, then known as NI-OH, was to be a PlayStation 3 launch title based off of an unused screenplay by Akira Kurosawa. Fast forward to 2016, and we’re now looking at a game that can be best described as PS4 exclusive, samurai themed DARK SOULS, starring THE WITCHER’s Geralt of Rivia. The surprisingly polished and deep “alpha” demo is going from the 26th to the fifth of May, and I’ve already gotten quite a feel for the title.

nioh white snake

nioh other white guy

What’s the going rate for character designs these days anyway?

NIOH’s demo is pretty scant on plot, though like DARK SOULS a lot of my understanding was informed by the items I collected. Geral— I mean, “William”, washes ashore in Japan in the year 1600, near a razed village that is brimming both with bandits and demons feasting off of the misery of the slain townsfolk. Seeking to become the first/most hardcore weeaboo in history, William quickly trades his western garb for samurai armor and a katana to hack apart everyone he meets. William isn’t a talker, which is understandable in this case, since he likely wouldn’t have much to say to the entirely Japanese vocal cast of the outlaw ronin. His actions speak far louder than words, and luckily for everyone NIOH has plenty to go around in that department.

First thing’s first: Yes, this game is remarkably similar to DARK SOULS. You collect souls amirita from slain foes, which can be spent to level up William’s abilities, but are lost if you yourself fall in battle. The graves of other online players can be seen in your adventure, but unlike in DARK SOULS, where they would leave messages or warn you of dangers, those fallen in NIOH can be challenged as wraiths for an extra challenging duel, which, if won, will yield copies of that player’s equipment and tokens to summon aid from online. NIOH has no PVP multiplayer component so far, but other Williams can enter your world from a hub based matchmaking system to offer assistance against tough enemies. And yes, also like DARK SOULS, NIOH is really, really hard.

nioh yadda yadda yadda

Prepare to die yadda yadda yadda

This is where the comparisons start to end, since while DARK SOULS is firmly planted in the realm of the action RPG, NIOH’s true influences skew closer to hack’n’slashes in the vein of NINJA GAIDEN. The world of NIOH, though about as labyrinthian as DARK SOULS, is divided into stages rather than a single open map. DARK SOULS also pitted players exclusively against hordes of weaker foes or monsters that far outstripped them in ability, with little in between. The above screenshot, and most of NIOH’s marketing for that matter, is rather misleading, because while William faces the occasional massive demon, most of his fights will come from similarly equipped and skilled human warriors, though they range from simple peasants to armored samurai and agile ninjas. Enemy attacks are still telegraphed, though not to the extent of DARK SOULS. Instead, players are expected to pay close attention to stance and stamina to prevail, and this is where NIOH stands as its own game.

William has access to swords, spears, and axes, and each weapon has a strong high, defensive mid, and quick low stance. Different stances serve different purposes, as do each weapon, and knowing when to use each one will decide who wins an engagement. Each combination of stance and weapon consumes different amounts of stamina, which is an attribute even more vital than health in NIOH. In DARK SOULS, running out of stamina simply meant you couldn’t sprint or use heavy attacks until the meter recharged. In NIOH, running out of stamina during a fight is a death sentence. William will have to stop and catch his breath for several seconds, leaving him vulnerable to devastating a coup de grâce. The same rules apply to enemy samurai, however, and their stamina is also tracked beneath their health bar. Enemies with fully armored suits or huge weapons are appropriately scary and dangerous, but they are also prone to tiring themselves out faster than their weaker brethren. Depending on the situation, William may want to target his opponent’s stamina to set up a finishing blow, rather than whittle away at their health.

nioh samurai lame

A fool once told me/“Samurai swords are lame, dude”/Square Square Triangle

Combat is also more frenetic and visceral than the Souls games. While William can upgrade his base attributes and stats, his experience can also be spent on a skill tree of unlockable moves and combos for each of his weapons and stances. NIOH requires players to memorize said combos for their loadouts in order to slay the tougher foes, or to reduce common enemies to a pile of quivering giblets. Features like enemy juggling and grapples are present here, while zoning and block-breaking are more prominent than they were in DARK SOULS. In addition, William’s bow is far more powerful and utilitarian than the ranged weapons found in Souls games. The bow can be aimed over the shoulder or fired automatically at the nearest enemy, but a single headshot is enough to decapitate most human foes. Though arrows are in short supply and helmets from armored foes will often absorb the impact, the archery here is incredibly satisfying and actually feels like it’s worth utilizing, unlike the ranged attacks in most other games in this genre.

While it’s off to an amazing start, not everything about NIOH’s demo left me impressed. Item condition deteriorates at an almost unmanageable rate, with repair items not appearing quite fast enough to keep up. To compensate, enemies drop far more equipment that can be used as replacement, but this in turn results in William’s inventory quickly filling up with hundreds of identical weapons and armor. NIOH’s learning curve is just as steep and without explanation as DARK SOULS, but this is further compounded by the cultural gap. While the medieval RPGs that dominate the market have uniformly taught most players to differentiate between a broadsword and a longsword, for example, NIOH’s entirely Japanese armory just left me scratching my head. What’s the difference between an uchigatana and a tachi, and why would I pick one over the other? There are several variations of gunpowder bombs that can be used, with few discernable differences and all with names that I can’t pronounce. NIOH’s setting unfortunately makes it niche for the Western audience it’s targeting, despite emulating one of the rare Japanese formulas that has taken hold over here.

nioh baka gaijin

Fakku you, baka gaijin

NIOH is shaping up to be a promising addition to the PlayStation library and a more than worthy rival of From Software’s works. DARK SOULS 3 marked the end of that trilogy of games, but NIOH might give fans more of their fix while a new franchise is assembled. Yes, there are minor quirks right now, but nothing that can’t be addressed while we wait for a solid release date. Try to catch the alpha while you can (completing the first stage gives you a code for free DLC), and keep an eye out for NIOH as further updates are made available.

The NIOH alpha is available on PSN until May 5th.

Ed Dutcher is the Video Games Editor here at Crossfader. The last time Ed had a meal that wasn't microwaved, George W. Bush was president. He only learned to read so that he could play Pokemon.

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1 Response

  1. October 28, 2018

    […] that it kind of created its own genre of games trying to emulate the feel of the series, games like NIOH and THE SURGE being the most notable. But even regarding those “Souls-likes,” it seems like […]