Thursday, May 11, 2017

Feudal Fury: Team Ninja’s Nioh

Nioh was published by Koei Tecmo and Sony Interactive Entertainment in February, 2017.

I've talked a lot about FROM Software's Dark Souls series. It's about time I talked about its clones.

A series as monumentally successful as the Souls games whether it's the direct entries in the Souls franchise or stand-alone spinoff titles like Bloodborne  is obviously going to spawn legions of imitators. These games seemingly connected with players at a molecular level, crafting worlds in which we became profoundly immersed and which we yearned to visit again and again. They married deep combat design with beautifully realized narrative, and through sheer quality of execution and polish they gained a singular reputation. Like the watershed titles in other genres  DOOMGrand Theft Auto, Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros  they evolved our ideas about what games could accomplish, and inspired countless creators to take up their mantle … often with diminishing returns.

But that's not to say that Dark Souls was born into a void. The series is not without its own myriad influences, not just in gaming, but in other media as well. FROM Software president Hidetaka Miyazaki famously drew inspiration from the Western fantasy novels he found in his local library as a boy, filling the gaps in his understanding of English with his own outlandish imaginings. The exaggerated, hyper-stylized depictions of knights, dragons, monks, castles, magic, and ancient slumbering foes that appear in the Souls games are a reflection of Chaucer, Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Dante  just as games like Lords of the Fallen, Salt & Sanctuary, or Hyper Light Drifter are muted shadows of the Souls series. And though younger gamers  or those with short memories – may point to Miyazaki's Souls games as the progenitor of the "crushingly difficult action game" genre, they were hardly the first to offer this kind of experience. Perhaps the most well-known series to spark this flame, beginning with a landmark NES title in 1988, was Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden  and now, in 2017, Tecmo is back to reclaim their throne from Miyazaki with an action-RPG called Nioh. And lemme tell you: they're back with a vengeance.

Many gamers see Nioh, in a post- Dark Souls world, as a clone of that series, but that's a misguided view. Nioh is much more a descendant of its own bloodline, the Ninja Gaiden series, than it is a "Souls-like"  although it does draw inspiration and success from Miyazaki's work. Team Ninja, Tecmo's in-house development squad (who have been loyal stewards of the Gaiden series since the early 2000s), would have been foolish to ignore the impact that the Souls series had on the gaming landscape. If they had, Nioh would have been dismissed as yet another clone, and would have dissolved quickly into obscurity. Instead, they studied Dark Souls  carefully dissecting its inner workings, reworking its flaws and preserving its triumphs  and parleyed those findings into a stronger, beefier, more complex version of their hack n' slash breadwinner. Nioh is a hybrid of two gaming giants, a two-headed demon of brutal difficulty, fast-paced combat, deep RPG mechanics, and fantastical lore. And it's absolutely brilliant.

Nioh is set in a fantasy feudal Japan, where real-life historical figures like Hattori Hanzo and Tokugawa Ieyasu fight for control of their homeland in the midst of a savage civil war. Like Bioware's excellent RPG Jade Empire, Nioh provides a detailed historical setting embellished with supernatural elements, where the chaos of war has allowed spirits, monsters, and demons (called "yokai") to flourish in the land of the living. You play as an Irish sailor named William  based on the real-life Western samurai William Adams  who chases an enemy to the shores of Japan and becomes embroiled in this conflict. This particular brand of historical fantasy has always been fascinating to me, in large part because it's a more compelling way to absorb real history than by poring through some dusty tome. (My advice to historians and history buffs: don't turn your nose up at this stuff for being "inaccurate." It's far better at engaging the curiosity and interest of an audience than you are, and if it does its job correctly, it will encourage them to seek out the differences between the fiction they're enjoying and the historical fact it's based upon. My own interest in history would be minimal at best without these stylized stepping-stones.) Even works of more "realistic" historical fiction – such as James Clavell's much-lauded novel Shogun, which itself fictionalizes the figure of William Adams  don't capture the imagination as well as a story that depicts a highly detailed historical setting that just happens to also have demons and spirits and folklore coming to vivid life. Plus, I don't think a historical account that's interested in anthropological verisimilitude is worth its salt if it doesn't account for those mythological stories and beliefs, which seem disposable now but were absolutely vital to everyday life back then. A world like Nioh's  where people's "guardian spirits" appear alongside them as glowing animal familiars, in the noble tradition of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials  contains a lot more truth than you might think.

But, as in Dark Souls, if the player prefers to ignore the narrative, they are permitted to do so without fuss, and will still experience an excellent role-playing action game. If there's a way to describe Nioh overall, it's to say that it takes cues from both Ninja Gaiden and the Souls series, and places several layers of complexity over top of that foundation. The unforgiving, fast-paced, twitch-reflex combat of the Gaiden games is amplified by the inclusion of combat stances (high, mid, and low) that can be swapped on the fly. The stamina system of Dark Souls, represented here by "ki" (or "fighting spirit"), is complicated by a "pulse" system requiring you to carefully time a button press after performing attacks in order to regain your energy and stay in the fight (which, strangely, felt like a nod to Epic Games' Gears of War, of all things). Nioh complicates everything it borrows from other games, whether it's the loot and gear systems of Diablo, the multi-layered level design of Bloodborne, or the online team-ranking system from recent titles like my own company's For Honor. Not all of these added complexities count as improvements, however, and some only serve to obfuscate what might already be a confounding system  which becomes problematic when an understanding of that system is crucial to your success. You can choose from a multitude of the aforementioned Guardian Spirits, each of which conveys a unique set of buffs and a special attack when activated, but I was nearly three- quarters into my 80-hour playthrough before I realized that Spirits were meant to be equipped alongside specific sets of armour, each enhancing the potency of the other. The punishing late-game difficulty I was slogging through suddenly dropped like a stone, effectively killing the momentum I had built up across the game's many regions. Thankfully this wasn't a deal breaker, but it's a good way to illustrate both how interwoven and complex Nioh's systems are, and how uninterested it is in communicating those details to you. You either figure it out or you don't.

I'd be lying if I said that I disliked this attitude. It's a very Souls-like approach, after all. The rallying cry of the Dark Souls fanboy, responding in message boards where people ask for help, is "git gud"  an unhelpful bit of meme-driven snark that nonetheless perfectly encapsulates the truth of the Souls experience. No matter how many internet guides you read or elite strategies you study, the only way you're gonna get past that part you're stuck on is to get good. Nioh is no different, asking of its players that they rise to a fierce challenge and rewarding their persistence and mastery of its systems with even greater challenges, and the gear and abilities needed to overcome them. It capitalizes on the same addictive loops that made Dark Souls so popular, burning away bad gaming habits like impatience, laziness, and lack of focus in the crucible of its crushing difficulty. And it lets me feel like a badass samurai ninja ass-kicker who conquers foes so terrifying that even death itself is a mere annoyance.

Just don't ask me whether Dark Souls or Nioh is more difficult. That's like asking a drug addict if it was harder to kick crack or heroin. They are both brutal bastards, and I love them, and I experience a near-constant itch to go back for more.

 Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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