Whether you have played through them or not, it’s impossible to deny how major an effect From Software’s Souls games have had on modern gaming. Growing from a niche title like Demon Souls into the massive blockbusters of Dark Souls III and Bloodborne, From Software has carved out its own genre and redefined hardcore gaming. The latest title to follow in the same mind-numbingly difficult footsteps is Team Ninja’s Nioh, a hack-and-slash samurai game that takes more than a few cues from the Souls series.

Despite the similarities, Nioh manages to change up the formula just enough to offer something new and, arguably, better crafted than it’s inspiration. And it all starts with the beginning of the game. In its opening hours, instead of offering players a brick wall to gleefully run into until it breaks, Nioh eases players into the challenge. The introduction to Team Ninja’s brutal world makes the eventual difficulty a fun progression instead of an immediate grind, making the game as a whole better for it. Far from being just a “Dark Souls clone,” Nioh might better be understood as the refinement to the formula that the rest of us have been waiting for.

Nioh

There is no doubt that the Souls games are among some of the best designed titles in years. And despite their difficulty, they have managed to pull in plenty of gamers. Dark Souls III broke multiple sales records for Bandai Namco, becoming the publisher’s fastest selling title ever. And it was roughly nine months ago now that the company announced the game had passed the 3 million sales mark, a respectable number for any title, let alone for one in a niche, hardcore genre.

But for all their successes, and exquisite design, the truth is the Souls games turn away just as many people as they hook. Is it because a substantial portion of gamers just don’t like hard games? It’s doubtful. There is nothing wrong with challenge. Instead, it comes down to how that challenge is presented.

When it comes to the Souls games, the challenge is front and center. The brutality is the entire franchise’s claim to fame. From the moment each title starts off, you’re in hot water. Not only is it do-or-die, but also the finer mechanics, the items you find, and the game worlds themselves are just as obscure and tantalizingly vague as the narrative. With each release, Reddit explodes as the community discovers how to play the game. It’s a special sense of mystery and camaraderie seldom found elsewhere in games. But for all those not already in the community, it’s just one more reason to not bother.

Back when Bloodborne first released, IGN’s Executive Reviews Editor Dan Stapleton wrote a piece entitled “How and Why Bloodborne Lost Me.” As a new player to the Souls games, but persuaded by the community’s excitement in the run up to From Software’s latest, he buckled down and decided to give Bloodborne a real try. After spending roughly a dozen hours muscling through the opening area over and over, and finally beating the game’s first boss, he explains he had suffered enough: “For me, learning to play Bloodborne was tediously repetitive and very rarely fun.” And overall, “Don’t mistake this for wanting my hand held – it’s more about not having my hand slammed in a car door and being told to like it.”

bloodborne

The opening segment of Bloodborne is a punishing, checkpoint-devoid gauntlet that doesn’t even allow you to level up (thus preserving any degree of progress) before reaching the first boss or finding a specific item. As far as first impressions go, it serves as excellent reassurance to fans that Bloodborne will be just as demanding, if not more so, than the rest of the Souls games. But it also serves as an atrocious introduction for anyone not already tempered in the Dark Souls fire.

Though it might be the worst offender of From Software’s modern line-up, Bloodborne certainly isn’t alone. Be it any of the three Dark Souls games, or even going all the way back to the tutorial boss you are meant to lose to in Demon Souls, each is designed to quickly and efficiently throw you into the deep end. For plenty of gamers, there’s no doubt that sink-or-swim mentality is a large part of the series’ charm. But on the other hand, you also have the gamers that look at that and simply decide to walk away.

Just like any form of entertainment competing for people’s attention and money, first impressions are everything in gaming. In 2016 alone, over 300 games received retail releases, and that doesn’t count the booming digital side of the industry, including the tidal wave of indie games on Steam and the other digital marketplaces. If a gamer’s first impression of a title is bad, they probably aren’t coming back. And more than that, they probably aren’t going to think twice about a sequel. There are simply too many great games out there to spend your time with one that isn’t fun, even it might be fun eventually if you just knuckle down and “get good.”

Dark Souls

Due to my unique position of covering games, and in no small part due to being surrounded by a number of Souls-fanatics, I’ve pressed myself into picking up and playing all five of From Software’s recent titles over the years. But even as I have soldiered through the opening hours of each, getting several bosses deep in the original Dark Souls in particular, I’ve never gone back, never felt that compulsion to keep playing, and never finished a single one. The easy answer might be that I don’t like hard games, or just happen to be bad at Souls titles. But, just as is likely the case for many other gamers out there, I don’t think that’s the full story.

I don’t usually turn to gaming specifically for the hard-as-nails challenges, I don’t ratchet the difficulty up to 11 just for the fun of it, and, at the end of the day, I am pretty bad at the Souls games. But I still find them intriguing. The aesthetics are hauntingly beautiful, the moment-to-moment combat is engaging, and that intense sense of accomplishment after finally beating seemingly insurmountable odds is as alluring as ever. Instead, it is those pesky first impressions that keep getting in the way. More than just influencing if someone will or will not keep playing a game, first impressions also have a profound affect on your investment, even if you do decide to keep at it.

And that’s the key change that makes all the difference in Nioh. Now several dozen hours into the game, I’ve come face-to-face with the fact that I am enjoying it far more than I did with any of From Software’s titles. Playing the Souls games, and even other Souls-like titles such as Lords of the Fallen, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain pattern. I start off excited, grind through the early hours, and eventually burn out before getting far enough in to ever feel truly proficient or captivated with what the game has to offer. Needless to say, I expected much the same from Nioh, but was promptly proven wrong.

Nioh

The opening of Nioh has you breaking out of your prison cell in the Tower of London. Putting aside the fact that you start a samurai game in London, a little surprise all its own, a number of small details serve to make the game feel much simpler than it actually is. While the stats and gear system all appear upfront, along with the basics of combat and weapons, the Amrita system (Nioh’s versions of souls), the guardian spirit system, and the entire idea of fighting stances and Ki (stamina) restoration are nowhere to be found.

For all intents and purposes, the first mission of Nioh is an extended tutorial, something that would be blasphemous in a Souls game. Even worse, Team Ninja follows up the Tower of London with the option for an actual tutorial that then explains the elements left out up to that point. But what about the difficulty? What about the bitter, hardcore edge of the game? It’s still there. Following the first mission, the difficulty ramps up fast. Even just into the third or fourth main mission, the comforting Tower of London is a distant, whimsical memory. But its inclusion is still important.

For an experienced Souls player, and someone interested in getting straight to the meat of what Nioh has to offer, the Tower of London can be completed in a matter of minutes. But when I picked up my controller that first night, I spent over an hour exploring every nook and cranny the dark British halls had to offer. And when it came down to the couple of times that an ax-wielding knight decided he’d had enough of my ‘noob’-shenanigans, that was okay.

Nioh

Without the Amrita system, you don’t lose anything when you die in the opening mission. To the contrary, you keep all the gear you collect, and continue to collect more as you make your way back from the last checkpoint. Souls-veterans can speed through the Tower of London, likely without a single death. But for everyone else, it serves as a place where we can experiment, get used to the game, and go toe-to-toe with some lethal enemies, but never feel punished for learning.

And though a small thing, that alone has a remarkable effect on the rest of the game. As the difficulty increases and new mechanics join the fray, even a dozen hours in, it’s an escalation, not of a hurdle blocking the start line. By the end of the second mission, right around where hulking Yokai begin popping up, eager to smash you into the ground for the smallest mistake, I was already hooked. Having progressed in terms of skill, but also in terms of the game itself, by the time the real challenges appear, Nioh has already inspired a greater investment. And when it comes to overcoming the next challenge, and then the one after that, all the way throughout the game, an extra degree of investment is sometimes all it takes.

Anyone can play a hard game. The question is instead if the developer can make the process of learning into something fun on it’s own. Being more accessible in its opening hours, it’s entirely possible Nioh won’t have the same majesty, or inspire the same reverence, as Dark Souls in the long run. But if it can make you fall in love with a genre you never thought was for you, that’s impressive all on it’s own.

  • I am a fan of the Soulsborne series and yes I admit that Nioh refined the genre. It is challenging but lets the player have some space to work with by including lots of items and equip as well as a levelling system that has a little more weight than the one of the Soulsborne series.

    • Sean Timm

      Absolutely. My only real complaint about the game is actually just that the item menus are a pain to navigate through sometimes. 😛

      • I 100% agree with that. The item menu can be a chore when you have lots of weapons and armor even if you just want to dispose of them. Sometimes it won’t even filter them (all types of weapons and armor together when selling). It could had been a little more intuitive.

        • Sean Timm

          Here’s hoping the game has done more than well enough to warrant plenty of support and patches going forward.

  • Kverulv

    Nioh is fucking great

    • Sean Timm

      Ha. Simple and to the point. I like it.

      • Jayb 24

        “Nioh won’t have the same majesty, or inspire the same reverence, as Dark Souls in the long run. But if it can make you fall in love with a genre you never thought was for you, that’s impressive all on it’s own.” Great conclusion and I do agree with this thesis, but I have my own take on it. I don’t think Nioh will surpass it simply because of the interconnected and whole worldly feeling when you play a souls game. There’s no sugarcoating that the souls games worlds just feel more grandiose than that of Nioh. They feel more alive and lore ridden like a mystery. I think this is a grand appeal to many players. Also the atmosphere that these games set, but like I’ve previously said before. Nioh has cut its own niche into this genre and its here to say. I’m glad your enjoying and here’s to many more fun days playing it, cheers.

        • Sean Timm

          Absolutely. My favorite thing in games is exploring. And grandiose is an excellent way to describe the souls games. In many ways, Nioh feels a lot like Demon Souls to me, with each area its own level. Just makes me excited to see how the game and series develops if Team Ninja sticks with it.

          • Jayb 24

            Thanks for the reply Sean. I think another thing that NIoh does will is progress. In dark souls progressing and learning the mechanics can sometimes be tedious. In Nioh, there’s always a reward to keep you going and the loot satisfaction helps a bunch. It’s like your gradually becoming more powerful. In dark souls, it feels as if you’re just trying to survive.. Anyway, glad your having fun in the action rpg genre finally, welcome.

  • SpecialNewb

    Bandai was the one to make the marketing all about how hard it is. That was not the intention in Dark Souls or Demon’s. The team’s desire was to make it challenging enough that you’d really revel in victory. Not hard for hard’s sake. That changed sone in Dark 2, 3 and BB as the team itself started to buy some into the hype. Ironically it’s Team Ninja that made hard for hard’s sake in Ninja Gaiden and seems to have gone the other way in Nioh.

    Most of the time if you’re slamming into a wall in Souls it’s your fault. It means you’re missing something or your approach is wrong. Thats true for new players and veterans. It happened to me several times in BB. I’ve seen it happen to people playing Nioh, people who did just fine in Dark Souls. It is entirely possible Nioh is better at teaching, From is pretty clumsy at straightforward controls instruction always has been. But from what I’ve seen in streams it works substantially the same way in both.

    I am excited to play Nioh.

  • Rafoca

    Game is great, but they messed hard with coop. As a standalone game it’s awesome, but when compared to dark souls I don’t think it is as good (no invasions, way less spells, messy co-op…)

  • Alex Handzhiev

    @disqus_wYPtWvzRB2:disqus I read the whole article… the first and only thing that came to my mind… you`re a gaming pu**y… end of story 🙂

  • theshavenwookie

    This game misses a crucial point of the souls series, it never creates any tension. You never feel that terror when you round a new corner and see a new unspeakable horror. The boss battles are bad and they never become interesting or memorable along with the same five enemies you fight every mission. The game is good, but it feels like a glossy disjointed imitation of a souls game.

  • suli559

    Sorry but you’re very wrong, the beginning of bloodborne allowed me to level up my character a lot! I took my time playing the first section of the game, i didn’t leave the first 15 minutes of the game for 3 days until my character was about level 35, the first boss was a joke, it was tough but not for long.

    • Buck Buchanan

      I think his point was that you don’t gain any insight in the opening area, and therefore can’t level up. Once you wander into either of the two boss arenas or pick up one of the two Madman’s Knowledge consumables (which can only be found after you’ve reached the sewer) you can unlock the ability to level up. And to someone playing blind there’s no hint that this mechanic is in play. The Hunter’s Dream feels like an oddly useless place.

      • Sean Timm

        Couldn’t have explained it better myself. 🙂

      • Jayb 24

        I agree with everything you mentioned above but there are some players like myself that love the idea of playing blind and figuring everything out themselves like a puzzle. Now to say that hunters dream feels like a useless place. I agree again. That’s why I love dark souls 1. You can do everything the hunters dream gives you at a bonfire. My biggest complaint with Nioh is that the world feels so disjointed. Any who great game no matter how you slice it.

        • Buck Buchanan

          Yeah, I like figuring out the mechanics, too. I love what happens in the Hunter’s Dream after you’ve finished Nightmare of Mensis. I wish there were more changes along those lines or hidden explorable areas that you gain access to as you progress through the game.

    • Jawbreaker123

      wut? you fought the cleric beast at lvl 35?

      • suli559

        Lol yeah i was about 33 or 35 by the time i decided to face him. I refused to advance from that beginning section of the game until every single enemy could get killed with one single hit, including those big guys.

        • Jawbreaker123

          well, I smashed father gascoigne for less than a minute at lvl 22. I can imagine that you probably didnt have a lot of problems with the cleric beast at lvl 33…

  • disqus_ZQiFAzGLCR

    The souls and bloodborne games are hard at the start by design. There is a steep curve to becoming fun, really fun with lots of pay offs and a real sense of achievment. Its all worth it if you have the patience. A sign of a truly great rpg experience. Nioh, on the other hand, spreads itself out a little bit in all directions. I wouldnt call it refined at all, far from it. The loot and rpg mechanics in souls and bloodborne are what i would call refined. There is alot going on in Nioh, almost to the point of pointlessness. And the hack and slash action is not quite as hard and fast and indeed visceral as Ninja Gaiden but still enjoyable and more varied than souls/Bb.

  • Brad Marcus Kirchhoff

    Heres the problem for me. In an rpg like a souls game I need to be able to call upon sorcery and the “magic” system in Nioh is bare bones. The icon u can call upon doesnt fill the void. None of the basic enemies actually feel like a threat whereas in DS the whimpiest enemies can decimate u in seconds. Therefore, while its a good game, comparing it to the depth of the Souls series is just ignorant. This is “Dark Souls Lite”

  • Buck Buchanan

    I’m not sure why you think an opening tutorial mission would be “blasphemous” in a Souls game. Darks Souls 1 and 3 (and to a lesser extent 2) feature tutorial missions at the beginning. Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne are a little crueler in this regard.

  • Anthony Santora

    This article absolutely nails how I feel about Nioh. I too tried every Souls game but couldn’t get into it, just too hard. I am however absolutely loving Nioh.

  • Nathan

    So Nioh is better cause it’s easy? Ha! Git Gud

    • Kverulv

      It is harder than bloodborne actually. And the git gud comment, what are you, like 13 years old?

      • Nathan

        I have no idea if i should take you seriously or not

        • Kverulv

          You should.. Now go play Nioh…

          • Nathan

            Lol I’m sorry haha just couldn’t take you seriously after your first sentence

            • Kverulv

              Aaah, i get it. You are one of those who platins these kind of games in a week. Sorry then mate. I guesss Bloodborne is an “easy” game for you. And also eats Nioh for breakfast

              • Nathan

                Nope.In fact isn’t it the other way around cause if you find it harder than Bloodborne then that makes Bloodborne 2easy4u! Damn sir i didn’t know you were that gud,Respect! Bravo *applause* *slooow clap*

            • Kverulv

              I just couldn’t take you seriously after”git gud”

  • Kverulv

    Many dark souls fans dont play Nioh because of pride and envy, it is so hillarious! They want to be “true to the series” and so on, not playing a clone of a game.. I meet them all the time

    • Nathan

      What?The souls community are praising games like Nioh for being like Dark Souls. If there’s a reason they won’t play it it’s because it doesn’t have a pvp

      • Kverulv

        Pvp is coming to Nioh, just not implented yet…………..

        • Nathan

          Exactly.That’s the reason why some hasn’t played it yet. Lots of the community just want invasions,pvp and jolly co-operations

    • Jayb 24

      I can only speak for myself, and as a long time fan of Miyazaki and From’s games. I adore Nioh for shaking up the genre and putting some much needed heat on From to keep improving the genre.

      • Sean Timm

        A little competition just means better games for everyone. 🙂

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