Team Ninja's 'Nioh' Is the Best Riff on 'Dark Souls' Yet

Team Ninja's 'Nioh' Is the Best Riff on 'Dark Souls' Yet

'Nigh' is finely calibrated – and brutally hard – journey into a demon-infested world Team Ninja

A brutally punishing, but rewarding journey into samurai hell

A brutally punishing, but rewarding journey into samurai hell

There's nothing fair about that now-infamous surprise bowling ball trap that flattens your poor knight just five minutes into the original Dark Souls. Whether devotees admit it or not, the "tough but fair" label that has attached itself to From Software’s notoriously challenging series has always been more of a rationalization than a directive – your failures are yours to own, so stop blaming the poor, impartial game designer.

With Nioh – Team Ninja's brutal supernatural action RPG set in feudal Japan – the self-deluders have their work cut out for them. This expertly-crafted bear-trap of a game might lift its blueprint from FromSoft's lauded franchise, but its teeth cut far deeper. Upon your inevitable death, you lose not only all your experience, but your "guardian spirit," a figure from Shinto mythology that serves as not only a necessary source of defense, but as a metered power-up that renders you invulnerable for a few precious seconds. If you die again before retrieving the spirit from the site of your demise, your loss is doubled: both the experience you're currently carrying and the points banked in your dormant companion evaporate into the ether, never to be recovered.

Perhaps it's a bit unfair to speak of Nioh only in terms of its obvious inspiration; as fans will tell you, this is far from Team Ninja's first dalliance with punishing difficulty. In many ways, it was the so-called "character-action" games of the Playstation 2/Xbox era – like the studio's eponymous Ninja Gaiden series – that kept masochists well fed when Souls was just a twinkle in series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki's eye. Nioh's exacting swordplay actually hews closer to Gaiden's frantic stylings than anything Souls. While a stamina bar – styled here as Ki – prevents the non-stop slashing that defines the character-action genre, the combat goes a few ticks faster than even the delirious Bloodborne, with death coming quickly, or not at all.

More than anything, the Souls games demand patience; Nioh demands perfection. Team Ninja has made no attempt to blunt the mechanical sophistication that they're known for, and those who hesitate to engage with its bevy of complex systems will find themselves falling at the starting gate again and again. There might be just a handful of weapon types – katanas, spears, and hammers among them – but they each feature three stances that you switch on the fly, as well as specific abilities that you unlock via an entirely separate resource pool. It's thoroughly overwhelming.

The key to the combat lies in perhaps its greatest departure from the Souls mold – tap the stance button at the right time, and you "pulse" to gain back some of your lost Ki. Despite all of its manifold layers, mastery of this lone mechanic is enough to give you a fighting chance. If you manage to avoid their deadly strikes – many of which kill you outright in a single blow – even the stoutest demons will eventually run low on Ki themselves, allowing you to wail on them without fear of recourse. Unfortunately, the game's tougher "yokai" constantly create pockets of impurity that slow down your Ki regeneration, which is usually a death sentence. Dispelling these portals requires a pitch-perfect pulse, which proves difficult when you have three crazed swordsmen on your tail.

Throughout the bloodshed, the game showers you with shinguards, gi, and other equipment with almost obnoxious regularity. Anyone who's familiar with junk accumulation simulators like Diablo or Borderlands will find Nioh's approach familiar, even down to the way it color codes the scrap you liberate from the dead. And while the loot scheme itself is competently done, there's a lurking sense that this kind of menu-juggling and inventory balancing clashes fundamentally with the pinpoint action of the moment-to-moment. The Souls series' approach to loot might not be perfect, but it certainly isn't this distracting.

More than anything, it's impossible to separate the appeal of Team Ninja's comeback from the absolute savagery of its expectations. Make no mistake – even compared to its forebears, Nioh is built specifically to grind your will down to a single sharp atom. The locales of Dark Souls don't feel like mere deathtraps – they're landmarks in a forgotten world that slowly and surely unravel a haunting history. In comparison, Nioh's levels are essentially dark, rainy corridors that conceal naught but hostile encounter after hostile encounter, with healing items few and far between. And to give credit where it's due, Nioh boasts what might be the most galling cast of bosses in the history of action gaming – including a saucy, murderous she-bat, a giant frog with a penchant for cigars, and a skeleton the size of the Eiffel Tower – all united by their unquenchable desire to peel you apart with a single blow and drop your bones into a stew. Those who expect to die early and often in the world of Nioh will find their pleas answered, again and again and again. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, this exquisite work is best admired from afar – it might be pearl-encrusted, but like every other bear trap, it’s made to maim.