In case you missed the memo, FromSoftware is done making Dark Souls games. Unless studio president Hidetaka Miyazaki changes his mind, next month's Ringed City DLC is not only Dark Souls 3's final expansion, it's the last piece of Dark Souls content ever.
Rather than leave that bloodstain to dry, Nioh pays homage to FromSoftware's modern classic while driving the genre forward at breakneck speed.
Heart and Souls
Developed by Team Ninja, Nioh evokes Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls with a little Bloodborne thrown in for good measure. The basics will be familiar to anyone who's at least dabbled in a Souls game. You'll creep through dozens of areas painted in shades of grim and bleak, fighting enemies using a bevy of weapons, resting at shrines that both heal you and reset enemies and traps, spending amrita instead of souls to upgrade attributes.
Instead of playing it safe and conforming to a winning pedigree, Nioh builds on FromSoftware's ideas by injecting them with the raw speed of its 3D Ninja Gaiden series. Every weapon has a light and heavy attack, but your character can switch between low, mid, and high styles on the fly, effectively giving you six basic strikes.
Besides amrita, you earn skill points that you can spend on skills unique to each weapon class. Specializing in kusarigama (a wicked sickle-and-chain combo) afforded me access to skills like a kick that drains enemy stamina, a flurry of strikes that chews through life meters, and a throat slice that deals massive damage to winded enemies who neglected their stamina.
Minding your stamina, known as ki, is paramount in Nioh, but Team Ninja put a twist on the mechanic. Every time you finish an attack, you'll notice a blue glow surrounding your character. Tap R1 at the right time and you'll recoup all the ki you expended in a flash. Performing a ki pulse is reminiscent of getting hit in Bloodborne and being able to reclaim lost hit points by counterattacking quickly, but you always regain at least a smidgeon of ki even if your timing is off, so you won't feel punished if you prefer defense over aggression.
Ki regeneration has the added benefit of dispelling portals of dark energy that spring up around certain enemies and bosses. You can fight in those pools, but you'll regenerate ki at a snail's pace while inside them, and the rate of regeneration usually means the difference between success and respawning at the nearest shrine.
All of this boils down to layered and rewarding combat. You're never hurting for ways to dispatch enemies, and the staggering amount of options at your fingertips encourages you to switch styles and strategies depending on who or what you're fighting.
You almost have to. Dark Souls let you get away with picking off enemies one at a time while their buddies stood gaping at the growing pile of corpses lying at their feet. Nioh's mobs know when their friends are dying. Sniping with your bow or rifle gives you enough time to kill one, maybe two before the rest of the pack is on their feet and stampeding toward you.
Tell Me a Story
Nioh's two biggest departures from Dark Souls lie in how you explore its world and digest its story. Instead of reporting back to a hub after killing bosses or exploring vast and interconnected environments, Team Ninja went with more traditional levels. The notion of selecting missions at a map screen may seem jarring to players accustomed to world design that communicates story, but every individual level of Nioh I've played has been deftly interwoven and dense with nooks, crannies, and side routes.
I was surprised by how much I appreciated having a minimap as I played. The map itself is bare bones; it exists only to point you toward your main objective. You can ignore the marker and explore at your leisure; when you're ready to move forward, you'll know which way to go.
Instead of creating your own character and customizing every pixel down to the shape of your eyebrows, you play as a character—William, who's based on a real samurai of the same name, minus all the supernatural elements. And get this: William talks. Cutscenes are sparsely used to move things along, but I was able to skip them without missing any gameplay beats, yet engaging enough that players interested in a more traditional narrative will enjoy them.
To call Nioh a copycat would be doing it a disservice. Combat is tight and layered with options, levels are gorgeously rendered and ooze atmosphere, and the story is entertaining enough to keep me interested yet can still be set aside when I'm more interested in perfecting my ki pulses.
If, like me, you've sunk thousands of hours into Souls games and were concerned that the genre would dry up after Dark Souls 3's conclusion, you owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in Nioh's samurai-fantasy world.
This review-in-progress is based on a PlayStation 4 disc provided by the publisher. Nioh will be available exclusively for PlayStation 4 for $59.99 on February 7. Refer to the Shacknews Nioh guide hub for tips on solving levels and honing your skills in combat.