Ni-Oh looks set to take Team Ninja back to its unforgiving, hardcore action roots – by way of From Software’s RPG stylings.
When Ni-Oh popped up during Sony’s TGS 2015 briefing with a 2016 launch date I didn’t think much of it. The trailer shown wasn’t very communicative, and these days I find it hard to get excited about new third-person properties.
Nevertheless I made the effort to visit it on the TGS show floor. After all, it’s not every day a game surfaces from a decade of quiet vapour, is it?
Koei Tecmo didn’t make Ni-Oh playable – or certainly not playable to me – but it did allow visitors to crowd into a black-curtained room and watch several slabs of gameplay playing on repeat. Also, it let you have your photo taken holding a sword, but I didn’t do that.
Ni-Oh has to go behind curtains because it is full of blood. The rest of Koei Tecmo’s lineup – approximately ten thousand Warriors games, much to my pleasure – is family friendly enough to be played in the open. Not this one: in this one you cut things and they dribble red sauce appropriately. The Japanese do not consider this appropriate for general display.
Instead I went in to watch. About 30 seconds after I entered, I groped in my backpack for my notepad, scrabbled a pen out and wrote down: DARK SOULS. I underlined it several times.
I looked at the screen again. I looked back at my notes. I circled DARK SOULS. I went over the text a few times to make it bold. Ni-Oh is Dark Souls.
How you feel about this depends on whether you believe everyone should stop making shooters because id Software came up with the idea, and how long the eternity between Souls releases stretches from your unique perspective on time.
Ni-Oh (it means “benevolent king”) has been a long time coming. It was originally announced at the end of 2004 as a PS3 title called Oni (I see what you did there), based on a screenplay by filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. It was to be accompanied by a film, directed by Kurosawa’s son, but the project vanished into the ether – or possibly, the Koei Tecmo merger – and eventually ended up with Team Ninja.
It’s not clear what happened but the whole thing went silent for years and years – we last checked in with it in January 2012. In the interim, a lot has changed. The flowing yellow locks of the “blonde-haired, blue-eyed warrior of mixed parentage” have been toned down, Geralt of Rivia style, and Feudal Japan has had a very, ah ha ha! Dark makeover.
In Ni-Oh, you wander about various unpleasant locations fighting enemies who can end your life in a matter of three or four hits. Meanwhile, your own weapons require upwards of half a dozen strokes to dispatch them. You can switch between weapons on the fly. Equipped weapons are visible at all times I saw a sword and a spear in action, as well as what looked like a bow, but this wasn’t used.
Combat appears to emphasise dodging, blocking and precise timing over rushing in to hammer away at baddies. Groups of grunts are especially deadly. When you approach a location where a nasty knot of foes hang out, you’ll see a number of sword markers, presumably indicating the death of another player or NPC. I know it’s not your own death, because I saw the player character die and return to the same spot to retrieve – whatever.
Do I need to go on? Because I can. For much of the footage shown the UI was hidden, but when it was visible you could see how the D-pad is used as item quick slots. Every action – running, jumping, dodging, attacking – required and consumed stamina, indicated by a green gauge by the health bar.
Opening the menu revealed row upon row of baffling text, including what seemed to be a pretty extensive inventory with lots of different armour pieces. You need to check in at specific locations – shrines – in order to level up, which requires resources. It’s Dark Souls. It’s Dark Souls.
There are some differences, of course. The weapons shown in the demo were all two-handed, with no dual wield or sword-and-board, although to be honest blocking seemed pretty effective anyway. That may not hold true for the full experience, but the Japanese setting would suggest otherwise.
The boss fight we were shown looked different, too – and in a good way. It was some sort of oversized ogre type thing, but it had three large spheres it would pick up and toss at the player one by one. It had to retrieve these in order to use this medium-range attack again, creating interesting opportunities for attack and positioning. (It did have various melee attacks, too.)
Basically, it’s Dark Souls, but made by Team Ninja and slathered with Japanese influences as opposed to medieval European ones – with a touch of Witcher 3
There was something a bit odd at death markers, too. Where in Dark Souls or Bloodborne you’d summon a ghost to observe a death, Ni-Oh offers you a couple of choices from a menu. On one occasion, the player made a choice that resulted in an enemy appearing from the marker. It dropped a treasure when killed. Also, when you get back to your own death marker to retrieve, there’s a golden wolf.
One other difference that sparked my interest was a UI indicator showing the moon. Does something change depending on the time of day or phase of the moon? I was oddly reminded of Demon’s Souls’ world and character tendency indicators.
But basically, it’s Dark Souls, but made by Team Ninja and slathered with Japanese influences as opposed to medieval European ones – with perhaps a touch of Witcher 3. The studio that brought us some of the toughest action games of the last couple of generations has finally stopped faffing about making its IPs more accessible, and has started making hardcore games again. What’s not to like?
Ni-Oh is coming to PS4 in 2016.