Being a Team Ninja fan, in recent years, has been a little difficult. Founded by Tomonobu Itagaki in 1995, this internal studio has always been Tecmo and then latterly Koei-Tecmo’s crack team, the only band of developers that could take on Capcom head-to-head in the action stakes and put up a fight. Dead or Alive has its own fanbase, but for me it is 2004’s Ninja Gaiden and 2008’s Ninja Gaiden II that made Team Ninja special.
Shortly after Ninja Gaiden II was completed, Itagaki departed acrimoniously. Subsequent years saw Team Ninja struggling somewhat with the franchise that mattered most, with Ninja Gaiden 3 an under-baked disappointment while Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z was an ill-conceived spinoff that did little to counter the perception that - with its founder and totemic figure gone - Team Ninja was somewhat rudderless. This was only one part of the story, however: the studio continued to co-develop great titles like Metroid: Other M, Toukiden: Kiwami, and genre pieces like Hyrule Warriors. The talent, clearly, is still there. But the brilliant ninja action was missing - until Nioh.
Nioh marks a sea-change in Team Ninja’s approach to action games, and something of a melancholy one for hoary old warriors like myself. The traditional 3D hack-and-slash seems to be something of a dying genre - the games being made, in recent years, are better than ever, but the sales continue to decrease. The audience wants something different from the action genre than a linear story where you fight endless enemies. And Nioh is about giving new form to the classic action that Team Ninja excels at - and does it ever.
I recently sat down with the latest build of the game for a few hours - as well as having played the alpha and beta releases on PS4 last year. Initially the most striking thing about Nioh is the blond-haired blue-eyed hero, William, who is (very) loosely based on the real-life story of one William Adams, an Englishman who in the 16th century became one of the few western samurai.
The basic concept does sound quite Souls-y. The levels are a series of 3D environments designed for replay, with multiple routes throughout and unlockable shortcuts. Each is filled with enemies that, given the opportunity, can easily kill William. And if he does die, his gathered Amrita (the game’s currency) remains at the spot of death to be re-gathered.
There are other similarities, but listing them risks missing the bigger picture that this is a very different kind of game, with a combat system that has evolved from that Ninja Gaiden lineage rather than Fromsoft’s original (and brilliant) take on melee combat. Not the least of differences is that William’s weapon types are divided into four categories, each of which can be separately levelled, and on top of this he fights using stances. Very roughly, high stance is all-out attack, medium is about blocking, and low stance is about smooth dodges and counters.
But where Ninja Gaiden was a game about fighting overwhelming crowds of enemies, here fighting multiple opponents is a remarkably easy way to die. Enemies don’t hesitate to gang up and press the advantage, and managing the Ki (stamina) meter is extremely tough in these situations. And there’s a huge emphasis here on exactly what equipment you’re wielding.
Fighting in full samurai armour with a spear, for example, felt glorious because this particular location (‘Defiled Holy Mountain’) had lots of hidden ninjas - who are deadly and annoying at a distance with their shuriken and rope weapons but, if you can close with them, have very little chance. The principles behind Nioh’s armour design are exceptional: wearing a suit of heavy plate noticeably slows William down, but also makes him feel like a real brute against more lightly-armoured enemies. When you’re tooled-up and get close to an enemy that’s basically wearing a jumpsuit, you feel that impact in the hands.
It’s that Ki bar that comes to dominate though. At one point I fought a mad bird-headed thing with a staff that specialised in roundhouse kicks, and these tougher enemies really show what Nioh’s combat system is about - which is managing Ki under heavy assault. Most of my deaths to this creature, and in later boss fights, were because I was doing well but, at some point, spammed dodge in a panic.
Unlike the Souls games, where running out of stamina means you can only walk for a second or two, in Nioh William stops completely in exhaustion - and is a sitting duck for enemies that don’t hesitate to take advantage. It’s a brutality shown only in glimpses at this stage, but it’s there, and one’s thoughts turn to that characteristic of Ninja Gaiden - of all the thirdperson beat-em-ups, that’s the one which never hesitates to kill you.
In this respect the revenants remain one of Nioh’s most inspired and original touches - ‘gravestones’ of fallen warriors, both AI and (in the full game) other players, which you can summon to fight. This lets you risk it all in optional fights against opponents that have no safety wheels - noticing their gravesites always raises the question. These enemies fight with much more skill than the regular mobs (themselves no slouches) and are designed for impromptu one-on-one encounters that go down to the wire - so often I’d get one down to near-death, relax a little, and end up shanked. You always want to summon them. You learn not to do it lightly.
The boss fights are even more intense, not least because they can be incredibly aggressive. The stamina management required is so hard to keep a track of under pressure, and it comes down to not panicking - which of course is so much easier said than done. They’re often set in great scenes, too: a boss called the Ogress is fought in a rectangular arena filled with scarlet flowers, and herself is a hairy giant in a Kabuki mask, with raking claws and a devastating pounce.
There really are some great enemy designs here - like a tiny cyclops dude who backstep-floats around just out of range, then suddenly jumps in and gives you a big old lick. And if he gets you twice, he temporarily transforms into a gigantic monster. A flaming wheel initially seems reminiscent of the wheel skeletons of Dark Souls, until you fight it and realise fire will hurt your weapon hand. At one point I ran up against a massive troll-thing with a neon-green, ethereal tongue which it whips around itself, alternating these confusing, hard-to-dodge attacks with devastating physical charges.
Having been killed by this monstrosity several times, I decided to show it a clean pair of heels in order to see as much as I could in the time allowed. After the creature was a narrow bridge. As I sprinted, his footsteps clomping behind, I noticed a small fiery mark on the ground - and as I noticed, it exploded and sent William flying off the bridge to his death, and on fire for good measure. This kind of humour, and smart design with it too, is where the Souls comparisons do feel appropriate. Oh and ledges - expect to dodge backwards to your death quite a few times.
One of the most striking aspects of Nioh’s release schedule and demos was how much changed following audience feedback and, though it’s hard to be specific about the minutiae, this build again felt like it had been tuned - a little bit smoother, a few new elements in familiar levels, and with a tiny difference to the katana’s parry windows. At one point I loaded the ‘wrong’ level, and found a familiar environment devastated and filled with new, demonic enemies - a clue as to where the endgame is going, and replayability will lie.
There were other elements, too, hinting towards what will keep people playing - which was always the problem for Ninja Gaiden, in that just playing the campaign again and again eventually becomes dull. The little frog-spirit-god things, Kodama, can be found around the levels - sending them back to the shrines (save points) allows you to receive certain blessings, which offer buffs to various drop rates (armour, weapons, the currency of amrita). This matters because Nioh is a loot-focused game, with some items set and some randomised, and the intention is to make players change their fighting styles according to the gear that drops.
Nioh feels like a genuine step forward for Team Ninja - and in a way, the game that Ninja Gaiden 3 should have been. The combat really hits the heights once you get an idea of what’s going on, and the menagerie of beasties here showcases a wonderfully macabre imagination. Don’t take the Souls comparisons too literally. Nioh does what every game should do, which is look at Fromsoft’s brilliant works, take inspiration from them, and build something new. There may be a lot going on here, but this is fundamentally classic Team Ninja - which is to say, it’s a game all about kicking arse, and loving it.