Why don’t more developers put out demos? The demo for the Mortal Kombat reboot (2011) won me back after I’d given up on the series after the abysmal MK vs DC Universe. The demo for Vanquish sold me on a game with no history. I’m definitely buying Nier: Automata on the strength of the demo currently on PSN – and having played both the alpha and beta demos for Nioh repeatedly, the wait for the game’s release was killing me.

Game info

Nioh casts players in the role of William, an Irish-English sailor in the early 1600s who travels to Japan to retrieve his beloved guardian spirit, Saiorse, from the evil mage Edward Kelly. Kelly stole Saiorse from William because she has the unique ability to sense a type of magical stone called Amrita, of which there is an abundance in Japan – and which Kelly needs for some nefarious purpose. Upon arriving in Japan, William finds the place war-ravaged and overrun by demons, but after demonstrating his skill in killing these monsters, he slowly earns the trust of the locals, who promise to help him find Kelly in return for his demon-slaying prowess.

Okay, that’s the premise, now let’s get the obvious point out of the way – the Dark Souls comparison. Yes. It’s completely valid. It has some differences, sure, but look at the general flow of the game: William must proceed through stages filled with hazards such as enemies hiding in ambush, huge monsters that can kill him two or three hits, and the occasional trap. When William dies, he’s resurrected at the last shrine he prayed at and has one chance to reach the spot where he died to reclaim his Amrita (the currency/XP used to level up – basically the same as souls) or lose them permanently. You can also summon other online players into your game to help you, or go into their game to help them. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is more than enough to qualify it as a “Souls-like”. Maybe this emerging genre will get a proper name some day.

The immediately noticeable differences to Dark Souls are, firstly, there are no invasions or any kind of direct PvP at all – at least not yet, but a future update may give that to us. Secondly, you can’t leave messages in the world warning other players of dangers. Thirdly, whereas the three Dark Souls games and Bloodborne took place in one large, cohesive world, Nioh is segmented into stages with a hub menu. And lastly, where the Soulsborne games required players to dig up bits of lore to cobble together the story, Nioh simply tells you the story, complete with reams of character dialogue and regular cut scenes. Whether these differences are good or bad is purely a matter of taste.

The combat is considerably more in-depth in Nioh than Dark Souls. William has access to five different types of melee weapons: single swords, dual swords, spears, axes and kusarigama. Each type of weapon has three stances offering several combat moves: high, for strong attacks with low mobility; low, for weak attacks but high mobility; and mid for a blend between the two. There is also a skill tree for each weapon offering damage upgrades, passive buffs and even entirely new attacks. In addition to this, there are two more skill trees: Ninjutsu and Onmyo Magic, which offer more passive buffs and a whole host of usable item skills you can assign to the quick-use slot on the d-pad, such as shurikens, caltrops, strength potions, magic spells, and so on.

William can also equip a guardian spirit, of which he’ll acquire many during the course of the game. On the surface, these spirits appear to offer little more than the ability to unleash an elemental magic attack once you’ve charged them up – but if you look at the equip screen, you’ll see they offer all kinds of buffs, like increased chance for item drops, defence against certain status effects or elemental attacks, and sometimes even abilities like marking enemies on your mini-map. Choosing one that fits your play style or build can help quite a bit.

The gear and equipment of Nioh is also vastly different from the Souls games. In Souls, each piece of gear was unique and placed in relevant locations. Nioh goes for more of a Diablo-like, tiered, colour-coded loot system, meaning you can find multiple versions of the same item with different stats and effects on them. There are also crafting items you can find to use at the blacksmith to create new weapons or tweak existing ones.

That’s about as general an overview of the game mechanics as I can give, but I could easily spend another 1000 words or two to explain the game’s depths properly – but I’m currently working on a video that goes into a bit more depth that I’ll hopefully have done soon. So, I’ll just mention a few meta-level things that you might want to know. Firstly, if you don’t like loot ’em ups, you might dislike this aspect of Nioh, constantly checking to see if the new sword or gloves your found are better than your current ones – although this tapers off in the late game as better gear becomes harder to find.

Another point is that while the combat against big demons and huge bosses feels very much like the dodgy-rolly boss fights in Dark Souls, the boss fights against human enemies feel more like controller-gnawingly frustrating, twitch-reflex boss fights from games like Ninja Gaiden or Onimusha. You know? The ones where the bosses have huge amounts of health, can run circles around you, and only have the briefest possible vulnerability windows – I’m talking about you, Muneshige! And you, Okatsu!

I wish I had space to explain more about the game, but I’ll have to wrap it up with a recommendation. If you’re a Souls fan and looking for something similar, you might enjoy this, I certainly do – but remember the differences I mentioned. On the other hand, if you don’t like the Souls games, or hard games in general, I wouldn’t recommend it.

85 Nioh is probably the first really good alternative to Dark Souls, and a good game in its own right.