Hey kids, remember character action games? The artsy and cool (at least to my much younger, dumber self) alternative to the PS2 era deluge of Grand Theft Auto 3 and its aimless, unpolished, glitch filled ilk? The genre reached its critical and commercial apex with Devil May Cry 3 only to subsequently eat its own tail right around the dawn of the Xbox 360 with the rushed, almost unfinished follow up Devil May Cry 4, soulless also-rans like Dante’s Inferno and the increasingly repetitive and rote adventures of God of War’s Kratos on the PS3.
But for a time, the flashy subgenre was a shining beacon of colorful personalities, popcorn blockbuster spectacle and deep, skill based arcade style gameplay, and none shone brighter than Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden.
For those with little to no interest in shooters or racers, Ninja Gaiden was THE reason to own an original Xbox. A graphical showpiece nearly without equal, an absolute pinnacle of gonzo Japanese weirdness (helmed by Dead or Alive creator Tomonobu Itagaki), and a gameplay marvel of skill based precision and unforgiving yet fair gameplay, truly the Dark Souls of its time in that regard.
Ninja Gaiden was among the very few “Nintendo Hard” difficulty badges of honor at the time and a true progenitor of what has become known in recent years as “masocore” (yes it’s a dumb name, I’m living it, I ain’t loving it), a brain meltingly demanding subset of games most and best exemplified by From Software’s “Souls” series. Demon’s Souls, the three Dark Souls titles and Bloodborne have gained a rabid following based on their “bang your head against the wall” challenge, filled with enormous boss battles and doomed catacombs infested with deadly enemies (some that are even other actual people “invading” your character’s “world”) all painted across a bloodied canvas of Game of Thrones meets H.P. Lovecraft inspired pitch black medieval (and in Bloodborne’s case, Victorian) fantasy.
Which brings us to Nioh. Team Ninja, the creators of Ninja Gaiden, now freed from infant terrible Itagaki’s more questionable bonafides (as recently seen on WiiU bomb Devil’s Third), nevertheless carry his supremely eastern, idiosyncratic and arduous torch, melding the fighting game-esque, highly technical and combo heavy character action beats of old with the excruciating but rewarding difficulty curve and near infinite RPG depth and customization of the Souls games.
Nioh casts players as real life gaijin samurai William Adams, but instead of simply being a trusted advisor to 17th century Japanese military leader Tokugawa Ieyasu, here he is set against invading demon armies using the chaos of war to slip into our reality largely unchallenged. Because, video games. The game is more structured and story oriented that your average slightly open world-ish Souls-like (shades of the original PS3 Demon’s Souls).
William’s missions are broken up by lovingly crafted, well-acted and directed cinema sequences that introduce the game’s lovable band of freedom fighters, including characters like Hattori Hanzo that are similarly embellished historical figures and charming spirit animal familiars (eyepatch sporting cat demon thing Nagamasa is a real winner) that are decidedly, well… not.
Enemies still respawn within individual missions after saving at a Shrine, Nioh’s equivalent of Dark Souls’ bonfires, and the main missions, alongside slightly remixed side quests, are infinitely replayable from the game’s well designed central map screen for the (naturally) very important purposes of grinding. And grind you shall, because after the first mission or two the game will really put its boots into you and force you to either get strong, get good or both, with button mashing being no help and only careful manipulation of the game’s generous mobility options there to grant you mercy from almost certain doom.
Fortunately, William feels quite a bit more capable of dealing with his nightmarish surroundings than the average Souls protagonist, and that’s where the character action connection comes in. Multiple stances are available (similar to the high, low and mid counter system in Dead or Alive) and each offer their own combo trees and skill sets which are unlocked by collecting scrolls granted throughout battle.
There are block counters, launchers, combo extenders and all of the other fighting game-like madness one would find in a Devil May Cry or God of War, and navigating a Souls-like world with these type of tools of mass destruction, not to mention an almost bottomless arsenal of customizable weapons, armor and other devastating gear (throwing knives, bombs, cannons, etc.) at your disposal feels simply awesome.
Said world is masterfully realized, a demon strewn feudal Japan never before seen in this particular subgenre, most reverent of Capcom’s long dead Resident Evil meets character action straddling Onimusha series. Both the models and environments are meticulously crafted and the gameplay runs extremely smoothly. A 60 FPS “action mode” trades stability over graphical fidelity (“cinema mode” bumps up the graphics at the mercy of the frame rate) but I honestly couldn’t imagine this game looking any better, even on my old workhorse non-pro PS4.
Wrap that up in a film quality contemporary orchestral soundtrack (Soul Calibur comes to mind) and you have an early contender for game of the year, an embattled developer working on an untested IP in a somewhat overexposed subgenre and coming away with a game no one expected be as near perfect as it is. Whether you miss the stylish sword slashing character action days of old or are a Souls addict looking for the next brutal challenge, you’ll find a lot to love in Nioh.