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In this screenshot from Nioh, protagonist William faces away from the camera, toward a large bird creature known as a tengu. William carries a large, antique-looking gun of some sort, while the tengu, floating just off the ground, has a massive, ornate st

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Nioh pre-review: more than just a Dark Souls clone

Team Ninja seeks redemption with a return to deep, challenging combat

Team Ninja/Sony Interactive Entertainment

It’s pretty rare that I play pre-release builds of a game more than once before it comes out, but I’ve now played three different levels in Nioh, spread across various points of its campaign, at three different events. The first was at E3 last year, then another at Tokyo Game Show, and a final demo showing a late-game stage at Sony headquarters last week.

From that very first E3 showing, two facts about Nioh have stood out to me. First, it is obviously, openly, a game inspired by FromSoftware’s popular Dark Souls series. But second, it features numerous elements that set it apart from that inspiration, and in many ways those are the most interesting pieces of the game.

The most obvious difference between Nioh and the Souls games is its setting. Nioh takes place in a fictionalized version of feudal Japan where mythological creatures stalk the land alongside samurai and ninja. Players enter this strange world in the shoes of William, a Westerner who finds himself tossed into the middle of the conflicts of a tumultuous land.

While the locales and the creatures you’re fighting may be unfamiliar, anyone who’s played a Dark Souls game will feel at home with the basics of combat in Nioh. William can be equipped with a large variety of armor and weapon types, which change up his moveset. Each combat encounter is a push and pull, where you have to spend every moment choosing between attacking, blocking, advancing, retreating and so on. A single thoughtless moment can open William up to a flurry of attacks from the enemy, quickly draining his health bar from full to nothing.

When you dig deeper into the details, however, Nioh’s combat has some elements that make for even more strategic and challenging encounters. For example, William can change between three different stances during combat, essentially creating three unique movesets for each weapon type.

The stances also determine your overall approach to combat. High stance makes your attacks slower but more damaging, but also makes you take more damage if you get hit. Low stance increases your defense and lets you attack quickly, but each attack does less damage to the enemy. And the middle stance, of course, strikes a balance between these two.

In the levels I’ve played so far, figuring out the proper stance is one of the hardest parts of Nioh, but also one of the most interesting. I died on numerous occasions because I would switch to high stance to take out some weaker enemies and forget to change to a more defensive form before rushing into a miniboss.

In this Nioh screenshot, protagonist William is seen posing with bloody sword raised over his head. In his other arm, he holds another sword that he has stabbed forward, slicing into an armored opponent. Blood spurts from the opponent’s wound as he lurche Team Ninja/Sony Interactive Entertainment

While this level of mechanical challenge is normal for the Souls series, it’s also something that Nioh developer Team Ninja has a lot of experience with. Back in 2004, Ninja Gaiden was considered one of the most difficult games ever released for the original Xbox.

To hear Team Ninja creative director Tom Lee tell it, the developer is looking at Nioh as a long-awaited chance to return to what it loves and what it does best. And Lee isn’t shy about how much Team Ninja has struggled, describing the last generation of console hardware as “a difficult chapter ... where we felt pretty lost at sea.” Nioh is Team Ninja’s chance to move past that chapter.

“There was a period where the industry had seemingly shifted toward a more accessible approach to console games, and the hardcore action genre was struggling for relevancy,” Lee told me last week. “In our attempts to appeal to a wider audience, we lost sight of our foundations, our integrity and ultimately our identity.”

For Team Ninja, regaining that identity requires more than aping another series that has proven that people love hardcore games again. The developers want to build on that style; they want to make it even more difficult and, subsequently, even more satisfying to master.

Like the Souls games, Nioh toys with resource management by way of what’s known as a “stamina” bar in other games. In Nioh, it’s called “ki,” but it works the same way: Every dodge, block or weapon swing consumes a chunk of your ki bar, and when it’s fully depleted, William is left stunned and open to attack.

Nioh layers another brilliant wrinkle on top of this standard system, however. Immediately after a weapon swing, a small segment of your ki bar will appear off-color and will fill up quickly. If you tap a button at the precise moment that the bar fills, William performs a “ki pulse,” giving your character a buff that causes your ki to refill faster than the normal rate for a short amount of time.

In this Nioh screenshot, protagonist William is facing off against a winged enemy known as a tengu on a rickety bridge. The tengu carries a large staff, and one of its legs are raised, kicking at William. William is lurching backward, possibly stunned by Team Ninja/Sony Interactive Entertainment

It’s strange to describe, but this ki pulse system feels like a natural and ingenious addition to the genre. In practice, it reminds me of something like the active reload system from the Gears of War series. It’s just one tiny extra thing to keep track of, but it ends up feeling like combat revolves around careful and clever use of that one aspect. A perfectly timed ki pulse can turn the tide of a fight that feels lost.

In addition to the obvious Dark Souls inspiration, Lee says there was another game Team Ninja developers were playing a lot of during the development of Nioh: Diablo 3. As such, one of the major differences between Dark Souls and Nioh is the latter’s approach to loot. In a Souls game, each weapon or new piece of armor you find is meticulously placed or, at best, a rare drop from enemies; in Nioh, downed enemies and treasure chests spew forth piles of loot to pick up and sort through.

Of everything in Nioh, this approach to loot is the bit I’m least certain of so far. Slowly doling out new weapons and armor seems to match well with the more considered pace to combat that this style of game employs. I’m a little concerned about how much dozens of random drops in each area might mess with that flow, and it will be impossible to say for sure until I can sit down and play through the full game soon.

For Lee’s part, he’s not worried. Team Ninja is confident that Nioh will be the studio’s return to a spotlight it regrets leaving behind.

“[Nioh] provided us with an opportunity to re-examine Japanese history, culture and aesthetics,” Lee said. “But more importantly, it served as a reminder of our origins, the team’s core strengths, and a chance to regain our identity as a world-class Japanese development team. The dark chapter has taught us a valuable lesson that we should never abandon our principles in search of bigger aspirations. Our team has worked tirelessly over the years to produce this epic action RPG experience. We are very proud of what we’ve created, and we hope the audiences around the world will be able to see the merits of our efforts.”

So far, across every demo and event I’ve played Nioh at, those efforts certainly show. Here’s hoping they’re as apparent across the full game, and that the real Team Ninja really is back.

Nioh releases exclusively on the PlayStation 4 on Feb. 7. Look for our full review of the game closer to that date.