Upcoming samurai action dungeon-crawler Nioh seems like a proper callback to the work of its developer Team Ninja. The calculated, brutal action and heavy emphasis on Japanese mythology and imagery stand proudly in ways the studio hasn't embraced since its work on the first two Ninja Gaiden games. But at the same time, it leans heavily on contemporary sensibilities, possessing a structure not unlike From Software's incredibly popular Dark Souls games. But Nioh is more than just a Souls-like game set in Sengoku-era Japan. It's the work of a studio overcoming a struggle to rediscover its identity. And most of all, it's a return to form.
In the years before Team Ninja developed Nioh, the studio once stood at the forefront of the character-driven action-game genre with its trademark style and merciless philosophy on difficulty. However, the shifting demand for easier, more approachable action-adventure games in the early 2010s impacted Team Ninja. Suddenly, the team had to make games that didn't fit their style.
“It was a tough time for us; we don't come from that school of design,” said Nioh creative director Tom Lee. “We felt lost because that's not who we are. The majority of our team are fine-tuned craftsman, and our directors have a very specific vision about gaming, so it was difficult to adjust to in those years.”
The struggle to adapt was reflected in the quality of the studio's action games during that time: 2012's Ninja Gaiden 3 and 2014's Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z were unrefined, superficially difficult, and shamelessly catered to trends. Team Ninja's work on the Dead or Alive series remained a consistent staple for the studio, but in its attempts to follow its action game lineage, it lost track of its ability to harness what made its early work so great.
“During that time, we made some bad choices by trying to do certain things, thinking we could accommodate a particular playstyle,” said Lee. “We lost ourselves.”
But as Team Ninja faced a changing climate in games, From Software's Souls series began to rise in popularity. Its punishing, yet satisfying dungeon crawling proved that an audience still existed for action games that challenged players through unforgiving mechanics and constant failure. The success of the Souls games afforded Team Ninja an opportunity to reclaim itself, but where could it start? Enter Nioh.
First announced in 2005, Nioh was the pet project of Koei co-founder Kou Shibusawa. The company developed it internally as an RPG based on an unfinished script by acclaimed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, which told the tale of the first blonde-haired samurai in 1600s Japan. However, the initial version of the game failed to meet Shibusawa's vision, resulting in the project being transferred to other studios. Nioh took on various forms in the subsequent years, going as far as becoming a Dynasty Warriors-styled action game. But all of these versions fell through. At least, none worked until Team Ninja entered the picture in 2010 to develop the game's combat system.
“We didn't really know anything about Nioh until the head of Koei presented it to us,” commented Lee. “At first, I had reservations about the project: why is this western protagonist in this Japanese setting? Are we making a historic period Samurai simulator? Is this another [Dynasty] Warriors-like game?”
Despite these reservations, Team Ninja eventually took on full development of Nioh in 2012. “The more we thought about it as a team, we began to see the potential of what [Nioh] could be. And coming from that confusing place we were at before, we knew a project like this was a perfect opportunity for us to re-present ourselves and put out a project akin to our earlier work.”
And it shows. Nioh, even in its similarities to the Souls series, manages to channel the distinct style, feeling, and design of the studio's most iconic offerings. The impact of your character's weapon upon a yokai's flesh reignites memories of Ryu Hayabusa's Dragon Blade slicing rogue Ninja; a cave that summons a swarm of bats to knock you off a ledge upon passing it calls to mind the myriad brutal traps from the first Ninja Gaiden. These familiar sensations could only come from Team Ninja, but none of this would've been possible if it weren't for the circumstances that paved the way for Nioh to become what it is today.
It was a perfect storm: a studio struggling to reclaim its identity and a project deeply rooted in Japanese history and mythology struggling to take shape for nearly a decade. When these two forces fully met five years ago, everything fell into place, and it was an opportunity for Team Ninja to go back to its roots.
We had to remind ourselves that at the end of the day we're Japanese, and that we need to create a game that pays respect to our tradition and our roots.
It was under these circumstances that Team Ninja learned an important lesson: “We had to remind ourselves that at the end of the day we're Japanese, and that we need to create a game that pays respect to our tradition and our roots. There's no reason for us to hide that. In fact, let's celebrate it and pay respect to that,” Lee said.
To many of us, From Software's reintroduction of difficulty to the triple-A sphere was refreshing and unexpected–but it was precisely what Team Ninja had been doing all along in its early games. Nioh resembles the Souls formula, but the pride and confidence that it exudes in its interpretation of that game type goes beyond rudimentary comparisons. It's unashamed to immerse itself in Japanese culture, pulling from its deep well of history and mythology; and it has no qualms in picking you up and smashing you into the ground, only to do so a second time while you're trying to catch your breath.
“It took us so long to feel a sense of pride in our games,” Lee concluded. “But we're back in the sense that we know who we are. These are our strengths and this is a universe that we understand. That's why we're doing everything we can to present it in its best light.”
Expect to see exactly what Team Ninja learned when Nioh launches on February 9, exclusively for PS4.