As I walked my character down a hallway I noticed a fuming yellow orb at the end of the corridor. This orb is a signifier of an item in the game Nioh. It was in a separate room, framed by a stone doorway. Upon entering the room I turn to the right, ignoring the item, and cut down the skeleton waiting in ambush. Chortling to myself I think “I’ve played enough Souls games to know that was coming.” I stop for a moment and ponder about how Nioh will be compared to the Souls series. I think of how the game was described to me; Dark Souls with Samurai—a ‘Soulslike’.
‘Soulslike’ Is becoming a ubiquitous term within the gaming community. It’s used to describe a game that shares qualities with Japanese developer Hidetaka Miyazaki’s soul series. These series of games include Demon’s Souls, The Dark Souls trilogy, and Bloodborne. It’s not uncommon for people to use one game to describe another. It gives others an idea of what to expect from a game, based off of past experiences from other titles. ‘Roguelike’ for example, has been used to describe a type of role-playing game (RPG) that shares similarities with the game Rogue (1980). Because so many games have been described like this the term ‘roguelike’ has become its own subgenre.
But is it fair to call games a soulslike or roguelike? Does this nomenclature diminish the game? After all, when something is described as soulslike it is referring to mechanics in a separate game. How unique can Nioh be, if the terms used to describe it are “it’s like that one game.” Today we’re going to explore what it means to be a soulslike game, and whether or not Nioh is one.
So what is a soulslike game? What can you expect from a game that is described as “using the Dark Souls formula?” Before we answer these questions we must first look at the Souls series, the games that inspired the word ‘soulslike.’
The Souls series was directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, a Japanese game developer and president of the game development company; FromSoftware. Demon’s Souls was the first game in the Souls series, but not Miyazaki’s first game. Miyazaki had previously worked on a few games in the series Armored Core. Originally considered a failure, Miyazaki was handed the keys to a game that would later become Demon’s Souls. In an interview with Miyazaki, he recalls his introduction to Demon’s Souls
“The project had problems and the team had been unable to create a compelling prototype. But when I heard it was a fantasy-action role-playing game, I was excited. I figured if I could find a way to take control of the game, I could turn it into anything I wanted. Best of all, if my ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure.”
Hidetaka Miyazaki, ‘Bloodborne creator Hidetaka Miyazaki: ‘I didn’t have a dream. I wasn’t ambitious’
Demon’s Souls became a cult classic, beloved by many and still played today. There is even an annual community lead event on the 29th of October called “Return to the Nexus.” During that week, players make and play new characters in Demon’s Souls alongside each other. The success of Miyazaki’s first Souls game spurred the creation of Dark Souls, a spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, and the linchpin of the Souls series. Following the Success of Dark Souls, Miyazaki began work on Bloodborne (released March 24th, 2015) while the FromSoftware studio developed Dark Souls 2 (released March 11th, 2014). Lastly, Dark Souls 3 caps the Souls series, released March 24, 2016, with critical acclaim.
All of these games have many gameplay mechanics in common. These themes follow a similar formula which is how a soulslike game is recognized. Of these motifs and mechanics, the most predominant are the difficulty, RPG mechanics, online interactions, level design, and the method of storytelling. As we look deeper into the mechanics, you’ll notice that the individual mechanics may not be unique to soulslike games. It is the combination of these aspects that create the soulslike formula.
This is a rocky subject, as the importance of difficulty in a Souls game is debatable. However, it is impossible to talk about the Souls series without bringing up how hard these games are. The gaming community emphasizes this to the point that the games acknowledge it. The game of the year edition of Dark Souls was called the “prepare to die edition.” This, however, ends up doing more harm to the series that good. This reputation ends up scaring away potential players from the series; people who would like to avoid the frustration of losing constantly.
The difficulty in the Souls games doesn’t come from hard-to-execute moves or unfair scenarios. On the contrary, the game is incredibly telegraphed and the combat is simple. The Souls games were designed to punish bad player habits. Many of the player deaths are the result of the player becoming too complacent or impatient.
As an example, let’s look at stamina management, an important skill for any budding Souls adventurer. Every action, besides walking, takes up stamina. When your stamina bar is depleted, you will not be able to attack, sprint, or roll. It is possible to do an action that would cost more stamina that what’s currently in the player’s reserve. Doing so, however, will require the player wait until the negative stamina is regained. Blocking an attack with your stamina bar empty will put you in a long, vulnerable state that will often lead to death. This punishes the player for mindlessly mashing the attack button, as that is the quickest way to drain your stamina. It also forces the player to think about how they will approach fights. The players may have to budget in stamina to dodge or block an attack for example.
Another example would be how the Souls games lay traps for rushing players. Items that are out in the open, just beyond a doorframe, are meant to bait the players into the room. The game asks you to be thorough and cautious. Getting tunnel vision on the item in the room and not observing any potential threats is a surefire way to get a sword in the back.
This is another staple of the soulslike that is not unique to it. Every game in the Souls series has had stats that a player would increase through experience. These stats are used as a prerequisite for use of a weapon, spell, or armor piece. As long as the player’s stats meet the prerequisite, they can correctly use the item presented to them. Stats are also used to determine how much damage weapons and spells do.
Experience is gained through killing enemies and is added to a pool of experience. These are known as souls (Blood echoes for bloodborne) and have a unique mechanic which is unique to the Souls series. When killed, the player will drop all the souls that they currently have. The player can then travel back to the place where they died and pick up all of their souls. If the player dies again in transit to their pile of experience, then it is lost forever. This is the punishment for a death in this game, but it allows you a second chance at progression without penalty.
Although it is executed differently in each game, the basics stay the same. There are two components to online interactions, PvP (Player vs Player) and PvE (Player vs Environment). Players can summon other players to aid them in the progression of the level or defeating a boss. Players can also be summoned to fight one another. But the most unique aspect of the Souls series is that players can invade other player’s worlds. This means that, if the conditions are right, a player can enter the session of another player, with the intentions of killing that player. This, of course, is avoidable by going into offline mode, but there are ways to avoid this conflict in the game.
The only exception to this rule is in Dark Souls 2, where there are some areas that force this kind of interaction on the player as part of the level. One level, in particular, players could be yanked from their session to partake in a world similar to their own but had traps laid out by another player. This turned that level into a slog of loading screens and unfair deaths. This could also be solved by turning online off, but that can sour the mood of the player nonetheless (it did for me).
I touched on this with a previous post, but the level design of the Souls series use similar patterns. The Souls series uses a dungeon-like level design, where the maps are all connected and consist of a series of rooms. There is usually a shortcut that will allow the player to traverse the level quicker if they die and respawn back at a checkpoint. Some shortcuts will end up taking you all the way back to different sections of the world map. More so in the Dark Souls trilogy, the checkpoints are safe areas a player can use to refill their healing potion, known as an Estus flask.
There is also a hub point, but where it is placed is not uniform throughout the series. Dark Souls 1 and 2 had an entire world that was connected and looped in on itself to a central hub area. Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne, and Dark Souls 3 have a separate resting area that a player must teleport to in order to access it.
Another crucial aspect to the Souls series is how the story is presented to the player. There are very few cutscenes in the game. There is a beginning cutscene, an ending cutscene, and cutscenes for a handful of bosses. Yet, the Souls games are full of lore and stories.The details of the narrative are found in context clues, gathered from item descriptions and locations.
As an example, you learn of the knights of Berenike from their armor descriptions.
In reading about the knights of Berenike, you hear of a particular knight, called Black Iron Tarkus, who was able to successfully traverse Sen’s Fortress, and ascend to Anor Londo. When the players get to Anor Londo in their own session, they eventually find a body with Black Iron Tarkus’s armor set. It is on the floor of a massive church, which can only be accessed from the rafters near the ceiling. A fall from that height is fatal to the player. Because of the armor on the body and the position, the players are supposed to come to
the conclusion that he was on a quest similar to you but failed in traversing the beams of the church. This is one of many stories within Dark Souls, yet none were presented to the player in a cutscene or dialog. The game allows the players to choose their level of engagement in the story. These are the key elements of a soulslike game. But a game does not need to match these five areas to be considered one. There have been games called soulslike merely by being difficult. How many of these rules need to be followed to be categorized as ‘soulslike,’ and more importantly, where does this leave Nioh?
Nioh is Team Ninja’s newest soulselike IP (Intelectual property). Released on February 7, 2017, Nioh follows William Adams, an Irish-born English sailor out to save his guardian spirit from an evil sorcerer, Edward Kelley. William follows Edward to the magical land of Nippon (Japan), where he helps the local populous expel demons as he journeys to save the guardian spirit.
From the minute that gameplay was shown, Souls fans noticed how similar Nioh was to Dark Souls. The characters moved like they do in a Souls game and enemies had long telegraphed attacks. Tom Lee, the creative director of Team Ninja, confirmed this suspicion with during an interview with Polygon. At the same time, he reminds people that this is its own game, and should be judged on its own merits.
“I’m not going to keep it a secret – a lot of us love the Souls series. We have a lot of respect for that franchise. We’re flattered by the comparisons. But we want people out there, especially the Souls community, to realize that we also have a long history in games like this.”
With this in mind, let’s look at how Nioh and the Souls series differ. The story is presented with cutscenes and dialog, which is tangential to the soulslike formula immediately. In addition, Nioh’s levels are accessed through missions rather than one continuous world. Using an overworld map, players can access these missions, as well as visit the shop and smithy to outfit themselves before a level. Each level uses a Souls like style of level design, involving checkpoints and shortcuts. But the largest difference by far is the equipment and skills.
Equipment is randomly generated, and have multiple stat modifiers and buffs. This is much more akin to Diablo or Borderlands. Weapons mechanically act the same, but provide variety in the form of different passive effects. The weapon selection is limited to five different melee weapons and three ranged weapons. The melee weapons can be used in three different stances which change their attacks and stamina usage. In the Souls series, there was a large variety of weapons, but with a limited move set. Each weapon has a different move set, and doesn’t add any random variables. Often weapons have a light attack and a heavy attack, and can be wielded in two different modes, Bloodborne had its weapons morph, while Dark and Demon’s had two-handed weapon use.
On top of all this, players have a skill tree that unlocks new moves for one of the five melee weapons. Players gain samurai points, which is a separate currency used to unlock new attacks and moves. Unlike the Souls series, players have a combo list that can be unlocked and modified. Nioh encourages players to become proficient in one or two of the five weapon types. This is in contrast to the Souls series, which encourages the player to use one or two individual weapons. Nioh also allows for flexibility when switching weapon types, something that has been lacking in Souls games. Souls games require you to put a significant amount of resources into a couple weapons. Stats leave less room to try new weapon types, as the damage for those weapons is tied to the stats.
With all of these differences, how is Nioh still being compared to Souls games? Nioh uses the same style combat as the Souls series and punishes the player severely for bad habits. Players need to manage stamina like in Dark Souls and will be punished with death if they become overconfident and impatient.
A soulslike style of traps is seen throughout levels in Nioh. Players who rush forward without paying attention will often run headlong into a trap. Nioh also uses the same method of experience as the Souls series. Players gain amrita (equivalent to souls or blood echoes) and drop them on death. They have the ability to run to the location of their death and regain their dropped experience but lose it forever if they die. One difference to this, however, is that players amrita does not double as a currency the way souls or blood echoes do. Nioh implements money which is not lost on death, unlike amrita.
The online interactions of Nioh share the same two aspects of soulslike games; PvP and PvE. While implemented differently, they essentially function the same. Players can summon other players to beat a level or boss. The only stipulation is one of the players has to have beaten the level or boss before they can team up. Although it is not implemented yet, Team Ninja has confirmed that there will be a PvP mode that will be added in a free update. Even in this aspect, Nioh adds a new twist in the form of revenants. When a player dies, they leave behind something called a revenant. While this has no effect on their game, other players, in a different session, can challenge the revenant to a dual. The revenant becomes a hostile computer-controlled enemy that is outfitted with the equipment and skills of the original slain player. The defeated revenant has a chance to drop copies of the dead player’s gear.
In many ways, Nioh is a soulslike game but is also its own game in so much more. There is more superfluous similarities and differences that weren’t mentioned. There are items and monsters borrow from some of the Souls games, but there are also examples of their own. But these are very surface level changes, and do not add or subtract from the formula.
Nioh doesn’t follow the soulslike formula blindly, it handpicks which traits to use and which aspects to replace. But more than that, it innovates on the Souls formula. This is the correct way to make a game inspired by another. The developers understand what they like about the Souls series and build upon the formula with ideas of their own.