image credit: NiOh press kit

There’s an understandable tendency to call any modern game with a stamina bar SOULS-like. The block, parry, attack mélange at the heart of From Software’s SOULS series is equally iconic, if not original.

NIOH, developed by Team Ninja and published by Koei and Sony, has blocking, parrying and attacking. It has a stamina gauge. It’s “pause” menu is SOULS-like. Its numbers are familiarly obtuse, its stats a little unfriendly. You even begin the game in a jail cell. But that’s about it for DARK SOULS influence.

NIOH’s more obvious influence is its developer Team Ninja’s own NINJA GAIDEN games. The 2004 XBOX-exclusive NINJA GAIDEN (itself a reboot of the original NES series) had hyper-responsive controls, a block button, speed, and, in at least one re-release, parrying. Most importantly, it was tactilely satisfying. NINJA GAIDEN is a much more vertical game than NIOH, without animation priority, playing more like a modern Platinum game — but it was fast, lethal, very bloody and featured simple, closed levels.

And this is where NIOH and NINJA GAIDEN have the most in common: Levels are designed to be moved through in a single direction, with occasional loops to accommodate multiple objectives. It doesn’t hold your hand, but the design definitely lights your path. This isn’t an issue — it’s just not particularly SOULS.

In fact, the word “levels” isn’t particularly SOULS.

SOULS, in my opinion, is best when it’s being ZELDA. The original THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986) for the NES had an obvious and important impact on the SOULS series, one that’s come full circle through the iterative magic of video games with SOULS’ own influence on THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD (2017). There’s a small debt to OCARINA OF TIME’s combat in all SOULS games (or in all games, generally), but the ZELDA influence is heaviest in world design: Explain little, inspire wonder, create dynamic stories.

What is NIOH?
A stat-heavy action/adventure video game for the Playstation 4, NIOH was developed by Team Ninja and published by Koei and Sony Interactive. You play an Irish or Scottish (I can’t tell) adventurer-cum-samurai in 17th century Japan. The country is split by civil war (historical) and there are demons and monsters you must fight (fictional).
NIOH is a game for people who wish Japanese woodblock prints of supernatural beasts had more polygons.
The SOULS series begins with 2009’s DEMON SOULS, developed by FromSoftware and published by Atlus in the US for the Playstation 3. The best game in the series, unequivocally, is 2011’s DARK SOULS, a spiritual successor to DEMON SOULS, developed by FromSoftware and published by Namco Bandai for multiple platforms. In the SOULS games, you battle against enemies (and outsized odds) in a Dark Fantasy setting — think Tolkien with depression.
DARK SOULS is a game for people who like metal album art, if not metal music, and Zen Buddhism.
Originally a series of irritatingly difficult action-platformers developed and published by Tecmo for the Nintendo Entertainment Systems in the late 80s and early 90s, the NINJA GAIDEN I refer to here is a 2004 XBOX exclusive developed by Team Ninja, known primarily for their work as beach volleyball enthusiasts.
NINJA GAIDEN (2004) is a game for people who like decapitations, comically large breasts and the original XBOX.
What is ZELDA?
ZELDA is for everyone.

The best game in the SOULS series is 2011’s DARK SOULS. The reason why, as a friend put it to me, is sight lines. Consistently, DARK SOULS orients you in its world by reminding you where you have been. From the roof of a cathedral, you look down on the castle gate you passed through, the bridge you crossed to get there, and the viaduct you snuck along to get there. DARK SOULS orients you, but also expresses your accomplishments through a very simple, visual cue: You were there, and now you’re here; that was hard-fought; way to go.

It’s hard to overestimate the power of something so obvious. It’s a day’s hike, standing at the top of a mountain outlook and seeing your pin-prick of a car in a field below. As in DARK SOULS, this inspires not just a feeling of triumph so much as proof of adventure. This is great storytelling. DARK SOULS sight lines inspire wonder, they tell you a story, and that story is an adventure. It’s the best kind of visual narrative.

NIOH, for all its SOULS inspiration, drops every storytelling ball it tosses into the air — which is fine. But it has no sense of progression, not through levels, not through its world. There’s no adventure in NIOH.

2011’s DARK SOULS gets a lot of credit for the elliptical nature of its level design. Everything loops, everything connects. NIOH does this in miniature. Levels often feel logical, if not bespoke. Their layouts are satisfying, which these days means a step above procedural generation. But the best levels aren’t levels so much as arenas, because the best part of NIOH is its mechanics.

NINJA GAIDEN level design keeps NIOH from greatness. But that’s just one knock on an otherwise satisfying and deep mechanical experience. NIOH’s at its best in pure combat, like the occasional horde-mode side missions wherein the sole objective is holding off waves of fresh-spawning enemies. This works. It’s fun. And, if I really wanted to take the shit out of NIOH, I’d get into the loot system, which is an absolute pile. A literal pile. Of useless loot. Thanks, DIABLO.