hidetaka miyazaki

Nioh Review — Somewhat Soulful Action

by Jed Pressgrove

The word out there is true: Nioh swipes a lot from Dark Souls. Enemies resurrect when you heal at a shrine (a parallel to the bonfire in Souls); you lose experience points (known as Amrita in Nioh) when you die but can regain them if you make it back to your point of failure without perishing; shiny objects on dead warriors attract your eye; and so on. But developer Team Ninja shifts the focus from deliberate horror to whip-smart action, similar to how Hideo Yoshizawa’s Ninja Gaiden (1988) revised Castlevania (1986), and avoids Hidetaka Miyazaki’s pseudo-existential, juvenile gibberish that made the latest Souls games (Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) case studies in pretentious pop gaming. The only catch is that, unlike Ninja Gaiden and its cutscenes, Nioh doesn’t understand how brief storytelling can supercharge spectacular martial arts.

When it comes to the spectacle and intricacies of fighting, Nioh is what Bloodborne should have been all along. Whereas Bloodborne neutralized its speed, its kinetic potential, with awkward risk-reward concepts (such as regaining health by immediately attacking enemies after taking damage), Nioh adds fresh nuance to the 3-D beat ’em up with the “Ki Pulse” move, which rebuilds your stamina more quickly when you tap the right shoulder button just as balls of light touch your character after you perform an attack. “Ki Pulse” is a rhythm game within the action that, when mastered, creates an unprecedented sense of stabilization and can work as a way to recover from combos, set up jabbing strikes, neutralize stamina-draining fields, or avoid a counterattack. (The flexibility of this system surpasses the color-coded defensive cues in the tragically underrated Golden Axe: Beast Rider.)

Nioh’s triumph over its obvious predecessors doesn’t stop there. You can take one of three stances (low, mid, or high) to improve evasion, counterattacking, or power. These stances also alter the normal and strong attacks of any weapon, granting the player artistic and technical license that make the stylistic flourishes in Devil May Cry, 3-D Ninja Gaiden (2004), or Bayonetta seem amateurish in comparison. As you go from boss fight to boss fight, Nioh forces you to grasp new layers of its complex combat. This approach is a far cry from the grinding that players often experience in Dark Souls, where luck can play as much of a role as skill. You are far less likely to be fortunate in Nioh; continued victory demands an articulate understanding of the game’s martial theories and practices, which emphasize the satisfaction, rather than the relief, of winning.

It’s a shame, then, that Nioh is a rambling mess otherwise. As if samurai protagonist William looking almost exactly like Geralt from The Witcher isn’t embarrassing enough, the narration in Nioh’s intro sounds like someone doing an exaggeration of William Shatner’s choppy delivery. And the cutscenes do not get more lively, outside of when bizarre animal spirits show up. Ironically, the most powerful text in Nioh is its message to you when you die (“Freed from this mortal coil”), which kicks off initially sorrowful music that morphs into something peaceful and content (a breath of fresh air after the dread of the Souls series).

In contrast to Nioh’s one-dimensional superiority over its influences, Ninja Gaiden wasn’t merely a better action title than Castlevania. It revolutionized storytelling in video games, allowing a concise narrative to bring a distinct emotional urgency that played off the speed of the hero. Thanks to protagonist Ryu Hayabusa’s pregame outburst about the death of his father, a fatal duel in an introductory cutscene drives every bit of the nonstop action in Ninja Gaiden. In Nioh’s first map screen, a duel is talked about casually, objectively. Yes, this duel involves only a sub-mission, but it’s a wasted opportunity to inject the human condition into the fighting, a missed chance to further enhance an already exciting kind of action, where rhythmic conservation reveals a blistering array of aesthetically sophisticated violence. Let raw emotion run through the entire affair — that’s what Ninja Gaiden on the NES tried to teach the pop video game world, and Nioh is yet another entry that doesn’t get it.

Bloodborne Review — Another Soulless Franchise

by Jed Pressgrove

Bloodborne, which would have been called Dark Souls III if it were honest, comes one year after 2014’s Dark Souls II. Usually when a video game sequel gets a follow-up this quickly, you’ll see some critics lament this age of rapid-fire franchises. Not so with Bloodborne. Even David Thier’s complaint reads like a glowing endorsement: “Bloodborne deserves all the praise it gets.” Director Hidetaka Miyazaki sidesteps the franchise stench of his latest game with a different title and a switch in currency from souls to “blood echoes.” (Instead of Bloodborne II, perhaps the next title will be Rotgut and require even more intestinal fortitude.) Miyazaki’s references to the red substance may inspire a few theories, but the change mostly plays into a decades-old desire for video games to gain notoriety via body fluids. Game culture is in a sorry state in which superficial darkness gets hailed as part of an artistic triumph rather than a bankable ploy.

Notwithstanding the gaming world’s deification of Miyazaki, Bloodborne is a hack’s version of Dark Souls. The former is noticeably faster due to the increased speed and stamina of the protagonist. Despite this quicker pace, the addition of a gun, and a rule where you gain health back if you attack an enemy soon after it attacks you, Bloodborne retains the awkward timing and constant threat of death from Dark Souls, coming off like a less graceful Devil May Cry. In another way, Bloodborne turns its heritage into Looney Tunes. In Dark Souls, sneaking up on a black knight is a welcome discovery and builds mystery about the creature. In Bloodborne, stealth is expected, instructed, and even unintentionally humorous as you turn a sword into a big hammer and, as a depressing Foghorn Leghorn, smash the giant stone end of the weapon into enemies who might as well be sleeping dogs.

Miyazaki’s imitation of his previous work raises the question of how anyone familiar with Dark Souls can say with a straight face that Bloodborne is frightening, as if it represents the franchise’s first horror aspirations. Bloodborne’s standard Dark Souls tone isn’t served by allusions to the villagers from the campy Resident Evil 4 (critic Zolani Stewart wasn’t far off when he said “Everything is Resident Evil 4”). More importantly, the Dark Souls style is now too predictable for greater suspense. It’s an ingrained drill at this point: Church is evil. Resist overconfidence. Through death, learn enemy patterns so that you know when to strike and counter. Tread carefully because something all new and powerful can kill you with a couple of blows. Devise ways to tease out single enemies from groups so that you stand a better chance (and since Bloodborne’s enemies are more stupid, this doesn’t require that much imagination). Sure, this drill benefits from the fact that the sight of most creatures is impressive, but locking onto them (as in 3-D Legend of Zelda games), evading them, and attacking them make for D-grade horror at best.

Bloodborne forgets what made Dark Souls interesting. The nervousness and giddiness of exploring a strange world are reduced by Bloodborne’s generic structure. Bloodborne trades Dark Souls’ bonfires, which suggested questionable rituals as much as they relieved players, for lanterns that transport you to an agreeable hub called the Hunter’s Dream, a setting that pretends to be meaningful but feels like a pit stop that one often finds in mission-based games. In Dark Souls, discovering an item seller called for celebration because you had no idea what lurked in that world, but in Bloodborne, buying items is a given from the start thanks to the Hunter’s Dream. Bloodborne also takes a page from the juvenile Killer Is Dead with the inclusion of The Doll. If the sexual connotation isn’t obvious in how she’s introduced (“You’re welcome to use whatever you find”), The Doll’s voice sensually babies you, and when you use her to level up, she, of course, bends down (“Let me stand close. Now shut your eyes …”). Dark Souls’ subtlety takes a backseat to Bloodborne’s proven advertising. Still, Miyazaki throws in little twists, such as not being able to level up your character initially, so that players can pat themselves on the back when they inform others of these meaningless inconsistencies. Contrast Bloodborne’s sleight of hand with Castlevania III’s unapologetic conviction, which didn’t offer pretenses of accessibility or petty deviations from formula.

The biggest misconception about Dark Souls lies in a preoccupation with difficulty that is uninformed by video game history. A lot of the praise for Bloodborne continues this peer-pressure parade about accomplishment: beat this, and you’ve really done something. Nonsense. There are innumerable tough challenges in gaming, from topping high scores in Centipede to defeating a Street Fighter IV opponent who has always gotten the best of you to overcoming the trials of Contra 4. Dark Souls’ uniqueness comes from the emotional interpretation behind it. When you go back to Firelink Shrine and hear the violins, a bittersweetness accompanies the joy of hearing music again. In no other game will you feel the exact hopelessness that follows an accidental killing of a blacksmith. Bloodborne is just an enticing package whose next-gen visuals — which remind me of wet, slicked-back hair — are kept in check by absurd loading times, whose locations reject the habitats of Dark Souls, and whose “Prey Slaughtered” tagline confirms the curses of the Resident Evil 4 knockoff villagers. This poorly cloaked sequel is a disease.