Nioh has been on our collective radar for a while now. Following in the footsteps of Team Ninja‘s previous series, Ninja Gaiden, and taking more than a little influence from fellow Japanese developer From Software’s Dark Souls games; Nioh has all the hallmarks of the kind of sleeper hit we just love to see come west. Pure PlayStation’s Dom O’Leary has been following the game closely since the pre-alpha stages and after a muted but promising showing from the game’s Alpha Demo, he’s dived right back into the Beta to bring us his impressions on how the game is shaping up. Fellow Gaijin Samurai can join him below for the low-down.
Let me start by disclosing something. I am a massive fan of the Souls games, and I loved several (if not all) of the installments of Ninja Gaiden. So it’s easy to see why I would be excited for the release of Nioh; it promises to blend the awesome risk v reward tension of the Souls series with the combo driven over-the-top combat that made the Ninja Gaiden games famous. To me though, the Alpha Demo fell a little short of my expectations; it was easy to see the promise in the game’s formula, but it was a bit slower and much more punishing than even I expected – to the point where the difficulty felt unfair at times.
You can imagine my delight then, to see the Beta Demo has removed almost all my concerns in this regard. For a start, the addition of some new weapons and abilities from the range that will be on offer in the main game has helped to broaden the scope of combat. The dual swords, for example, allow for a faster approach to encounters; quick sidesteps and vicious combo attacks letting your character dip in and out of enemy’s range with relative ease. It’s more reminiscent of previous Team Ninja games and works well with the slightly nerfed difficulty level to make players feel empowered while still providing a stiff challenge.
The amount of ranged options and secondary equipment has also been further revealed. There are now long-range rifles and more powerful hand cannons, as well as buffs and usable items in the form of ‘Omyo magic’ and ninja skills. The latter were present in some form in Nioh’s original outing, but their use has been expanded here. They feel like useful additions to your arsenal too, providing an extra edge to your attack and defense in more difficult fights, like the semi-optional ‘Yokai’ (Japanese demon-type things) encounters and the punishing bosses.
When Nioh was first announced, and before I had a chance to see it for myself, I had a slight concern that it would be a mere ‘me too’ game attempting to capitalise on the runaway success of the Souls franchise and resurgence of ‘difficult’ games. From the first moments of the Alpha demo, though, it was clear that the game had an identity all its own. The imagery is all very appropriate to the feudal Japan setting and the somber atmosphere is reinforced through the environments and even the snippets of dialogue found on item-giving corpses. The Beta demo preserves this atmosphere and the greater range of armor sets on show helped demonstrate some of the cooler samurai getups that the lead character, William, can sport.
A greater range of environments also demonstrated that Nioh can be pretty as well as relentlessly dark. Open sunset fields and the flashes of blue sky in the cavernous mountains of the new map helped to contrast the dark and fiery starting village that returned from the Alpha. I believe this distinctly Japanese blend of gore and death juxtaposed against more beautiful or ‘cute’ imagery and scenes will help to make Nioh stand out from the crowd. Take the example of the utterly adorable ‘Kodama’ (little green umm… plant people?) that inhabit your shrines and confer passive bonuses. Finding these little guys and guiding them on their way became kind of an obsession for me.
The aforementioned gore is plentiful, evidenced by the simple fact that you can continue to carve body parts off of your enemies even after they have been defeated. I found this worryingly satisfying after defeating particularly challenging foes. Speaking of which, I don’t think the challenge level of the game has suffered from Team Ninja’s re-balancing. True, it’s now possible to take on multiple enemies, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s easier to manage stamina too, I had much fewer instances of my character being left unable to move compared with the Alpha demo and this helped reduce the frustration factor dramatically. But in contrast, if you do run out at an inopportune moment you can still be taken out by a few hits from a Yokai and even fewer from the nasty boss demons.
There are a few things that still don’t feel quite to my tastes, but I don’t expect a game to satisfy my every want, and these are mostly matters of opinion. I find having to travel back to a shrine to change which magic and ninja abilities I have equipped to be inconvenient, but I could live with it. Similarly, I don’t like how stamina loss is tied to damage as well as actions, but if it helps maintain the challenge levels I won’t complain. Finally I’m not a fan of the over-world map-type mission selection, I think it breaks immersion and in an RPG such as this I would have preferred to see a fully realised ‘hub’ of some type. Again, it’s just a design choice and not too great a sin, it certainly wouldn’t put me off buying the game – if this indeed how mission selection will be portrayed when the game finally releases.
So, Nioh looks like it continues to grow into the kind of game I love. But, will others share that opinion? It’s never going to be a cake walk, and it’s never going to be a game for the easily frustrated. I don’t have a problem with that but those who are mostly interested in the ‘Western guy turns samurai and battles demons in old Japan’ setting may be put off by the unforgiving combat. The fact that certain mechanics like carry weight and the magic and skill upgrade and equipment systems are left mostly to the player to figure out may also alienate some. Having said that, the addition of a practice map shows some concession to players who want to learn the basics without the risk of diving right in. All in all, Nioh has definitely been added to my ‘highly anticipated’ pile.
For more information on Nioh or any of the related titles mentioned above, feel free use the links provided at your leisure. The game is available to pre-order from a variety of retailers; Amazon is currently listing Nioh (PS4) at £49.99 (at the time of writing). Are you excited for Nioh? Do you love sexy vampire demons, fountains of viscera and… hot springs? Then you may (like us) have a problem. But, however you feel, let us know in the comments below!