For a long time I was completely unaware of Koei Tecmo’s Nioh and its complicated development history. In fact, the game was first brought to my attention just this past February or so. When I looked the game up, I was blown away by what I saw: samurai, ninjas, and demons killing the s#*t out of each other in feudal era Japan. That was all I needed to see before I decided to put this game under my “must play” list, and this is coming from someone who has actively avoided the games that Nioh is clearly inspired by, namely Demon’s/Dark Souls and Bloodborne (I frustrate easily). Nioh is basically the lovechild of the Souls games and Onimusha, inheriting the unforgiving gameplay and RPG elements of the former and the vibe/atmosphere of the latter, while also inheriting some of the fast-paced ferocity of its “nanny” Ninja Gaiden.
When I played the Nioh alpha back in April…it was certainly a sobering experience. I’m pretty sure the very first enemy killed me once I approached him, and I continued to get slaughtered time and time again after that by later enemies; but so did many other gamers, even those who fancied themselves “Souls veterans”, so I became less discouraged and renewed my efforts. Eventually, despite the punishing difficulty, I became used to the gameplay and finally started to see why fans of the Souls games appreciated that series so much. I used to view them as masochists who for some reason enjoyed getting killed over and over again and fooled themselves into calling that type of gameplay rewarding. But after surpassing my own expectations and reaching (but not beating) the Onryoki boss at the end of the alpha, I was able to say to myself, “I get it now.” Yes, this type of game is difficult, but it’s not impossible as long as you don’t let yourself relax too much and take advantage of your character’s every ability. And finally dispatching those enemies who were making your life miserable truly is satisfying.
Granted, the alpha still felt rather unbalanced in certain areas, and I clearly wasn’t the only one to believe this. Fortunately, Team Ninja listened to a lot of their fan feedback and have greatly improved upon the Nioh formula by adding in a number of new features to the beta. Weapon and armor degradation has been completely removed, and in its place we have a familiarity feature that lets you earn more Amrita (experience) when slaying enemies with weapons you’ve been using frequently. Given the fact that weapons and armor no longer have limited durability and can be used for as long as you like, loot drops aren’t quite as frequent as they were in the alpha, though they can be increased when using certain weapons and armor that boost loot drops. There’s another new feature involving these cutesy little green spirit creatures known as Kodama. Finding these little guys scattered around the environment sends them back to the shrines where players respawn after death, and here the Kodama can be used to provide you with different perks like increasing armor, weapon, or health drop rates, as well as the option to receive extra Amrita from killing enemies.
One big issue with the alpha was that draining main character William’s stamina (ki) would immediately leave him unable to move and panting like a pack a day smoker trying to run a marathon, which could easily lead to a quick death. I abhorred this feature in the beginning, and while I kind of grew used to it later on, it still didn’t thrill me. Enemies were also susceptible to this stamina draining thing, so I was sort of willing to live with it. Thankfully, this feature has been more properly balanced in the beta, so now draining your stamina is not quite the death sentence it originally was. Letting your stamina run out by attacking, dodging, or sprinting only leaves you incapable of attacking for a second or so before your stamina starts regenerating, but you can still dodge and move around.
However, if your stamina should be drained by blocking enemy attacks, then your block will be broken and you will be left panting and incapable of moving. But again, enemies are also susceptible to this vulnerability. This change to the stamina feature actually helps in making the gameplay feel even more satisfyingly fast-paced since we’re no longer forced to be so reserved with our stamina expenditure. Kudos to Team Ninja for improving on this mechanic.
The controls feel smoother and more responsive than they did in the beta. Pulling off certain combos and skills is also much less of a hassle, specifically those skills that required you to turn the left stick in a half circle motion before pressing one of the face buttons, which worked horribly in the alpha. Now these moves are as simple as holding down the guard button (L1) while pressing one of the face buttons. More special skills have been added for each of the weapons, and the same goes for the ninja and Onmyo (magic) abilities. One other addition is the option to include more useable items like health elixirs, shuriken, and bombs to the shortcut menus using the directional buttons. We can now assign a different item to each of the four directional buttons in one shortcut menu, then we can seamlessly switch to a second shortcut menu with a simple press of the L2 button and assign four other items to the directional buttons.
Switching between your main weapons is also more efficient and can be done by holding down the R1 button while using the left and right directional buttons for melee weapons and the up and down directional buttons for ranged weapons. This setup does initially take some getting used to, but it certainly works better than the control setup they had in the alpha. The katana, spear, and axe/hammer weapons from the alpha are mostly unchanged, but now dual katanas have been added into the mix that allow players to slice up enemies with quicker and flashier moves than the regular katana weapons. The ranged weapons consisting of bows and matchlock rifles have also received a new addition in the form of the handcannon, which is basically an extra beefy matchlock that fires explosive rounds and also leaves William unable to move while he’s aiming it.
The last improvement worth mentioning has to do with the camera. In the alpha the camera would stay in focus behind William when locking on to an enemy, and this would sometimes make it hard to see said enemies since they would be blocked from the player’s view by William himself. In the beta, locking on to an enemy has the camera move back and a little above William and his target to provide us with a clearer view of the action.
If all that wasn’t enough, the beta includes the Isle of Demons level from the alpha and another big level called Deep in the Shadows where you fight enemies and a new boss in a cave/canyon environment. There are also two shorter side-missions included and the option to play the “Twilight” versions of these missions where the enemies are tougher but the rewards are better. And between missions you can visit a training dojo to practice moves and visit a blacksmith to buy, sell, and improve your weapons and armor. I really don’t see much of anything Team Ninja can do to further improve upon Nioh, in fact I’d be happy if the full game released right now in its current state. Here’s hoping we do get the full game by this year’s end and that it doesn’t get pushed back to 2017.
I’d like to leave you all with some of my own gameplay footage of the Nioh beta which you can check out below. For the record, I am not trying to show off my supposed “skills” or anything, this is just to display the improved gameplay elements of the beta that even a Souls-esque noob like myself can use effectively. So, any comments some of you may have on how you can do far better or that I should “git gud”…save ’em, no one’s interested. Also, keep in mind that I’m fresh off a three and a half month-long play session of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, so I still had that game’s control scheme on the brain. Enjoy!