Nioh Beta First Impressions
In case you haven’t been paying attention to video game trends, Soulslike RPGs are quite popular now. Intense memory and reflex focused RPGs characterized by deep and challenging fast-paced combat, huge complex levels and a high difficulty curve are all the rage (in more ways than one). Bloodborne, Salt and Sanctuary, Lords of the Fallen, the list of rising Dark Souls experiences keeps growing. Now Team Ninja has released their second public beta test for their own Samurai and Japanese folklore flavored Soulslike, Nioh, and it’s on its way to being something special.
The first thing I love about Nioh is how well it realizes its own unique combat system. Decades of anime and Japanese pop culture would like you to believe that folded steel swords are the greatest weapons ever and are so much better than any other weapon. With about five years of actual katana training under my belt, I can tell you firsthand that’s complete malarkey. When two swordsmen fought in the 1600s in the land of the rising sun, most of it was about checking for weaknesses in stance or posture, and the duel ending in one or two decisive blows after a lot of dodging and feinting. Blocking is a last resort because the blades can easily shatter like glass. Nioh’s combat gets this down perfectly, with the controls not just being light attacks and heavy attacks but several different stances and combat styles for just one weapon type, and if a single slip-up happens, you will be cut down. It demands a lot more concentration and deliberation than anything from the Soulsborne series to date and it makes even a regular fight against a single bandit challenging.
The new build keeps to this theme but it also drops weapon durability. On the one hand it keeps to the authenticity of the era the game is set in, but on the other hand having to dig out repair powder for all of your main weapons every single time you slice down three or four enemies would not be fun. Instead, there is a unique take on stamina recovery referred to as Ki Pulses. Like always, your stamina bar depletes as you attack or dodge but if the bar ever depletes you will be completely defenseless for several lethal seconds.
Ki Pulses help boost how quickly your stamina regenerates. They can best be described as an optional Quick-Time Event similar to Gears of War‘s reloading system. After every series of attacks you perform, there will be a brief amount of time where your character is surrounded by blue particles, hit the Stance button at just the right time and you will be highly rewarded. It seems needlessly complex at first, but the game also includes other benefits for these pulses, which range between getting a brief boost in attack power or dispelling supernatural zones that eat away at your stamina bar. It’s the game’s way of saying “calm down, collect yourself, make every attack count,” rather than just hammer away at buttons, which ties back into how a more authentic duel is about deliberate action and relaxed focus than just blatant aggression.
If this reads like you just fight regular boring humans in this demo, you would be wrong. In its current form, Nioh has two levels and two small arena challenges to offer and they hold a mix of obstacles and enemies. As mentioned before, the game pulls generously from Japanese folklore with not just the mortal mainstays of bandits, axemen, ninjas, riflemen and ronin, but also oni, yokai, undead monstrosities and rock-throwing ogres (every Soulslike game needs rock-throwing ogres). The second level’s boss battle is a particularly obscure Japanese demon that wasn’t just a nail-biting obscenity-screaming challenge but also a promise for what was in store for the game’s official release.
Team Ninja must also be praised with how they’ve been handling these demos. In addition to there being actual noticeable change and polish between builds, this version actually showcases a magic system along with ninjutsu abilities as well as weapon rebalancing and a lot of wonky hitboxes getting fixed, you are actually rewarded for participating. Completing levels grants you exclusive access to special downloadable content for when the full game releases. It’s a smart stroke of marketing by Team Ninja since it helps keep players invested in the rest of the experience even if they were satisfied with the content they just played.
There are a few noticeable changes and quirks in this action RPG. You can still call for help from other players at various checkpoints throughout the level, but the online is very hit-or-miss. There are still markers to show where other players died, but if you’re feeling particularly bold you can summon their Revenant to fight, which is an AI controlled version of the player’s character complete with whatever armor and weapons they were carrying. Kill it, and you have a shot at getting better gear. Also, while prior Soulslikes have relied on simple yet deceptively deep combat with RPG stat management being key, Nioh seems to enjoy making things a lot more complicated. There are simple defense and offense stats for your weapons and armor, but the more advanced ones are full of buffs, percentage increases and vaguely defined benefits can get overwhelming.
But the most contentious change from hardcore Soulslike fans is that it seems Nioh’s storytelling will be a lot more conventional. Rather than a vague narrative with an all-encompassing world of lore and detail hinted at in item descriptions and cryptic dialogue, Nioh seems to tell a simple yet effective story of a foreigner in a strange land, the character you play as is called William for goodness’ sake, dealing with the monsters of Japan, all while getting wrapped up in the affairs of several iconic Japanese characters from history. While it may sound like a shame at first, Team Ninja has always been a studio that prides their games more on challenge than complex storytelling so it’s a sign they are still playing to their strengths.
If a mystical samurai Soulslike sounds like something you will enjoy, I recommend downloading the Nioh Beta while you can. The game will only be available to download and play from now until Sept. 6 with an official release date yet to be confirmed by publisher Tecmo Koei. Give it a try, and watch out for the tiny cyclops monsters. They will end you.