The Nioh beta demo is one of the most exciting games I’ve played in 2016. Full disclosure: when Koei Tecmo released the PS4 alpha earlier in the year, I played maybe an hour of it and quickly gave up because the controls felt too unwieldy, and my character felt heavy and clunky. This wasn’t anything like Souls, I thought, and Nioh was soon pushed away into some forgotten corner in my mind.
Then, of course, the new and improved beta comes around, and this time, I decided to give it a fair shake. The verdict? It’s still nothing like Souls. Sure, it’s got a few similar mechanics – resting at a shrine instead of a bonfire, picking up your lost Amrita whenever you die, I could go on – but Nioh feels very much distinct in both presentation and gameplay. For the uninitiated, Nioh is very loosely based off of the story of William Adams, an English sailor who found himself in Japan during the Sengoku era, and became the first foreign samurai. The real Adams hasn’t actually fought any demons or monsters, no, but Nioh’s lore is so steeped in Japanese history and culture, it’s hard not to get caught up in the stories that the fallen soldiers you encounter along the way have to tell.
While the storytelling and lore presentation in Nioh isn’t quite as nuanced or subtle as the way From Software handles it in their own series, the stories you come across feel more personal. Searching a dead corpse will reward you with equipment, but you’ll also get a snippet of voiced dialogue, giving you a little bit of insight into the life of the soldier whose corpse you just looted, and what they experienced in their final moments. Speaking with Director Fumihiko Yasuda at E3 earlier this year, Yasuda talked about how most of Adams’ journey is mired in tragedy and hardship – the tragedy that comes from the regrets of the spirits and fallen samurai you encounter, and the hardship that stems from learning about what it means to be a samurai, in physical and mental spirit.
Traces of said ‘hardship’ can also be found in the way a player tackles the game. It might only be a demo, but even so, Nioh isn’t pulling any punches. Aside from a very helpful tutorial stage that Team Ninja has kindly implemented in the game to allow players to get used to its core mechanics, you’re on your own for the rest of the journey. Wielding a katana isn’t simply about hitting square and triangle while watching your stamina bar to make sure you don’t get exhausted, it’s also about learning which stance you want to take on when holding this weapon. Swinging a katana in high stance will allow you to deal a devastating amount of damage, but at the cost of most, if not all, of your stamina bar, and your speed.
On the flip side, low stance attacks will consume a lot less stamina, but you’ll deal considerably less damage. Mid stance is a balance of power and speed, and while that might seem like the default stance you should assume at all times, you may find yourself facing off against bosses or enemies that will force you into other stances if you’re to have a chance of surviving.
Picking up new weapons to play with requires some degree of commitment too. Each time you equip a brand-new weapon, you have to spend enough time with it to build up your familiarity meter before you can become proficient with the weapon and use it more efficiently. I played most of the beta in mid stance, as I assumed that was the ideal balance between being speedy and powerful, but by the time I reached the final area of the beta, the game punished me for not familiarizing myself with other weapons and stances.
Nioh will allow you to get by with any weapon you choose, but you can make things easier for yourself by learning how to use other pieces of equipment too. For most of the game, I played it safe by sticking with the katana. But once I reached the second and final boss of the beta (and died in my first 15 attempts), I knew I had to make a change. I have a general preference for fast weapons, so I tried out the dual katanas in low stance. This caused my damage output to drop significantly, but I also ditched my heavy armor for something a little speedier. I still died horribly in my next couple hours of attempts (I never said I was a good player), but I eventually hammered the boss’ patterns and move sets into my brain, and I bested her in a glorious attempt with well-timed dodges and move predictions. This hardly needs to be mentioned, but that rushing feeling of overcoming a seemingly unbeatable boss is simply exhilarating – something most of us probably haven’t felt since Dark Souls III’s launch about five months ago.
Nioh also comes with a lot of charm. Along your journey, you’ll encounter tiny green Kodama (non-hostile spirits) which you can guide back to the shrine. In return for bringing them home, the Kodama will provide you with boosts to make your journey easier as well. Shrines also give you the ability to change your guardian spirits, and unleash different types of abilities on the field once you build up your ‘living weapon’ meter. The interaction with the supernatural is by far my favorite part of Nioh. Many times, the Yokai you find can be grotesque and intimidating, but every now and then, you’ll also come across the friendly Yokai who’ll help you out in return for a small favor. Nioh’s got a bit of a sense of humor, once you’ve learned to look past the tragedy that makes up the bulk of this journey.
If there’s one major complaint to be made about what we’ve seen of the game so far, it’s that both main mission levels just look so terribly dreary. Everything is dark, damp, and drab. The beta did give us access to an optional battle arena of yellow fields bathed in the orange glow of a setting sun, but that’s not quite enough. Nioh’s darker environments certainly fit the game’s oppressive atmosphere – you’re meant to get beaten down over and over again until you learn how to play, right? – but it’d certainly be nice if there was some light to be found in Adams’ tale of hardship and pain as well.