Nioh Alpha Impressions
Reportedly in development since 2005, Team Ninja’s PS4 exclusive samurai action-RPG Nioh recently surfaced in the form of an extensive Alpha demo which gave access to two early areas of the game.
Nioh is loosely based on the story of William Adams, an English sailor who, after a particularly disastrous sea journey in the year 1600 found himself in Japan. It is at this point in his life story that the Alpha demo picks up from, with William landing on a beach near a small village that has recently been invaded by outlaws and more sinister forces from the Yokai realm.
Although Ni-oh displays elements of Team Ninja’s previous titles like Ninja Gaiden , it seems that the release of FROM Software’s Demon’s Souls in 2009 had a profound impact on subsequent development. Stamina management, tight level design that incorporates shortcuts, brutally difficult encounters, a levelling currency that is lost on death – these philosophies should sound very familiar to any Soulsborne series fan. It probably doesn’t help that the marketing team for Nioh seems to be using the word ‘die’ frequently in their PR materials.
However, my time spent with the Nioh Alpha proved that rather than providing a shameless Souls ‘homage’ like Lords of the Fallen, Team Ninja are working to make an experience that does more than just imitate. Initially, I thought my experience with the Souls’ franchise would put me ahead of the pack in Nioh – I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Let’s dive into the combat system first, arguably the heart of any good action-RPG. In my first hour or so, Nioh took all of my habits from Souls’ titles and threw them in my face. I died, quite a bit. In fact, I’d even hazard a guess that in my 10+ hours with Nioh, I probably died as much as I did in nearly 40 hours of Dark Souls 3. The main reason for this is the extreme emphasis Nioh places on stamina management, here named Ki. Running, attacking and dodging all consume Ki, the pool of which can be increased through levelling particular stats. Most importantly, once Ki is exhausted William is left stunned for a few seconds, freezing in place and unable to move, at which point a currently engaged enemy will most likely ‘free him from his mortal coil’, Nioh’s version of ‘YOU DIED’. Ki loss can be reduced by performing a ‘Ki Pulse’ – think of this as Nioh’s version of the ‘Active Reload’ from Gears of War. By pressing R1 just after completing a single move or combo, used Ki will return much more quickly. Enemies are also subject to the games rules regarding Ki and can exhaust themselves trying to attack William, at which point it’s advisable to dive straight in and make them pay for their mistake. Hilariously, once engaged enemies will also follow players non-stop, even across the breadth of a level. Design wise, this choice made sense once I defeated the boss of the first area and moved to the second area, which had a much more open design and allowed an extensive view of surroundings even from the starting location – if enemies ceased to chase the player at pre-determined points, it would make sprinting to and opening shortcuts far too simple.
Nioh offers a number of period weapons including katanas, spears, bows and heavier weapons like axes and hammers. While this selection might seem limited at first, Nioh also includes a Stance system, the mastery of which is essential to conquering more difficult foes. Low stance for example uses very little Ki and allows for greater degree of movement when dodging at the expense of attack power. Mid stance is a good all-rounder, with average Ki consumption and attack power to boot whilst also providing the option to block and parry more effectively. High stance is a ‘power stance’ – it absolutely chews through Ki whilst also delivers the most powerful blows. Much like the Ki Pulse, switching stances mid-combo can also restore Ki and can rapidly turn the tide in an encounter if used correctly.
Both weapons and armour drop plentifully from enemies and, like titles that have similarly generous loot systems, come in a range of levels and colour grades signifying rarity and bonus modifiers. Team Ninja seem fully aware that players will eventually be drowning in gear as it can be exchanged for Amrita, the currency used to level up. Initially, weapon degradation seemed to be tweaked a little high until I realised that Nioh expects players to be rotating through gear quite regularly. This is a direct result of areas having recommended player levels tied to them – the first area in the Alpha suggests level 5, whilst the second suggests level 25. Familiar to anyone who has played an MMO expansion, low-level weapons and armour in the second area immediately outclass rare gear from the first, a gameplay loop that may become frustrating over the course of the full title.
One element I enjoyed about Nioh is that it allows for some sweet, sweet revenge on bosses. Defeating the boss gives access to the Mission screen, a sort of world map that lets the player travel between different locations. After clearing an area, it’s entirely possible to replay it over again, with mini-bosses and bosses also respawning. Have a hell of a time with the first area? Take the best gear you can find from a later area and return to wreak absolute havoc.
Nioh also plays with the concept of ‘bloodstains’. In the Soulsborne titles, these markers on the ground show another player’s final moments before death, in some cases providing a dire warning for what lies ahead. Finding this far too helpful, Team Ninja have instead opted to use bloodstains as summoning markers – hold the circle button over one, and an AI controlled phantom will appear. While the majority of these markers are the result of another player’s suffering, the developers have also included some of their own creation, often with lore-relevant names and unique gear.
While it certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes, Nioh has me intrigued – its use of Japanese history and beliefs is an engaging backdrop for the deep combat systems it seeks to provide.
Nioh is currently scheduled for a worldwide 2016 release exclusively on PlayStation 4