Nioh and Playtesting

A fool does not delight in understanding,
But only in revealing his own [a]mind.

Proverbs 18:2

I’ve been interested in trying Nioh since I heard about it. Dark Souls + Ninja Gaiden does sound like a pretty enticing combination…but does it actually work?

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I would say, yes, it absolutely does. Nioh places combat front and center, rather than exploration – something that Team Ninja excels at. Functionally, you play the game like Dark Souls, with all the stamina-moderated melee combat you desire. However, the game is much more into weapon types than specific weapons. To explain, each weapon currently in the Beta – sword, twin swords, spear, and axe/hammer – all have a unique moveset. Each one has a talent tree which provides additional options for parries, combo strings, new attacks, and stat boosts. Each of these, in turn, has its own combo strings, the typical Weak-Strong attack strings we’ve seen in a lot of character action games. On top of even that, each weapon has three stance – High, Mid, and Low – which correspond to the strength and speed of attacks, as well as their stamina use.

This sounds complicated at first, but it makes each weapon really unique and allows you to adjust on the fly with three different movesets. Need to hit something hard? Use High stance to give them a big smack. Need fast attacks to stun a bunch of enemies? Use Low stance. The ability to adjust these at will, and even during dodging, makes this incredibly interesting. Sure, you could stick with one of the, but where’s the fun in that? It’s much coolers to transition between stances as a samurai, then use a charged Iai technique to decapitate some dude. I should also note that the dodge itself is different for each stance and provides a different evasive style, so experiment!

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I can see why people called Nioh “unfair” though – unlike in a Souls game, enemies will kill you in 2-3 hits at the beginning. This sounds unduly punishing, and it is to some degree, but that’s because Nioh bases that damage scaling around gear. Good gear mitigates this problem to an extreme degree, but getting that gear seems like a bit of a crapshoot. Loot works almost exactly like Diablo – random gear, with random stats, and random allotments of interesting attributes. The difficulty curve, as a result, can seem out of whack from one person to another if they aren’t adept at the mechanics provided. Team Ninja provides players with a lot of tools very similar to Ninja Gaiden (just more “grounded”, whatever that means), but the fact that it looks like a Souls game probably turns off a lot that you can’t just over-level and grind all day.

The other thing people complain about, which is stamina drain and being unable to move when the meter depletes, comes primarily from a failure to understand Ki Pulse, probably the central element of Nioh’s combat pacing. Rather than limit your attack speed through simply watching a bar, Ki Pulse turns stamina recovery into an active process. When you use any attack, the stamina bar depletes; watch it recover, and you’ll notice a red part filling back up. Hitting R1 at the same time as that red part fills will recover a massive amount of stamina, and increase stamina recovery rate. You don’t even have to look at the bar to do this, as the game provides visual indicators around your character (this white/blue magic dust or something) so you can learn purely on instinct. I liken it to the Active Reload of Gears of War – it certainly makes for some interesting decisions!

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If you don’t learn this, you will die – that becomes apparent mere moments into the game, where a single combo string from you will leave you without much in the way of stamina. You need to learn how all these systems work, because Nioh expects it of you. Anyone expecting a nice, calm Souls experience (maybe I’m just a masochist if I think that) should expect nothing of the sort from Team Ninja’s latest, because mistakes are punished with alarming frequency. Multi-enemy combat exacerbates this the most, as running out of stamina leaves you unable to move and vulnerable, most likely dead. Finally a game in this weird subgenre that feels fast and brutal, demanding total mastery! Much as I love games from From Software (not a grammatical error), they do tend towards the slow side. Nioh, as said previously, jams Ninja Gaiden into Souls, and that sits perfectly fine with me!

At the same time, Souls fans will not give it the genuine seal of approval. Unlike Lords of the Fallen, which directly copied the formula down to its pacing, Nioh strikes a very different path. But that makes me worried about this playtesting! I remember people complaining about the Alpha, wherein a locked-on character backturns when they run away; the Beta version “fixes” this back into the exact same thing as Dark Souls. This feedback comes from players, but does that actually improve a game like this? I find that notion suspect.

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To be completely honest, I don’t know what I want from a game. I watch trailers and play demos, sure, but I don’t know whether I will like something until I play it extensively. It takes a few hours to catch my interest, and even longer to convince me that something’s worth my time. So when a developer puts the kind of power in your hands to decide whether something should be in a game, that strikes me as putting power into the hands of pretty ignorant people. I don’t know what makes a video game work mechanically; I can just point out that it does. I would say that kind of playtesting is a bit of a crapshoot, because who knows if people are being genuine and honest about it? Even with my experience in this genre, I can’t say I would know what would improve the design – that’s what game developers get paid to do!

In a similar vein, we were fools until we know Christ. We weren’t so much interested in knowing the truth, than in knowing our truth – which, it turns out, was a bit close minded. I would rather play something unexpected than have it conform to my personal mold. What am I learning otherwise? How to make a game into an experience I’ve already had in about 4 other Souls games? That’s what I don’t like about this whole situation – Nioh should just be whatever game the designers intended, not this weird mishmash of ideas based on user feedback. There’s the makings of a great game here, but only if Team Ninja makes the game they want to make.

Or maybe they just don’t, which is worse.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.