Nioh Preview: Strategy is Ki
“Freed from this mortal coil.” Get familiar with the phrase – it’s what you’ll be reading every time you die, and you will be dying. A lot. I had the infuriating pleasure of playing a demo of Nioh at E3, Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo’s new samurai action RPG; suffice it to say that the game quickly engrossed me in its surreal setting and strategically complex combat. Your actions must be well-constructed, precise, and deliberate in order to persevere.
It’s hard to not immediately draw comparisons to the Dark Souls series, but now having played both made me realize that Nioh is undoubtedly its own beast. You are William, a blonde-haired warrior fierce enough to survive in the demon-infested lands of Feudal Japan. Staying alive in Nioh‘s world is not an easy task as the game commands a synchronous display of skill, patience, and strategy in order to progress.
The game’s setting hit a nostalgic chord somewhere within me and made me recall memories of my time with the Onimusha series. Nioh utilizes a mixture of supernatural beings, Japanese folklore, and warring samurai to make for quite a departure from the commonly seen interpretations of sci-fi and fantasy. As far as framework is concerned, Nioh has come from the depths of vaporware hell to create an incredibly intriguing identity for itself.
Nioh is difficult, but that’s no surprise coming from Team Ninja (looking at you, Ninja Gaiden). The core of its combat mechanics is a fine balance between Ki management (stamina) and three different stances: High, Mid, and Low. High is best used for heavy single-target attacks, dealing more damage while debilitating your ability to defend. Mid is, of course, the middle ground between the two, promoting tactics that take both offense and defense into account. Low is the weakest of the three, but the stance is incredibly good at maneuvering around the battlefield and dodging attacks. Attacking and blocking will both consume your Ki, an important resource that must be managed if you want to survive.
One of many mechanics introduced to me in the demo was the Ki Pulse. Hitting R1 at the right time will replenish a percentage of your Ki, allowing you enough energy to land the final blow or, if necessary (and it will often be), run away. Your current stance will dictate the condition of Ki Pulse opportunities, though each stance can trigger it simply by attacking. In any stance, a blue ring will begin to surround your character as you finish your combos, giving you a chance to hit R1 at just the right moment in order to get the most (if anything) out of it. The high stance will trigger the blue ring of a Ki Pulse as you time your triangle and square attacks accordingly, while the low stance can trigger them by successfully dodging an attack. This reinforces the concept of patience into the deliberate nature of the game, rewarding those who hone the ability to stay calm in times of intense pressure – an enjoyably tense characteristic entirely worth the stress-induced hair loss it causes.
Nioh features a myriad of weapon types that can completely alter the feel of combat, allowing players to sift through various swords, bows, spears, and more to find the combat style that works best for them. Shrines are scattered around the world and grant players the ability to level up when accessed. Doing so will give players a skill point that can be used to learn new skills for the various weapons, allowing players to fluidly integrate their new moves into the flow of combat by assigning them to a single input. More mystical abilities are able to be learned as well, namely Ninja and Onmyo Magic skills. The former can give players the ability to throw special shuriken at their enemies, while the latter can imbue a players weapon with elemental magic. Specific combinations of skill tree progression provides a huge potential for character customization while simultaneously maintaining Nioh‘s core concept of Ki management as players must monitor their Ki usage regardless of personal playstyle.
Shrines can additionally bless William with a Guardian Spirit, each with their own passive and active benefits. Hitting triangle and circle simultaneously will activate your chosen Guardian’s Living Weapon ability, offering a temporary beefed up offensive instead of the protection of the Guardian’s passive abilities. When these spirits aren’t embodied in their Living Weapon form, they can passively increase Ki regeneration, reduce Ki consumption, increase your health, increase your ability to sense enemies on your radar, and much, much more. With such a customizable set up, strategy must be employed before battles even begin, making it feel all the more fulfilling when you see a proper combination of Guardian Spirits, skill trees, and weaponry all come together to form a William powerful enough to truly persevere.
The execution of these ideas, however, is a different story. In the thirty minutes I was able to spend with the game, I did not get very far at all. Even without making much progress, I still felt like I had accomplished something. I managed to strategize and alter my battle plan to see what worked best on which enemies, but thirty minutes is just not enough time to fully understand the spectrum of tactics needed to succeed. It makes me wish I hadn’t missed the demo back in April as I would have been better prepared and would have been able to focus on what they’ve been working on since. With that said, I’m absolutely ready for my next encounter with the game – as difficult as it was, it left a fantastic taste in my mouth. I’m excited to see what their next demo has to offer come August.
Nioh certainly did speak for itself: it is unapologetically its own experience. Judging from my 80+ hours spent with Dark Souls 3, no amount of time spent with the series will increase your odds of survival here. Be prepared to free yourself from the mortal coil over and over (and over) again when the game launches exclusively on PS4 later this year.
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