Pre-review: Nioh Last Chance Demo (PS4)

I’ve got this pre-review and a new game review coming in the near future, and this is possible because both games were free. I’m looking to publish a new book in the coming months, so that may help the financial crunch that’s keeping me strapped and gameless. (and bookless)(guh, being broke sucks)(I am incidentally attempting to go overboard with parentheses))

But so let me digress and talk about Nioh, which put out a last chance demo over the weekend. It is a demo and a beta, so there’s no guarantees that some of what I’ll talk about will be in the actual release. And in breaking with tradition, I’m going to give a verdict upfront. When the demo locked me out at 1:00 AM on Monday, my first question was “Would I buy this if this were the finished product?” The answer is yes, but I will probably wait a few months in the hopes of finding it at a discounted price. That’s more to do with me being broke and needing to be choosy about what one game I can buy in any month, and as Horizon Zero Dawn is also coming out in February, I would much rather get that first.

I played through the first mission twice and had two very different impressions of the game as a result of RNG. Given that the second playthrough was far more favorable and less negative, I kinda want to talk about it first. But some of those impressions won’t make sense if I take them out of order. So just be aware that while I’ll initially have a lot of bad things to bring up, eventually this review will get around to saying something nice to balance it all out.

Nioh is a game that draws inspiration from two sources, Dark Souls and Diablo III. It tries to mimic Dark Souls in terms of hard combat and grinding for levels, and it imitates Diablo III for the loot drops. There’s a lot to find familiar in the Dark Souls inspired bits, but to me it seems as if it’s all drawn from the first game, and it’s not all good. Unlike Dark Souls, this is not a single world with different areas connected to each other. There’s a mission map, and once you’re in a mission, it’s hard to figure out how to exit. In fact, it wasn’t until my second playthrough that I found the items that would let me exit a mission. One is a branch that lets me keep amrita, this game’s equivalent of souls, and the other is a harikiri sword. To leave the mission, you have to disembowel yourself. That’s…interesting?

Maybe later levels are more varied, but the level I played and the levels I saw on YouTube are almost all a maze of very narrow corridors that rarely open up into wider areas, making combat something of a chore. Enemies with long weapons can swing right through the cliff walls, but you will find your attacks often collide with the walls, meaning you have to be positioned just so to make a connection. I don’t really mind having the added mechanic of my swings hitting walls or rocks, but if I’m bound by this rule, I’d appreciate if the enemy had to follow the same rules.

Finding buildings is also rare, so there’s no sense of this being a living world. It’s mostly just a series of paths that all wind back and forth on each other. Because these paths are all so narrow and there is a potential for camera issues, many objects in the game will dither to translucency, and it’s not a good look. It makes for a jarring contrast because most of the time, the graphics look quite detailed, and then suddenly here’s a tree dithering and looking like something from a 90s era game.

One thing I like and dislike at the same time is the ability to change controller configurations. For the first hour, I was struggling to do anything because my brain now seems hard-wired to the Dark Souls controls, with the attack buttons being on the right shoulder and trigger. The default configuration in Nioh makes them square and triangle, and I kept hitting the upper buttons before groaning and dying in embarrassing ways. So it was nice to find I could change the controls to work with my habits…sort of. See, the use and dodge buttons are reversed in Nioh, and there is no way to invert them back to where I want them. This meant that half the time, I would go to press x to interact with something, only to jump backward. Conversely, I would hammer the circle button over and over before remembering that it’s x to dodge. (And dying again.) In the final release, I would love to see an option to swap those two buttons, but I suppose that with a few hundred hours of game time, my dumb ass might be able to adapt. And, by the way, I chalk this complaint up more to my shortcomings than the game’s.

In place of bonfires are shrines, and at these shrines, you can replenish your stock of elixirs, the health potion for this game. You only get three in each mission start, and to get more, you need to find these cute little guys called Kodama. The thing is, even if you collect all nine, you still only get six elixirs without a supply stocked in your storehouse, and eight if you can manage to bank them. Let me put that in perspective to From Software’s games. In Dark Souls and Bloodeborne, you can carry up to twenty health potions. In Dark Souls III, you get fifteen, although you may have less if you’re a magic user because you need to allot some of the health potions to recover focus points instead. So, Nioh expects you to fight through an army of monsters that all do nigh-ridiculous damage on less than half of the health potions you get in most From Software games. Oh, joy.

Shrines are where you level up and prepare items for use in your shortcut items menu. You can use magic or ninjutsu weapons, or both, I suppose, if you don’t mind grinding to pay for them. You can summon another player if you have a tea cup, and you can receive various kodama blessings that will increase the drop rates of items, armor, weapons, and crafting supplies, or to increase the amount of amrita you get for each kill. Now in my opinion, the item drops blessings are just as useless as the item drop rates in From’s games. I did try the other blessings, but mostly stuck with the added amrita bonus to make grinding slightly less of a chore.

What you can’t do at a shrine is fast travel, but then I suppose that because none of the missions are connected to each other, Team Ninja felt there was no need for it. But I just find it sad how they took inspiration from two games that both have a fast travel system, but decided that making the player walk everywhere was better. But let’s move along to leveling.

The way stats work in this game are just…they make-a no sense. In Dark Souls, if you want to make a weapon hit harder and faster, you need to level dump in strength and dexterity. But in Nioh, each stats affects a different class of weapons, BUT there’s also some overlap that isn’t really clear at first. To raise up the damage of the swords, the game says to level up Heart and raise your ki, which is this game’s version of stamina. Heart also gives you life points where as Body only gives you life points and improves spear use. Strength is supposed to boost the damage done by hand cannons, but it can also eek out minor gains with other weapons. See the problem? It’s confusing as hell which stats do what. Maybe with more time to experiment, I could sort out some method to this madness, but having only played for a weekend, it just looks like a hot mess.

Adding to this confusion is the skills tree. You get skill points by gaining familiarity for weapons, and for leveling up certain stats like Skill or Magic. Skill points are spent in a different menu not connected to the shrine, so for a good hour or so, I couldn’t tell what to do with them. The points are spent on each weapon type, and there’s even a split between swords and dual swords. So you have to spend a lot of points to unlock similar skill sets unless you plan to specialize in only a few weapon types. This confusion isn’t helped by the fact that after getting a single level in certain skills, the next level says “additional training needed,” but it doesn’t say what kind of training. Do I need to keep leveling up a certain stat? Am I supposed to purchase other skills? I have no clue.

Weapon familiarity is also another pain because you only get a damage multiplier bonus for that one weapon. You will constantly be switching weapons and returning to the base familiarity level, and it’s just one more grind you have to keep doing over and over for minor performance gains. This could have been better if I got a bonus for a weapon type and each new sword of the same type with slightly better stats allowed me to carry my previous skill bonus. Instead, each time I got a new level of sword, I had to debate whether the two extra points of damage was worth the grind time to raise my familiarity with it.

Skills can unlock combos, but with most weapons, it’s almost impossible to stagger or stun opponents, so without using any jutsu skills, the combo or added attacks after said combo are useless. You basically get one hit in on most enemies before you need to back off and wait for another opening. And God help you if you get three or even two enemies fighting you at the same time because that means right about the time you see an opening, another enemy is going to swing his weapon through his comrade and take your head off. (And this is something Dark Souls also does that bugs me. If you put a sword through your comrade, it should hurt them. Even setting that aside, it never fails to break my immersion in any game where the enemies can stab or shoot through each other just because the coders can’t be bothered to develop a better enemy AI.)

In addition to two melee weapons, you also have in your starting equipment a bow, a matchlock rifle, and a hand cannon. Ammo can be sparse for all three at times, but they really can be a huge help for picking off one enemy from a distance and evening the odds in your favor. The arrows are far more common as loot drops, but their effectiveness against armored opponents is considerably less so than the other two ranged weapons. For instance, you can pop a rifle shot off that will decapitate a soldier with a helmet, but an arrow will just knock his helmet off and do minor damage. Obviously you’ll want to use the gun or the cannon, but you’re at the mercy of RNGesus to deliver more ammo, and you don’t have much storage space.

(And before I forget, why is it that I can send the elixirs to a storehouse and bank them up, but I can’t do that with anything else?)

In addition to the human and yokai enemies, the game is littered with bloody graves. These are the spots where other players died, another idea cribbed from Dark Souls. But instead of seeing how they died, you summon a revenant to fight against. The thing is, don’t summon someone based on their level thinking you’ll have an easy fight, because they are HIGHLY aggressive and can kill you within two hits, even if they’re level one and you’re level nine.

And really, one of the things I said to hubby in summing up my first playthrough was, “Do you want to fight ninjas with real swords while you’re armed with a wiffle bat?” The damage any enemy does to you is WAY out of proportion to what you can do to them, even armed with the same weapon.

Another idea that sounds neat but ends up being dumb is stance. The three stances give you a different move set for each weapon in high, mid, or low positions. Sounds cool at first, but mid and low stances reduce the damage you can do to such a ridiculous degree that it will take eons to kill even one yokai. I really tried to take on the final boss of the first mission using the other stances, but when it was possible for her to take two thirds of my health in one swing, I really wanted to make every hit count. So for the most part, I opted with high stance for all weapons, and damn the cost of ki per attack.

So, I got out of the first mission area and was told I’d been challenged to a duel by a human general, and I thought I’d go through another maze and level up before reaching him. NEWP! You’re dumped into a tiny ass field and have to face an inhuman bastard who doesn’t obey any of the rules established by the game. Even the demons have to stop moving once they’ve depleted their version of ki, granting you a chance to move in and do some extra damage. But not this guy. Even with his ki bar empty and flashing red, he was pulling off ten or more extra attacks. He can run at you and teleport the last ten to fifteen yards, so it’s impossible to time his charge and meet him with a counter. You can’t block him because almost all of his attacks break your guard and instantly drain all ki, leaving you unable to move. You can’t dodge because he will veer in mid-air and hit you wherever you are.

As I said, I didn’t know there was an item to leave a mission, so after banging my head on this guy for five hours and rarely managing to get him to half health, I said “Fuck it. I’ll start a new game and just keep grinding until I’m at a level high enough to deal with all this cheap shit.”

And for the record, I didn’t get a second chance because the game locked me out when I was just getting back to the level I’d originally faced him at. I’m not going to complain about that. I got to try the game out for a weekend, and I’m okay with them pulling the plug. I will say that I am glad I came back for a second attempt because otherwise, I might not have seen how just a few small changes in the loot drops could make a world of difference. It’s that second playthrough that changed my buying verdict from “OH HELL NO” to “maybe after it’s got a little discount in a few month’s time.”

But so now we get to the second half. This time around, I was very early on given a Mino-Den Uchigatana that had paralysis as a special trait. The effect only lasts half a second, but that half a second means it now becomes possible to chain moves into an actual combo. Once I realized this, I also put skill points into making hemlock broth, and this could be applied to all weapons to get the same effect, even with the big nasty yokai minibosses. So I went from very long fights with little damage done to shorter faster fights with me having the advantage in most situations. Even when I briefly lost my advantage, it was still much easier to back up and wait for another opening, allowing me to get back to pulling off full combos.

The second play is where I realized I could level up my ki and equipment load and still upgrade life points without actually investing in the body stat. I had more health the second time around, and more ki, so it was easier to keep chaining moves and jump back out of the enemy’s range to recover ki without a risk of staggering myself. The fights were still tough, but I was actually dishing out some punishment instead of pecking out a few points whenever I could manage to find an opening. I was able to make openings and then exploit them like a boss.

Now, there is a ki pulse mechanic that will supposedly let you recover lost ki, but I’m way too much of a klutz to get that to work reliably. There’s even a mechanic where you’re supposed to press one button to do the ki pulse and then another two to change stances, and this will add bonus damage to your next attack. But yeah, I’m not even going to attempt that with my tendency to always press the wrong button at the wrong time.

And on a random note, while I was playing the second time around, I got a notification that someone from my friend’s list wanted permission to watch me play, so I started streaming, and for the next forty minutes, I looked like I actually knew what I was doing. I took down the biggest enemies with ease and pretty much cleared the whole level without making any mistakes. I think mainly it was because someone else was watching me, and all I could think the whole time was “don’t do anything stupid.” And so I didn’t. I really have to try that more often.

When the notification came up that I was at the end of the allotted time for the demo, I did some math and figured I’d put in around twenty-two hours over the course of three days. The first half I pretty much was ready to dismiss this and not bother with the final release. But the second time through, I learned a few new things that made the challenges less daunting, and I admit, I am interested enough in the setting to see where the story goes. I will say, this is harder than Dark Souls, and the learning curve may be even steeper. Additionally, unlike Dark Souls, familiarity with an enemy’s location and tactics does not make encounters any easier. Even the slightest lapse in judgment can be instantly fatal. So I can see the hardcore gamers embracing this and calling it “brutally hard,” and for once, I would agree that this is the perfect description. This is something you play when you feel confident in your skills as a gamer, and if you prefer games to be easier, this is totally not the game for you. But I think I could get into it some time in the next few months. After I’ve emerged bloody and battered on the other side, I’ll do a proper review.