A more polished rehash of an already good formula
NioH was arguably one of the best games to come out of 2017. Using a similar formula to the Souls series, with a style more reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden, NioH provided a middle ground for those who enjoyed the Souls series but yearned for a faster pace. NioH was originally conceived as a PlayStation 3 title, began development in 2004. From the early alpha footage, we see a character model drastically different than the William Adams we’d eventually control, wearing a horned helmet not too dissimilar to the one featured prominently in the future NioH 2 concept art and teaser trailer. At the time of release, it had been five years since the last Ninja Gaiden title and eleven years since the end of the Onimusha franchise. The latter bears mentioning, as NioH’s final release shares much in common with that series, as it directly deals with Yokai and similar demons, set in a fantastical feudal Japanese setting. Playing as a shipwrecked foreigner named William Adams (based on a historical figure of the same name) you embark on a journey to reclaim your Guardian Spirit while aiding recognizable historical figures of that era. While carrying out your mission you become a feared demon hunter, as you systematically remove the looming Yokai threat that’s infected the areas you traverse. The game is rich with lore for those who wish to seek it, as much of it is extrapolated in much the same way the Souls series delivers it. This, of course, is by design, as Fumihiko Yasuda (Game Director for NioH) stated that the team drew inspiration from that series as well.
It was also clear that the team drew inspiration from the Diablo series as well, which ultimately lead to some criticism in regards to NioH’s weapons handling. While there were a variety of weapons and armor to be found, there are far too many to properly manage, with much of your gear stat rolls ultimately being junk. Finding a good primary and secondary weapon makes the loot shortcomings forgivable, as you also get the ability to fuse the best attributes of your weapon at the blacksmiths’ shop after every level. “Soul matching” allows you to take two high-level weapons, and fuse them into a stronger version, while retaining the passive perks of the base weapon you use. It becomes clear that much of your gear is essentially fodder for this process, it is still another layer added onto an already cluttered experience. That really is the main gripe I had with NioH. In the attempt to become the best of all of their inspirations, they inadvertently inherited the sum of all their faults. This philosophy also extends to leveling up your character when you’ve achieved the right amount of points, making skill building more time consuming than it needs to be. While my critique of some of the developers’ choices doesn’t paint the best picture for the title, I can assure you that my 120+ hours were most enjoyable. I still have DLC to complete, and very pleased with the final product we received. A game is only as good as the sum of all its parts and between the story, boss battles, and pvp, NioH delivers a solid game worthy of praise.
William “Anjin” Adams can also employ the aid of Ninjitsu techniques and weapons, as well as magic to fight the demonic forces laying siege to Japan, but his most powerful weapons are that of Guardian Spirits he obtains after slaying the many demons spread out across the land. With these Guardian Spirits, William inherits their individual passive attributes to aid in his offensive and defensive capabilities. He also can unlock a technique called “Living Weapon” which drastically increases his offensive power, while manifesting the Guardian Spirit itself to attack his opponents. By the close of the game, William becomes one of the most powerful beings to set foot in Japan, leaving the player to wonder just where Team Ninja could possibly go from here…
Coming completely out of nowhere, Team Ninja announced to the world at e3 2018 that NioH 2 was in development. Even more surprising when recalling the thirteen year turnaround time for NioH, and the less than two-year gap between it, and it’s sequel announcement. While the teaser was short, a few observant people noticed changes to the character model, namely that it didn’t appear to have the same build as William. We witness our seemingly new protagonist defend himself in vain against a group of Yokai, before being overtaken and seemingly killed by two spikes being driven through his head. It almost immediately becomes clear that this isn’t enough to kill our unnamed protagonist, as he removes them, and erupts into a fiery transformation, turning him into a hulking Yokai with dual horns! The trailer ends with searing text and sword clashing, signifying that a new NioH title was on the horizon. Coincidentally NioH 2 wasn’t the only game with a Japanese setting slated for 2019, as Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was also announced at the show. The latter of the titles being released by From Software, the makers of the Souls series that partially inspired NioH in the first place!
Flash Forward to May 2019, and much like with the first game, an Alpha demo was released to a select few gamers. Luckily we were fortunate enough to be included in that Alpha and from the looks of things, Team Ninja has another hit, while needing a few refinements.
Due to the screenshot and video capture functionality being disabled, we decided to take some notes on what we liked and disliked about the Alpha demo. Who do you play as? The answer? You! NioH 2 employs a character creator, allowing you to pick from either a male or female character model. The customization for these models was disabled for the demo, but I see a lot of opportunities here. Where I see a potential problem is that of the narrative. With the first title relying on a real-life historical figure, a shift to a generic Samurai might be a little jarring for some, but I’m more than willing to wait to reserve judgment. Borrowing from Onimusha, our protagonist has the ability to transform into a Yokai. The reason for this is not revealed in the demo, but will surely be the main storyline of NioH 2. This ability can be toggled off and on, allowing you to conserve the remaining power for future use. It also appears that this ability can be extended under the right conditions.
While playing through the rather lengthy demo, I noticed an increase in the responsiveness during combat, with an increase in your characters fluidity of movement. Adding to this was an increase of intelligence in the enemy AI, which is something that NioH occasionally struggled with. Listening to the feedback from their previous title there appears to be an increase in weapon variety. While I did end up with many common weapons that I didn’t need, there were quite a few powerful weapons granted to make up for it. Due to the sheer amount of enemies you encounter, common drops are inevitable, but I hope Team Ninja addresses inventory redundancy before the official launch of the game. Throwable hatchets are a welcomed addition to our arsenal, adding a similar level of speed to that of the kusarigama, with possibly more range. While I felt the hatchets were a blast to play with, I found myself missing the kusarigama, and hope that like other returning weapon types, they manage to pop up in the final product. Odachi’s are also welcomed additions to the game, as they serve to increase the range of your thrusts, and deal massive amounts of damage to larger enemies that would ordinarily take far longer to topple. Adding to weapon improvements is the addition of corruption. Some weapons can be imbued with corruption that adds additional Ki damage based on your enemies corruption level. I found that this attribute comes in handy when facing human combatants. You also have weapons imbued with “Purity”. These weapons build up a purity status effect gauge against those you attack that once filled, will have dual effects. Enemies will receive increased Ki and Yokai force damage when attacked with purity weapons, and if the enemy is Yokai, they will also block all enhanced statuses. These abilities come in handy in an area I’ll discuss a little later on. An additional passive attribute is added to these weapons in the form of Ki recovery after a successful block and Ki pulse. Returning for NioH 2 are swords and spears, with longbows and matchlocks returning to fill out your long-range offense. I have yet to see if the canon returns for NioH 2, but I’m guessing it’ll make its way into the final product release.
After slaying a series of mini-bosses and higher difficulty enemies, you’ll occasionally receive “Soul Cores”. These cores contain the remnants of the enemies you kill and after they’ve been purified at the nearest shrine, can be infused with any of your available Guardian Spirits. Doing so grants you the use of the fallen demon’s special attack, which can be activated using the R1 or R2 buttons, and a corresponding face button. This too will require the use of a gauge, and having the necessary amount in its reserve. I like this new addition, as the previous title only offered offensive benefits beyond your weapons through the use of the Guardian Spirits. This not only increases your attack abilities but also limits your reliance on your Guardian Spirit and Yokai powers. I do fear that Team Ninja has doubled down on their “More is better” approach to game design, but feel that the Soul Core system will add a wonderful level of strategy and customization to your experience.
Another critique of NioH was the slightly linear approach to level design. I felt that the levels provided in the alpha demo provided more of a variety than its predecessor while offering the player branching pathways and secrets to increase replayability. While the final path to the boss of the level remains linear, the levels were definitely a marked improvement over NioH, and I can’t wait to see what else Team Ninja has up its sleeve.
Even skill building has become more involved, as Team Ninja has added a new skill tree system for upgrading all of your weapons and abilities, easily accessed from the touchpad on your controller. While this too might sound like a gripe against the game, it’s actually one of the better additions to the title, as it makes it easier to track how your character scales while you progress through the game. The Guardian Spirits now have their own skill tree of sorts as well. As I briefly referenced earlier, you can enhance your Guardian Spirits with purified Soul Cores, to augment your attack abilities. With each Soul Core you imbue a spirit with, the more attuned to that spirit you become. The higher the level of Soul Cores, the stronger the attack attributes become, as well as your attunement level.
Another addition to levels this time around is the inclusion of the Yokai realm. During segments of the level, you’ll encounter corruption from the Yokai dimension that’s tethered to your path. These areas can be breached, creating a cool distortion effect signifying your arrival in the realm. Perhaps due to your characters Yokai connection, you can move freely through this realm to find the source of the corruption, allowing you to remove the tether binding it to the world. The trip to the other side comes with a price, as your stamina is slashed in half, and regenerates at a rate that forces you to refine your tactics. Boss battles also rely on traveling to the Yokai realm, empowering the bosses, while again leaving you at a disadvantage. Ki Pulse attacks and boss damage appear to be the only ways to free yourself from these incursions, with Purity weapons giving you an additional edge. This again adds an additional layer to a familiar formula, while increasing your strategy and approach to battle. I can only hope that these sequences are broken up and don’t become commonplace, as they are refreshing additions to NioH that could become stale if overused.
All of the core systems from the previous title return here, including the training temple, blacksmith, teahouse, and temple gate. New to the game is an upgradeable living quarter, which I really didn’t spend time with. I can only assume that it’ll be where you change the look of your character after leaving the character builder. There are literally hours of crafting and customization to do outside of the core game, which might appeal to some while being offputting for others. I suppose that is my fear for the majority of all the new additions to NioH 2. Although it ultimately feels like a true refinement over NioH, I fear the game could potentially end up feeling bloated by all of the new additions, especially on top of everything that it carries over from its predecessor. While I found the alpha to be a good start, I hope to see more refinements, and perhaps a simplification to some of the core systems, so that the focus remains on the action and story.
Overall, NioH 2 is a great start to what should be one of the best games of 2019. I patiently await the release of the beta build to see what changes they’ve made, but NioH 2 is definitely a game to add to your radar.
Release date TBA