I swing and the giant demon deftly evades the razor sharp edge of my blade with a backflip. Swords of its own in its hands, the demon then releases a flurry of frantic attacks in a last ditch effort to defeat me. I don’t have time to dodge, so I bare the brunt of the onslaught. It hurts. My guard is broken and I’m dazed, tired, and for a brief moment, vulnerable. But that moment is all the demon needs. He pulls back with all his might. I see the blade swing down at me in slow motion. Before it could make contact, the demon explodes into a swirling gray cloud of dust. From the shadows, a figure emerges that looks like me, just in different garb, and emitting a golden glow. Another player. Another me from a different world. My savior!
But all was for naught. As I bow in thanks, a creature, no bigger than a child, leaps on me and thrusts me to the ground, forcefully puking a toxin into my mouth. Though the other player kills the demon, I am doomed. Out of elixir, I succumb to the poison, keel over, and die at my newfound friend’s feet.
Enter Nioh, a Souls-like action game produced by Koei Tecmo and developed by Team Ninja, the same team that brought us the notoriously challenging Ninja Gaiden series. Team Ninja’s game lineup has been rather predictable for many years. Save Hyrule Warriors and Toukiden, Team Ninja’s games in the last six years consisted primarily of Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden sequels. Yet with Nioh, Team Ninja intends to bring us on a new journey into the depths of Yokai-infested Zipangu (Japan), one which is bound to satiate the most hardened gamers.
Nioh consists of a series of challenging levels which you activate from a world map. Once activated, your character, based off of the real life first European Samurai William Adams, spawns at a shrine where a tiny green Kodama awaits you. Shrines are scattered throughout each region and they act similarly to bonfires from Dark Souls. Every time you pray at a shrine, all killed enemies respawn. This is not all they do, however. Shrines offer an abundance of options. Ranging from leveling up and making an offer, to changing your Guardian Spirit and readying a Jutsu, there is plenty to provide recourse in the trials ahead. And oh, there will be trials. Many, many trials.
In the publicly released Beta version of the game (aspects are subject to change), we are given two main missions and two sub missions. One main mission, titled “Isle of Demons”, should be familiar to those who played the Alpha demo back in April 2016. It takes place in a small fishing village on the island of Kuroshima. The other mission, titled “Deep in the Shadows”, has us scour the depths of the Nakatsu mountains. In both missions, expect to meet human and non-human enemies, all of which provide ample challenge. Aimlessly exploring may get the attention of multiple enemies, while blindly running into rooms is suicide. If you happen to get caught in one of these unfortunate situations, not all is lost. You are a samurai, after all.
William has an arsenal of weapons and tools Link would certainly be jealous of, all of which proved time and again to be more valuable in a plethora of situations than those of the most item-abundant and loot-heavy games. Have multiple enemies chasing you? Throw down a cluster of Makibishi spikes that reduce enemy movement speed so you can pick off one at a time. Is a particular enemy samurai besting you at stamina management? Use a Lifeseal Talisman to prevent him from gaining back his stamina. Facing an enemy who is slow, but deals a large amount of damage? Use a Rejuvenation Talisman to gradually recover your health over time if you manage to survive getting hit.
In addition to these items, weapons vary from katanas and spears, to axes and hammers, all of which have their own move sets, stances, and proficiency systems. There are separate skill trees for each weapon type, allowing players to prioritize movements and combos that fit with their preferred playstyle. There is a ton of depth here, so much so that mastery of the basic fighting mechanics is a feat of its own.
At the end of each level a boss awaits you. These bosses give Dark Souls bosses a run for their money in difficulty. One is a giant Oni with a ball and chain, while the other is a winged, vampire-like female creature who descends upon you with paralyzing attacks. There is no sequence in which you must attack these bosses, though they all have their own sets of moves which keeps combat fresh. Attack at your own discretion. I shamelessly admit that I had to get help from a summoned random player in order to beat one of the bosses.
Interestingly, there are also multiple ways to play with other people. You can, as I did, summon random visitors at the shrine if you are having trouble completing a mission. However, Nioh also has a full-fledged co-op option where you can play entire missions from start to finish with a friend or a random person. If you play cooperatively in this way, you do not have access to shrines. Instead, you are given a shared lifepool. If you die, you can be revived, but only so many times. Nioh’s cooperative mode retains a satisfying level of difficulty, yet It still felt rewarding to triumph over odds with another player.
Nioh’s release is expected in Winter 2016. If the Alpha and Beta are anyway representative of the actual game, and if Team Ninja’s efforts to streamline the complexities of the combat system remain mastery-prone, then we are all in for one hell of a brutal, bloody, and unforgiving ride.