How can I break this? – Nioh
Tea: Mountain Herb Tea
The idea of breaking a certain medium apart to reveal its inner workings, the limits of it, and manufacturing new tools out of the remains is an idea I am taking from an excellent short essay by Tim Etchell in regard to theatre. In many ways Nioh sought to break apart the Souls games and the Ninja Gaiden games, and frankenstein something new out of them. As with every experiment like this, sometimes it might fail and somewhere else it might succeed. Today I want to take a look at the successes and failures and what can be learned for the future.
The level design is very similar to Demon’s Souls in that you have several fixed points strewn across a mostly linear level with a boss by the end and then the next (major) area follows with little or no connection to the previous ones. In many ways, this breaks apart the Dark Souls philosophy of a hugely interconnected world and splitting it into several smaller areas, doing away with the problem of nonsensical short-cuts, bonfires too close to one another, or the lack of short-cuts. DSII was notorious for basically having linear hallways as levels, but still aiming to stitch them together in a somewhat coherent manner. The Demon’s Souls way allows for a tighter focus per level and the construction of short-cuts is easier. It never reaches the complexity of Yharnam from Bloodborne, but also does not fall prey to the boring DSII design problem. Additionally, all maps are reused for side quest, giving them a new twist by starting you at the end or in between, allowing for a new perspective on the environment. Not all levels are examples of good design and there is more effort visible in some areas than in a few meagre ones. As a whole, I think Nioh does a good job of breaking and picking out aspects from different level design philosophies and creating something new out of it. The addition of side quests is exactly one of those new tools fashioned out of the remains which makes this slightly destructive process interesting.
– Also splitting the areas in different islands further helps to unclutter the map. –
Gameplay is where Nioh, however, went a bit overboard. You have five main weapons and all weapons of a given type are identical. A katana will always play the same, unlike Dark Souls where certain great swords may slightly vary in their specific move sets. To make up for this, Nioh introduces three stances and a ton of special unlockable moves. Surprisingly, the stances are a great addition and there is no single best choice for the entire game or a specific weapon. All moves of every stance for every weapon are useful and come with pros and cons. The slight downside to it, is that you must play around with all the weapons and stances a bit before you can actually decide on a playstyle which would not be that bad if the game didn’t ask you to pick two weapons right from the start. I would have solved this by forcing the player to use every weapon type at least for a short time in the tutorial and then making him decide by the end with what weapon he wanted to start the journey. The special moves, however, are a truly mixed bag as they take away from learning a weapon and veer more towards spamming certain moves. For instance, I was a dedicated spear user throughout most of the game and was constantly switching stances for different situations like small hallways, many enemies at once, or tough big fellas. All of that changed when I learned ‘spearfall’, a move that knocks down human sized enemies leaving them open to a critical highly damaging attack and even allowing for chaining into yet another spearfall and so on. Afterwards, high stance was the most efficient option and human bosses became a flat out joke as one connected combo basically signalled the end of the fight. The other downside to these special moves is that most of them are so elaborate they become useless as you never have enough time in the midst of a fight – especially a boss fight – to use them. You will fall back on the strategy of spamming one or two attacks and then dodging away. The question then is, what are these moves for? They look flashy, but are often useless. They only exist for using it on regular enemies that are alone and to style on them, hard. Except spearfall which might as well pop the trophy for beating the game when you unlock it. Nioh tries to open up the classic Souls combat as an exchange for taking away the slight weapon variety, but it would have needed more balancing and actual uses for the moves. Bloodborne did this a lot better with weapons that all played differently but with a similar base philosophy such light attacks being weaker but faster and heavy attacks stronger but slower which is still present in the stances, but sadly not the special moves. Spearfall is a high stance move that hits incredibly fast, thus breaking the entire idea of high stance in general. Nothing is really lost when the special moves are taken away. The only loss would be overpowered game breakers and useless style points. The stance system is deep enough and does not require another layer stacked on top.
– Just so you know: I hate the design of the main character: Discount Geralt of Rivia. –
Ki and Ki pulsing is great way to make combat more dynamic and fast-paced and it – to an extent – does away with the problem of infinite stamina enemies. Ki pulse is both useful for combat as well as clearing the yokai area, it is easy enough to understand but tricky enough to pull off for each stance. The timing varies, but it can easily be turned into a rhythm. This is not the case with enemies, however, as especially human bosses run out of Ki surprisingly quickly and become far too easy. In addition, your attacks can reduce their ki on blocking giving you a constant chance to break their guard by just wailing on them a bit more. Perhaps this can be solved by making enemy Ki invisible, but still function the same way as well as increasing the Ki pool for certain bosses (looking at you Nobunaga). This way the basic system could be retained, but reading enemy movement would take priority to watching a bar. Perhaps the missing swing of a usual three-swing combo could indicate a lack of Ki and then give the initiative to go in aggressively and break the enemy. In pvp situations, players would then have to display their knowledge of weapon types, stances, and corresponding Ki usage to get an idea of the status of the other player. While I greatly enjoyed the mechanic, it often made fights too predictable in a bad way. I want to have the upper hand due to strategic decision and split-second choices, and not due to wailing on an enemy after making him exhaust his combo by stepping in and out of his range to finish him with a critical.
– Additionally, the effect of the yokai fog give way to a new an interesting dynamic of fighting. –
The loot system and refashioning of items is a double-edged sword. I abhor loot games like Diablo and Borderlands due to the immense work of min-maxing at every second. Every new piece of gear must be checked and constantly switched out. The perks of higher level armour are also random on drops and make it hard to create an efficient build. Oftentimes it comes back to forging and reforging pieces of armour until everything is just right and that is no fun. This could have been avoided by simply having upgradable armour that will receive different perks based in the materials used. Also, just as a small but important side note: Having armour forging with a percentage based chance of rarity is absolute shit. Spending valuable resources and then ending up with a yellow-rarity item is infuriating at best and one of the most misguided decision in recent memory at worst. Being able to refashion pieces of armour is a nice addition for single player, but messes up pvp as I cannot tell whether the player is wearing heavy armour or not and then cannot judge his movement speed beforehand. Armour in Nioh is present in such abundance that it almost annoys, every enemy drops it all the time and cleaning out your inventory might as well be a core aspect of the game and it needs to be severely toned down. That being said, all the armour pieces have a nice aesthetic and I enjoyed picking up new sets just to see what they would look like.
– This menu is a mess… –
Healing does not need to be addressed: Bloodborne made the same mistake with having limited healing items that needed to be farmed, but at least having the option to buy them. Nioh lacks this option so you might run into situations where you used up all your elixirs on a boss, but with little farming options at hand. Quitting the mission resets all your progress in the level and you might lose just as many elixirs as you farmed on the way to the boss. The estus system is still one of the best for these types of game. A healing economy like this only led to multiple unnecessary deaths as I made the decision to never use a healing item until I had brought the boss below half health. Healing shouldn’t be such a limited tool. It should be restricted, but only between checkpoints, never throughout the entire journey.
– Really the only blessing and Kodamas you will care about. –
Bosses are the big issue I am still indecisive of. Nioh certainly has one of the best visual designs for bosses and does a fairly good job of mixing up monster and human fights to provide an overall enjoyable blend of fights. Certain fights seem lacklustre or too heavily reliant on a gimmick, such as a fight that only tasks you with breaking three crystals or another against a giant skeleton that is equal parts too hard and too easy: The easy part is the simple nature of the fight, but the punishment for a slight misstep is too steep and the entire fight lasts far too long, making these small slips weigh all the heavier. There is an overall balancing problem with the bosses as some are ridiculously easy while other provide a decent challenge, however, the most annoying fight is not even a boss, but a regular enemy which has such a massive difficulty spike it almost seems laughable. Oftentimes bosses feel underdeveloped. A practical example: One boss is a spider lady and during her intro she crawls on the ceiling and drops down before the player initiating the fight. Now I thought her crawling around the room would be a central element of the fight, mixing up the traditional verticality of a fight and allowing for surprising situations and fast adaptation of my playstyle. But nope! She just walks back and forth, never leaving the ground. It just feels like wasted potential. Additionally, I hope you like the first boss of the game because you will be seeing him a lot. This is another huge problem with the game, it lacks enemy variety. After having finished the first level, you have seen about half the enemy types and when the first major area of the map is done, there are almost no surprises left, except for those difficulty spike raven tengu things. Similarly, the first boss (and to a lesser extent other bosses) is reused well beyond the breaking point. By the end of the game, I felt like I had fought him more than ten times and he never changes, learned his moves one time, save for the rest of the game. To sum up the enemy and boss design, it just feels unfinished both in variety as well as in combat design. The same enemy simply becomes stale and predictable over time. The variety in Souls titles made for surprises with new enemies and in Nioh I know the approach to every single one, the only surprise is what will emerge from the yokai fog this time, but all of them are equally boring and easy to deal with after a while.
– Fuck you. –
Breaking the Souls games apart and creating something new out of them is a good way to find out what works and what doesn’t. Nioh, in this regard, does an excellent job at showing the hidden potential but also limits of this very specific type of game. Far better than Lords of the Fallen, does it play with and reimagine core ideas of the series, improving in a lot of areas, but taking a step back in another. It is an enjoyable game to play to say the least, but its shortcomings are all too visible. The design philosophy is often schizophrenic and pushes forward on one side while holding it back in other areas. Future games in the series, or other studios emulating this style, hopefully will look back in these games and try to break and reassemble just like they did for this one, further evolving the formula without it becoming stale and lifeless (*cough* Dark Souls III *cough*). If anything, Nioh shows potential both as a game and a concept and that is far more appealing than the same game dressed up in a different hat every year.
Image sources in order of appearance:
• https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/t_original/c4lpqpuqv1tzu58ednvb.png (Last date of access: 01.07.2017)
• http://assets.rpgsite.net/images/images/000/042/228/original/Nioh_Dec072015_04.jpg (Last date of access: 01.07.2017)
• https://assets.vg247.com/current//2016/06/nioh_screenshot06.jpg (Last date of access: 01.07.2017)
• https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/7931923/Nioh_00026.jpg (Last date of access: 01.07.2017)
• https://s3.amazonaws.com/levelcamp-www/assets/editorial/2016/08/Nioh-Kodama-Screenshot-03.jpg (Last date of access: 01.07.2017)
• https://i.ytimg.com/vi/s3a71j-aIBQ/maxresdefault.jpg (Last date of access: 01.07.2017)