NIOH Alpha Demo Preview
NIOH, a new action RPG developed by Team Ninja and published by Koei-Tecmo, looks to expand on the “Soulsborne” niche of the genre. An alpha demo was released this week on PSN, and will be available until May 5. I spent about 6 hours with the demo, so let’s dive in and see what the game has to offer.
The game opens up with the player taking control of William. We don’t know too much about William, but he seems to be a samurai or, at the very least, a ronin. He’s proficient with three weapon types: katana, spears, and axes. He can also utilize various ninja weaponry such as shuriken, makibishi, poison powder, and hopefully more. Additionally, William can utilize something called “onmyo magic”. Onmyo consists of weapon enchantments, barriers, and damage buffs. As you adventure on, you’ll pick up “Samurai Skill Points”, which can be spent leveling up your weapon skills and learning new abilities in the “Learn Skills” menu.
While adventuring through the moonlit shores of the Isle of Demons (the first level of the demo), you are presented with a shrine to pray at. These shrines act to serve as checkpoints, restoring your elixir charges, health, and removing any status ailments. There are quite a few menus available once you stop and pray at a shrine. You can level up at these checkpoints, spending your hard earned “amrita”, which drop from every enemy you kill. The shrines also act as somewhat of a vendor, allowing you to sell the loot you’ve acquired (enemies erupt in loot piles upon death, similar to Diablo), but oddly does not have any sort of purchase menu. The “Receive Kodama Blessing” menu allows you to select a passive buff that stays with you until you change it. The buff can increase the drop rate of weapons, ammunition, amrita, armor, and elixir, depending on which blessing you choose. There’s an interesting mechanic behind the Kodama, which I’ll discuss in a bit. You can also pair William up with a Guardian Spirit through the shrine menu. The Guardian Spirit offers William the chance to summon them in combat, and fuse his weapon with the chosen spirit. Doing this requires utilizing the “Living Weapon” technique, which is done by pressing Triangle+Circle when the Guardian Spirit gauge, which sits next to your health and ki meters, is full.
Got all that? Good. It’s a lot to process, especially for an early demo of a brand new game. Even more overwhelming is the fact that this is all given to you within the first couple minutes of starting. Once you understand everything that is being put in front of you, the depth of NIOH really starts to unfold before you. Now you’re ready to actually begin your adventure through Isle of Demons.
If your first choice is to head to the left of the shrine, you’ll be greeted by a cliff face with a ladder that appears to be retracted and out of reach. You pick up a treasure from a corpse, and you hear what seems to be the spirit of the deceased corpse you looted. This is how NIOH tells its story. Most corpses that you loot have a spirit attached to them that describe how they died (in beautiful Japanese VO, for that matter). As you adventure onward through the isle, you learn of slave ships that have landed on the shores, but something went wrong.
You quickly find your first enemy to the right of the shrine near a hut on the beach. He’s alone, so the game doesn’t just feed you to the wolves right away. Like other action RPGs, the first enemy doesn’t always prove to be a punching bag for you to warm up on. This katana wielding enemy will slice you up in two hits if you’re not careful. Upon death, you will be revived at the nearest shrine, losing all of your amrita. You can proceed to the spot where you died to find your grave (similar to bloodstains in Souls games). Should you reach your grave without dying, you can recover your amrita, as well as your guardian spirit. Depending on which one you chose, your grave will look a bit different.
During combat, one of the first things you’ll notice is that all enemies, including bosses, have Ki meters, just like you. I think this is a great spin on traditional ARPG combat, giving you another thing to manage while trying to stay alive. If an enemy runs out of Ki in combat, your next hit will stagger them back, possibly make them fall to the ground, allowing you to keep chaining your combos together. If you choose to level up your weapon proficiency, you can eventually learn a skill that allows you to perform a special attack on enemies that have no Ki left.
At this point, I began to experience a major grievance I have with NIOH. Ki acts as stamina, but if you run until you deplete all your Ki, you come to a screeching halt and are forced to stand completely still, losing all control of William, until your Ki meter charges back up a bit. This also happens if you use an attack without having any Ki available in your meter. William will simply fail to attack and stand still, 100% vulnerable to any attacks from enemies.
Being attacked also drains your Ki, causing you to completely drain your meter within a couple seconds if you’re not careful. This, in my opinion, is far too punishing. I support having to carefully manage your energy meter in any game, but being almost triple punished for attacking sometimes is brutal, to say the least. It’s one thing to adjust to a new game’s mechanics and systems, but NIOH’s Ki system is far too strict on players and needs to be re-tuned. One interesting part of the Ki system is that after each attack, part of the Ki meter turns red, and then is traced over in white. If you press R1 when it finished filling up in white, you regain that chunk of Ki back instantly and dispel any Yokai Pollution (more on this later). This is called a Ki Burst. If you fail to time it correctly, you have to wait until it fills back up in green again. The better timing you have, the more damage you can put out in a shorter period of time. Think of it as an active reload, similar to Gears of War, just without the direct bonus damage.
As you press on and find more corpses with treasures, you’ll be introduced to a lot of these combat basics. NIOH takes a page out of the Souls series by introducing mechanics via the world itself, as opposed to a dedicated tutorial area or aggressive on-screen prompts. One corpse will teach you about weapon stances. By holding R1 and pressing any face button, you can change your weapon’s stance, which introduces a new moveset for each. Triangle brings you to a high stance, Square brings you to a mid stance, X brings you to a low stance, and Circle sheathes your weapon (katanas benefit from a gorgeous sheathing animation). While learning weapon skills, you can choose which skills you’d like based on the stance you find yourself using. I really liked this feature as it allowed me to not waste points on low stance skills, and focus more on the high and mid stance skills.
Proceeding through the Isle, you’ll begin to come across enemies who are well hidden in the dark, often ambushing you. This is where I noticed combat begins to take a turn for the worse. When Ocarina of Time introduced Z-Targeting in 1998, pretty much all ARPGs have copied this style of camera mechanic. While targeting an enemy, the enemy itself becomes the camera’s focal point. Lateral movement turns into strafing, while holding back on the joystick allows you to backpedal. This isn’t the case in NIOH. Instead, the targeting system simply guides the camera, as opposed to making it the focal point. This means no strafing and no backpedaling unless you are holding L1 to defend yourself, which slows you down considerably. Instead, the in-combat and out-of-combat movement stays almost the same. This is extremely jarring, given that NIOH is abandoning a convention established nearly 20 years ago. I’m all for changing things up, but I’d like to see the in-combat movement be a little tighter. There have been plenty of instances in which I’d target someone, turn to gain some distance, then attempt to turn around and swing, but my weapon would never come out. I can’t determine if my timing is off, or if the game has a built-in delay between your movement and attack commands. This has lead to plenty of instances of taking unintentional hits and deaths from enemies. Again, I could be the one messing up, but after 5 or 6 hours of playing the game, I find myself running into the same problem time and time again. What’s more is William’s turning radius is that of a boat. He makes very wide turns that don’t make much sense from a human perspective. I feel like NIOH is going for some semblance of realism, but the control of William acts to the contrary. I’d like to see Team Ninja tighten up the combat and camera in a future test.
After some time, you’ll come across a cliff where the ladder you saw from earlier is retracted up. You can kick this ladder down and proceed back to the shore where you began the level. This type of world building is what I love to see in games. You’re shown an area that you can’t reach, and some time later, you come back around to open up a shortcut. While I do love to see this, it didn’t make a ton of sense in this instance. If you proceed the opposite way as the ladder, you’ll come to a shrine after dispatching two enemies. The ladder shortcut seemed misplaced. I feel like they shouldn’t have the second shrine at all if they’re providing a shortcut to the first one so close. I’m hoping the second shrine was put in place to ease new players to the genre, but given where the second shrine is placed, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The second shrine is in a neatly cut out niche of a hill, a decent distance away from enemies. Team Ninja seemed to have the shortcut in mind when designing the world because they knew this is what fans of the genre like to see, but maybe built the rest of the level before remembering it. Never fear, though, there are more shortcuts that prove very useful coming up.
After the second shrine, you come to a house and a gate, guarded by a few enemies. After dispatching them, I tried opening the gate. I was greeted by a message saying the gate was locked. It was at this point that I noticed something inside the house. There was a strange fog in a corner near a corpse with a treasure on it. I figured “OK, this is a boss and this is where the demo ends. The gate is locked, so it’s not going to let me proceed any further.” Approaching the fog with caution, a giant blood-red demon sprung out and attacked me with a sizable katana. Epic drums kicked up, fading out the ambient music of the shoreline that had been playing since I began the stage. The demon attacked with a ferocity I hadn’t seen in any enemy so far, dealing 3/4 of my health bar with one blow. His attacks would often knock me to the ground, causing me to mash the X button in order to roll away from his next lumbering swing. After 4 or 5 deaths, I eventually gained my footing and dueled the demon for a few moments before finally defeating it. The demon exploded into a pile of weapons, items, armor, and gold, and the music subsided back into the ambient track that was playing prior to the fight. I examined the corpse that was guarded by the demon, and to my disbelief, I was awarded with the Key to the Residence. I went to the big locked gate and used the key. I found myself on a hilltop, overlooking a burning village. In the distance, I could see a gigantic ship docked on the shore. Walking down the hill, I found the third shrine of the level. Next to this shrine was a gate. As I attempted to open the gate, the game told me it did not open from this side. Perfect. I knew I’d be returning here after adventuring for a while. Spending my hard earned amrita from the demon, I leveled up and pressed on.
I’d like to take this time to speak about a shrine mechanic that I mentioned in the beginning. One shrine menu option is “Receive Kodama Blessing”. Kodama are little green sprites scattered throughout the level (there are a certain amount per level that you collect one time). Depending on how many of a certain type of Kodama you have collected, the blessings will be stronger. Having one of three golden hat Kodama will give you a 5% buff to amrita gained from enemies. Having two will gives you 10%, and all three will give you 15%. I missed one Kodama on my first run through the level, and you’ll soon find out why this became extremely frustrating.
This is where things started to get very tricky. Navigating the burning village proved to be a bit of a challenge, due to its labyrinthine layout. Buildings are packed tightly together, enemies lurk around most corners and inside most buildings, giving you a constant feeling of unease. What’s more is that as I traversed, I began to notice quite a few patches of demon fog (known as Yokai Realm pollution). Each one of these patches summoned another demon for me to face. What was once a mini boss quickly became a normal enemy. Again, this is an RPG convention I absolutely love to see. It makes the player feel like they’re getting stronger. It encourages players to learn and master combat, instead of just providing them with swathes of meatbag enemies to mow down.
Making my way through the village and onto the shore, I approached the ship’s dock. Seeing that the dock lead to a door in the ship, I assumed this was the path to the boss. I turned around, looking for a shrine to level up at as I had stockpiled a good deal of amrita from the village. Proceeding up a hill, I found myself at the opposite side of the locked gate next to the shrine from earlier. Opening the gate, I now had a quick shortcut to the boss from the shrine.
Throughout my adventure through Isle of Demons, I noticed graves scattered throughout the level. Standing next to a grave allows you to summon the player that the grave belongs to. You can challenge their phantom to a bit of a duel and you are rewarded with some pretty great loot. You can see a phantom’s level on the HUD that pops up near the grave, so you won’t go summoning a level 30 phantom if you’re paying attention. I believe the game also puts NPC graves in the game, except these ones have a gold glow to them to signify that they’re NPC graves instead of player graves.
Making my way down to the boss, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was presented with a quick cutscene of the demon before the battle got underway. The boss of the slave ship had a giant ball and chain shackled to each of his hands, which he conveniently used as weapons. He was able to swing the balls at me, forcing me to dodge out of the way of each attack. He also had a couple standard big-boss-dude abilities, such as a body slam and hand swipes. Things got dicey with the combat controls here, yet again. I couldn’t figure out what was happening for a while, but in the second phase of the fight, the chains break and boss becomes faster and more aggressive. He’s able to pick up the balls and throw them at you like baseballs. This sounds easy enough to dodge, but NIOH began showing a very serious flaw during this fight. It turns out that the dodge mechanic changes depending on your weapon’s position. If it’s sheathed, your dodge button (Circle) will have William perform a juke, a quick dash out of the way of an attack. If your weapon is out, you roll instead of dashing. This doesn’t sound like a huge deal, since sheathing your weapon is something you can do yourself by pressing R1+Circle. Except that’s not the only time it happens. William will automatically sheathe his weapon if the player doesn’t attack for a few seconds. This normally isn’t a problem out in the level since you spend a good deal of time exploring and not in combat, but in a boss fight, you spend a considerable amount of time moving around after attacking. As a result, the dodge changed without me realizing. I wouldn’t realize that my weapon was sheathed, so when I would attempt to roll out of the way of an attack, I would dash instead. This caused countless deaths to this boss as the dash isn’t nearly as effective against gigantic steel projectiles as rolling is.
I have a couple suggestions on how to fix this problem. Team Ninja can make it so boss fights have an always-on combat status, preventing William from sheathing his weapon automatically. They could borrow from Bloodborne and make it so when you target an enemy, you juke instead of rolling, and roll instead of juking when you’re not targeting anything (my personal favorite). Or, they can just ditch the mechanic altogether and stop William from sheathing his weapons automatically and leave it as a manual option (runner up).
Something else I noticed while making attempts on the boss was the inventory system. You’re limited to 200 items in your inventory. This accounts for consumables, weapons, armor, ninja weapons, spell charges, and charms (accessories). Given that this game has a Diablo-esque loot system where every enemy explodes into a pile of loot, it’s not difficult to fill up your bags without noticing. Herein lies the problem. When you rest at a shrine, your Elixir charges are refilled automatically. I’m not sure how many you get each time, sometimes it was 3, sometimes it was 5. I’m assuming it scales based on level, but that’s not very important. What’s important is that Elixir take up an inventory slot. If you use up all your Elixir charges, then pick up enough loot to fill up all 200 slots in your inventory, you will NOT receive any Elixir charges when you rest at the shrine. It took me about 10 full minutes to figure out what was causing me to not get charges when resting. After I freed up an inventory slot and rested again, I got my charges back. This should be changed. I’m not a fan of encumbrance systems, and I think inventory limits are an archaic mechanic that should have died long ago. Team Ninja should either make oft-used consumables have dedicated inventory slots or just get rid of the limits altogether.
Yet another problem I faced while making attempts on this boss was the armor/weapon degradation system. Repairing weapons requires the use of Whetstones, and repairing armor requires Nikawa Glue. Finding these items is quite challenging, as enemy loot is randomized and corpse treasure doesn’t regenerate. Items that drop from boxes seem to be a bit random as well. I found myself having broken weapons and gear and instead of repairing them, I’d just use something else because I didn’t have any repair items. Quite frustrating. Team Ninja should make weapons repair automatically at shrines, make some sort of vendor available in each stage like a blacksmith, or give players the ability to purchase repair items at shrines. Vendoring loot at the shrine seems to reward you at random, too. Sometimes I’d get amrita and Elixir, sometimes Nikawa Glue, sometimes arrows, sometimes Whetstones. Seemingly, there was no rhyme or reason to it. Making it completely random and limited like this hurts more than it helps, especially when it comes time for boss attempts.
After I got used to the sheathing mechanic, I finally downed the boss. This is where another problem presented itself. Up until this point, I did not know that the game was stage-based, and not open world as the demo plops you in Isle of Demons right away. The only way out of the boss arena was to go over to a glowing orb (I’m assuming it’s his soul) and hold Circle to exit the stage. I couldn’t backtrack into the level and pick up anything I had missed. Not allowing the player to leave after a boss fight seems…strange, at best. When I was brought to the map screen, which acts as a level select, I hovered the Isle of Demons level to see if I missed anything important. Sure enough, I only found 8 of 9 Kodama. I decided to quickly hop back into the level and find it before leaving. I assumed that I could just leave by walking into the boss room and using the soul to exit again. To my dismay, when I selected Isle of Demons, I was presented with a completely refreshed level, shortcuts sealed back up and all. I had to play through the entire level from scratch, including the boss fight, just to pick up a single item that I missed. There is an item, Himorogi Branch, that allowed me to travel back to the map screen. The problem with Himorogi Branch is that the item description states that the branch will return me to my starting point. I assumed this just meant where I started the level near the first shrine. To my surprise, however, it returned me to the map screen. I’ll chalk this up to poor translation and I’ll assume that it will be better described in the final release. That said, I feel like NIOH should allow the player to re-enter the level in a completed state, or give them the option to reset it all in order to grind for drops, a feature found in some rogue-like games.
As I stated when talking about defeating the first demon, this demo has way more content in it than I anticipated. There is an entire second level to explore, with a very different environment and new enemy types. This article has gone on long enough, so I’ll keep the second level’s section short.
The second mission in the demo takes place in the Kyushu Region, with the mission being called the Terror of Dazaifu. This stage is much darker than the first, featuring rain and lightning effects the really bring the stage to life. The rain even bounces off William’s shoulder armor, creating a bit of a haze around his upper body. Color me impressed with this stage. The rain serves to cloak ninja dressed in black garb, zombie enemies with pickaxes and thrown explosives, demons prowling about, and a few new enemies. This area’s shortcuts work a little better, providing quick access to the stage’s boss from either angle. The boss this time is a giant lightning cat that is severely overtuned, in my opinion. Some of his abilities will one shot you if you’re not above 90% health. His attacks reduce your Ki by substantial amounts, making it incredibly difficult to evade his followups. The sheathing mechanic comes back into play here in full force, making it even more frustrating. This boss took me an incredibly long time, even if I went into it with a fully charged guardian spirit, simply because I would dash instead of roll, attacks wouldn’t come out when I pressed my buttons, and the boss was dealing incredible amounts of damage with each strike. Again, it’s an alpha and just a demo, but I really hope Team Ninja tones this fight down and tightens up the combat and camera.
NIOH has incredible potential to create an identity of its own in a genre that has been created and near-perfected by From Software. I did my best to not compare it to Soulsborne games, but it’s very clear what Team Ninja is going for. The lighting is distinct and the developers set many traps to play into the dark settings of both stages. Having ninja jump off rooftops and out of trees while heavy rain and lightning obscured my vision was very enjoyable. The combat can use a bit of work, along with the inventory system and a few other mechanics, but I am excited to see what’s next for Team Ninja and NIOH in the coming months. Hopefully we get another alpha or beta test to see how they’ve improved and changed the game from this build.
- Gorgeous environments
- Excellent music and sound effects
- ARPG gameplay with JRPG depth
- Expansive demo that was way longer than anticipated
- Successfully created an identity for itself without simply copying a formula
The Bad (but easily improved and fixed)
- Archaic inventory/encumbrance system
- Rough combat controls and camera system
- Poor implementation of Ki/stamina system
I recorded a full playthrough of the two areas with commentary in case you’d like to see it all in motion. Check it out on the Jobsquad Media channel.
When I set out to write this article, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make it a synopsis/walkthrough of the demo, or make it a review. I decided to do a hybrid of both. It definitely went on way longer than intended, but as a reintroduction to writing about games, I figured I’d just keep going until I said all I had to say. I’ll pare down the next article, don’t worry.