E3 Hands-On Preview
"Perhaps Nioh and Souls can stand alongside one another as complementary experiences."

Among Tecmo Koei's slate of titles at this year's E3 was a revamped demo of Nioh, featuring improvements across the board according to fan feedback. My co-editor Jesse Woo and I spent some time dying... er, fighting against a group of pesky ninja and oni during a hands-on demo at the show. Although brief, this new version made two things abundantly clear: one, Nioh remains as punishing as ever, and two, I'm still no good at Souls-esque games.

The demo opened with a tutorial, which was added after fans voiced concerns that the game seemed to throw the player to the sharks and never look back. It introduced protagonist William's three attack stances, a Ki absorption mechanic, and a few other basics before beginning the action in earnest. I appreciated how easy it was to become acclimated to the controls, but combat itself retained the hard edge I expected it would. Enemies are aggressive and quickly exhaust William's stamina by forcing him to dodge and block their flurry of attacks. A harsh penalty for running out of stamina remains: William is temporarily stunned and left open to deadly strikes that have the potential to kill him instantly. Thus, the player must be defensive, but not excessively so. I found it difficult to strike a balance between attacking and backing off, which I suspect is due to the demo's stamina-light character build. I'm willing to admit that I could also have simply been playing poorly, though I still think combat could use some fine-tuning.

An issue I know I can't take blame for is the game's camera. It's finicky and doesn't quite follow enemies as well as I wished it would. This was supposedly addressed following the alpha demo, but the issues I had staying locked on to a single foe gave me the impression the team still has some work to do. Though I didn't fiddle too much with the menu and interface, it all looked functional and easy enough to parse. There's a lot to take in, and thankfully weapon durability — a mechanic I almost universally despise outside of survival horror — has been nixed. It bears repeating that Nioh is a pretty game, too: jagged edges aside, it looked great running at (presumably) 60FPS.; I'll take a solid framerate and good art design over maximum-resolution visuals any day.

I came away with an appreciation of the work Team Ninja has done since the game's alpha debut, although I'm still unsure if it's capable of snatching the Souls crown. But does it have to? Perhaps the two can stand alongside one another as complementary experiences. We'll find out when Nioh releases for PS4 later this year.

Hands-On Preview
"The learning curve here is more like a mountain with jagged rocks and a fire-breathing dragon standing guard."

I have to preface this preview with a big disclaimer: the demo for Nioh, the latest title from celebrated developer Team Ninja, is a work in progress. A lot could change with this game between now and its eventual release, so there's certainly some room for optimism. I can't speak to the quality of the final product, but my time with this limited alpha build has left me feeling frustrated, annoyed, and damn near depressed. I was incredibly excited for this game after seeing the gameplay demo from last year's Tokyo Game Show, so this is not only a shocking development but also a soul-crushing disappointment after months of anticipation.

Koei Tecmo's samurai epic has quite the storied history. First announced in 2004, the game was supposedly based off of an unfinished Akira Kurosawa script titled Oni. It's a little unclear as to whether or not the current game shares any of these initial prospects, though it still features a blonde-haired samurai named William of European and Asian descent.

Nioh plays like some weird hybrid between Dark Souls, Capcom's samurai action series Onimusha, and Diablo, of all things. The Dark Souls influence is evident from the very start. You get a life bar, a green ki bar (think stamina, folks) and lots of dodging and rolling between enemy attacks. The Onimusha stuff comes with the feudal Japan setting. Instead of broadswords, shields and dragons we're talking katanas, shurikens, and oni. The Diablo part is the most surprising, as Nioh is as much a loot game as Blizzard's classic franchise. You'll find dozens of swords, spears and axes that you'll have to trade in before they overstuff your inventory. Each weapon has minute differences in basic statistics, and there are tiers of rarity in terms of your precious findings.

Instead of going for the intense acrobatic action Ryu Hayabusa exhibited in Ninja Gaiden, William plays more like a traditional samurai. He glides in and out of attacks with a human and grounded level of grace, and can only swing his sword a few times before he needs a rest. Being able to block and dodge will probably please fans of both Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Unfortunately, this unique perspective on combat is nearly botched from the start by Nioh's refusal to explain the basics of combat combined with an incredibly dense (or obtuse, depending on your point of view) ruleset and level of depth. With three different stances for each weapon type, the ability to recover stamina by pressing R1 at just the right time (which is never explained, by the way), finishing moves to unlock and fit into combo slots, and magic attacks that turn William into a killing machine, Nioh is asking a lot from the player without explaining anything. Granted, this is a demo for the final product, but it's hard to imagine that people scared off by the titles of From Software will find Team Ninja's latest effort inviting.

Combat can go to hell in hurry if any number of things go wrong. The camera is a complete joke, staying far too close to William's back and concealing enemies more often than giving a clear view of incoming attacks. Worse still, it'll often get trapped in the environment or completely obscure any sense of battlefield awareness. Nioh's auto-target system seems like a half-baked idea that got me killed more than anything else. William successfully tracks enemies with his attacks about 80% of the time, making it all the worse when he decides to whiff and completely miss an enemy staring him right in the face about two feet away. Oh, and make sure to constantly babysit the camera to keep an eye on your surroundings while trying to attack enemies that can quickly swarm you in the oddest places. Fighting against more than two enemies without precious magic to fall back on is practically a death sentence.

And oh boy, did I not enjoy dying to the first two combat encounters over and over again until I farmed some proper armor to fight back with. Seriously, the first enemies in the game will kill you in one hit if you're attacked from behind (and William just loves to turn his back on an enemy if you press the analog stick just a bit too much in one direction when locked on). Nioh is much more of an RPG than any of the Souls games, and player skill is only going to get you so far if you don't get the proper loot from your fallen foes. But combat still requires precision timing, proper situational awareness, and lots of patience. The learning curve here is more like a mountain with jagged rocks and a fire-breathing dragon standing guard.

I've died more in my three hours with Nioh than my entire run through Dark Souls III, and I don't consider that a point in Team Ninja's favor. There's "hard" and then there's "cheap," and Nioh is falling on the wrong side of that divide. Certain enemies completely ignore your attacks, and others get nasty moves that are incredibly difficult to dodge in the tight spaces you'll constantly find yourself in. This is probably the biggest problem I have with Nioh right now. The game seems to work best when itís you and one enemy in a fair duel. It feels fun, tense, and exciting. But then Nioh decides to throw you into awkwardly small rooms where the camera can't keep up, or place you on a roof with fire all around that can quickly kill you with just one wrong dash, or perhaps put three or four enemies in a choke point and force you to either pull them out one at a time or risk certain death in a head-on fight. William plays best on a wide open flat surface, so it's bizarre that the developers are constantly placing him into environments where he just doesn't control very well or where the camera simply can't follow the pace of combat.

There's supposed to be a real rhythm to the combat, where your dashes, blocks, and attacks all feel perfectly balanced between offense and defense. Everyone is subject to a fatigued state should they run out of stamina, but it creates an awkward moment and absurdly strict punishment for improper play. I've spent more time watching my stamina bar instead of the actual combat on screen because you'll probably die if you overstep your limits. This makes fighting multiple enemies and trying to kill them quickly practically impossible, especially when that awful targeting system decides to blatantly ignore my pleas to focus on the guy who's right in front of me poking me with a spear and, great, I'm dead again.

Nioh is obviously in a very early state right now (there's even an option to increase the framerate at the cost of resolution, which is both baffling and concerning in terms of game design), but this demo turned me off to the game in a hurry. I was super excited to turn on my PlayStation 4 and give this game a shot, and now I'm left wondering just what the hell is going on over at Team Ninja. The pieces are all there (incredible depth, striking visuals, subversive online components), but it's been assembled into a Frankenstein's monster of conflicting ideas and ideologies. The strength is the dueling combat, and yet the game is currently pushing for awkward encounters in less than ideal spaces. The loot system is a great idea, but there's too much vendor trash and selling it in an awful menu is less than adequate. The developers want a realistic type of samurai game, and yet they give you a magic attack to burst through certain sections in a massacre of blood and fire. There are lots of interesting systems at play here, but the game isn't explaining anything and overwhelms the player with choice, statistics, stances, combos, and limitless menus. Here's hoping that some balance and a proper tutorial can help to ameliorate some of the problems I had during my playtime. Nioh might get there, but it currently has a long way to go.

© 2016 Koei Tecmo, Team Ninja. All rights reserved.