‘Nioh’ Director Says Team Ninja Inspired By ‘Shogun’, ’Onimusha’ And ‘Dark Souls’

Nioh Photo: Koei Tecmo

Right now, Nioh is still pretty much a mystery. Despite having been in development for 12 years, and recently opening its doors to fans via the Nioh alpha, we still don’t know very much about the upcoming action RPG from Team Ninja. Thankfully, a recent sit-down (at E3 2016) and hands-off demonstration, guided by game director Fumihiko Yasuda, offered a better idea of what to expect from Nioh when it heads to PlayStation 4 later this year. We also got a chance to talk to the game’s director about the massive amount of feedback collected after the Nioh alpha.

According to Yasuda, more than 850,000 people offered feedback after the testing period concluded, a deluge of commentary including everything from high praise to condemnation of various mechanical and design choices. As a result, Nioh will look and feel a bit different when it returns to PSN later this year. One of the most obvious changes will be the introduction of new tutorial missions, designed specifically for the beta, which should help fans familiarize themselves with the game’s mechanics. Yasuda says considerable work went into improving the in-game camera, particularly when locked onto enemies, after numerous complaints from Nioh fans. The beta will even feature a new control scheme Team Ninja believes to be more intuitive. But let’s skip the rest of the boring bits and jump right down to the good stuff, shall we?

The upcoming Nioh beta marks the first time players will have access to firearms. Don’t worry, William Adams won’t be running around with a rocket launcher on his back and a pistol strapped to his waist. The game is still set in the 1600’s and our hero won’t have access to anything much more advanced than an old-school, single-shot musket. The Nioh beta also marks the first time players will be able to dual-wield melee weapons and use the corresponding fighting stances. In total, Nioh will let players swap between eight unique fighting stances, four for single-weapon and four for dual-weapon fighting, to alter the speed, strength and trajectory of their attacks.

Players will get to explore a new stage, Nakatsu, which is more vibrant than the environments we saw in the Nioh alpha. Yasuda says Team Ninja wanted to show the game wouldn’t just be dark and gloomy, as we’ve seen in most of the gameplay footage to date. Instead, Nioh will take players all across Japan, from the dark caverns to the forests and castles that decorated Japan 400 years ago. On paper, it might not sound like much. But they’re the sort of visual differences that should distinguish Nioh in an increasingly crowded market of dreary, Souls -like games.

“We have no problems with the comparisons to Dark Souls because we have a lot of Souls fans on our development teams. So it’s kind of a badge of honor,“ Yasuda told iDigitalTimes. “We don’t want to be seen as an imitation of them. They’ve been an influence but other games we’ve taken influence from are, obviously, the Ninja Gaiden series. Also Onimusha and hack-and-slash games like Diablo .”

Onimusha might not be familiar to younger gamers but it was a staple of the PlayStation 2 era, eventually becoming one of Capcom’s largest franchises. Like Nioh , Onimusha games told the stories of figures from Japanese history, albeit with a supernatural twist, Yasuda says the studio also drew inspiration from James Clavell’s Shogun , an iconic novel examining the shogunate through the eyes of a British sailor (John Blackthorne) inspired by the real William Adams . Of the three, Ninja Gaiden is easily the least grounded in reality, but the beloved franchise offers a starting point for Nioh ’s combat mechanics. It also serves as a constant reminder that the studio already found success after creating one of the most difficult games on the market.

When pressed further on the ways Nioh will differentiate itself from Dark Souls or Bloodborne , Yasuda pointed to differences in Team Ninja’s handling of loot and equipment. To find the best gear in a Souls game, players frequently need to defeat rage-inducing bosses whose attack patterns must be memorized and dissected for player’s to claim victory. Conversely, Nioh ’s loot system offers the most obvious evidence of Diablo ’s influence, ditching the developer-assigned loot placement for the randomly-generated drops commonly found in dungeon crawlers. The Nioh team hopes the constant potential for amazing gear will be enough to entice players to revisit stages they’ve already finished, to grind for extra experience/gold/loot, if/when they’re struggling with a particular stage or boss.

A change in loot distribution won’t be Team Ninja’s only departure from FromSoftware’s genre-dominating formula, either. The former takes a much different approach to equipment than the latter, incorporating random drops specifically so players have so much loot they’re encouraged to experiment with different combinations. However, unlike Dark Souls , the player’s success or failure won’t hinge on gear choices. Players can still emphasize their strengths, by choosing the equipment best suited for their play style. But the studio wants combat acumen, along with your fighting stance and chosen weapon(s), to have the biggest impact on the outcome of a fight.

The decision to exclude shields won’t be popular with everyone. Bloodborne fans undoubtedly remember the groaning from Dark Souls players who preferred leaning on the sword-and-board over mastering the dodge roll. But longtime fans of Team Ninja’s work, particularly the Ninja Gaiden franchise, shouldn’t be shocked the studio wants to push a faster pace with Nioh . Historical accuracy obviously played a role in the decision. Samurais didn’t traditionally use shields. But rules are bent for video games all the time. Team Ninja just thinks Nioh is better when players are rewarded for taking a tactically-sound approach to combat instead of hiding behind a shield.

“We think the most interesting gameplay happens when you’re strategizing, attacking and defending at opportune moments, instead of just attacking all the time or just defending all the time,” Yasuda explained. “We have added guards, instead of shields, so you do have that defensive element in there. But we want to discourage players from over-relying on it.”

The game director says the Nioh dev team wants to encourage players to be “more methodical” while in combat. Granted, the upcoming beta build will include onsens, Japanese for “hot springs”, that can be used to heal William between the shrines. But extra health only helps if you survive long enough to reach it. And we watched Yasuda die numerous times during our demo.

For the most part, the Nioh director was patient and calculating, approaching his game with the same patience and caution Yasuda claimed the studio was trying to encourage. But he would occasionally get impatient — which makes sense, when you stop to consider how many times the Nioh director had probably shown this same stretch of the game — and an untimely death was almost always quick to follow. At one point, we watched a colony of bats push the game’s protagonist off a cliff after Yasuda rounded a corner without checking for enemies. The next shrine had been just a few feet away. It gets rough.

Team Ninja is taking a similar approach when designing boss encounters for Nioh . Each of the game’s stage-ending baddies were inspired by yokai, demons, spirits and other supernatural figures from traditional Japanese folklore. Don’t go expecting any of the cutesy creatures from the massively popular Yo-kai Watch series, either. The game director showed us a piece of art, depicting a large skeleton who will appear in Nioh , as an example of the yokai Team Ninja is using for inspiration. And the studio is trying to stick as close to the source material as possible.

“Because it’s an action game, we did make some adjustments to make it more fun to fight against them,” Yasuda told iDigi. “So we have added our own spin on some of them but they’re all real Japanese yokai.”

Don’t mistake “fun” for “easy”, though. As players discovered in the Nioh alpha, Team Ninja’s latest outing is primed to be one of the toughest games of 2016. Yasuda says there won’t be any shortage of player deaths at the hands of the game’s bosses. But thanks to the tidal wave of input that followed the Nioh alpha, not to mention the rise of Twitch and other streaming services, Team Ninja is confident that a brutally difficult campaign is exactly what the Nioh community is looking for. Even if that stands counterintuitive to conventional wisdom.

“The one thing that really struck me, watching gameplay videos, is people are having fun even when they keep getting killed,” Yasuda said. “You get the feedback, and people saying that they had fun or died a lot, but just watching people play really drives home that people are having fun while getting killed over and over and over.”

Nioh is in development exclusively for PlayStation 4. The game is expected to debut before the end of 2016.

Be sure to check back with iDigitalTimes.com and follow Scott on Twitter for more E3 2016 coverage throughout the week, including news and hands-on impressions from the biggest games on the show floor.

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