I've never got near to finishing a Dark Souls game, though I'm fascinated by the worlds they're set in. All those rich details, hidden in snippets of dialogue, quest item descriptions and the oppressive environments wrapping themselves around each hollow's journey. How it takes a couple of playthroughs, perhaps, before even a seasoned player can begin to piece together the puzzle of why you're in this place, fighting these odds, dying time and again.
I can read about this stuff for hours, and watch countless videos online exploring the games' mythology, the connections between characters, these cursed beasts and crooked crones. I just wish I had the time to properly dig into any one of these games, to overcome the walls I run into, bounce off of, and never return to.
And I know, from an hour in the company of Nioh, that the same fate awaits me with Team Ninja's long-time-coming action-RPG. It's a purposefully tough, any-enemy-can-end-you affair, a game that a brief preview session will never do justice to.
There's great depth to its fighting system—you can switch between four weapons on the fly, use all manner of explosives and magical items, adjust your stance for more defensive or offensive benefits, and summon a variety of guardian spirits to boost your combat effectiveness. Your stamina is your "Ki", and there's a simple way to top it back up after your swinging and swiping exertion, with the timed tapping of just one button—not that I often remember to. The menu stats in this game go on for days, with the player-controlled character—a Western samurai called William, based on the very real William Adams, an Englishman who became a samurai in the early 17th century—hugely customizable.
But I seriously doubt I'll ever be in a position to fully appreciate everything this game—in development, one way or another, since 2004—given its tendency towards the demanding. I don't count my deaths in my preview, but they're many; and while I make the demo's final boss, I barely chip away at the monster's health before being obliterated.
"We wanted to make a challenging game, but a challenging game in which users felt a sense of accomplishment," says Nioh's co-director, Yosuke Hayashi, a self-confessed Dark Souls series fan who loves to take a battering in Lordran after a hard day at the office. "And if they were facing a challenge that they could not overcome, it's about making sure that their time will be rewarded, that they will be able to work out how to get over those challenges."
I know that the very best Dark Souls players commit serious time to each conquered title—time that is demanded of them, without exception. And anyone who really makes headway, to completion or as close to, in Nioh is going to be in that same bracket of dedicated, determined players. The sort who is happy to die, and die, and die, as you will, in order to best understand the nuances of this supernatural Japan of the 1600s. A land where strange magical beings, the "yokai", appear before William, looking to stamp him out of existence with even more relish than the many, loot-dropping human warriors blocking his path.
Above: 'Nioh', extended Tokyo Game Show trailer
The yokai are magnificent in their malevolence—and right bastards to come up against in one-on-one combat, too. One that appears several times in the demo possesses bird-like features, and attacks from both ground level and the air above William. Its strikes do substantial damage. The best solution I found to getting past these evil entities was quite literally to get past them—find a gap and sprint, leaving them in your dust. Other yokai prove susceptible to a gunshot or two, going down with just a little lead in them, but these crow-faced "karasu-tengo" creatures get the better of me every time, if I try to go toe to talon. So, I run.
"It's really easy to make a simply difficult game," say Hayashi, whose past credits include directing Ninja Gaiden 3 and Metroid: Other M. "That's just about increasing this three up to a ten. But we ask ourselves: is that a good game? So, really, it does take a lot of time and effort, and user testing, to make that adjustment."
Nioh's user testing included a couple of public-facing demos, the most recent of which was released via PSN for a week in late August 2016. Team Ninja received a lot of feedback from players about where to take their title—but nothing so major that they couldn't release the game when they are, in February 2017. They'd already accounted for missing 2016—"We really did want to launch Nioh last year," Hayashi explains, "but we had to feel that the game was at the optimal level, so we deliberately extended the development cycle so that we got to a point where we were confident, and satisfied"—but had no desire to push the game deeper into 2017.
"I feel that gamers are always going to want, or request more," the co-director continues. "And so, for instance, if you have ten requests, and address nine of them, it's not like you're going to be left with one—during that process, you'll have received another ten. So we really needed to make a judgement call: hey, this game is now good enough, in its current version.
"We didn't get anything back that was completely unexpected, but going through the feedback there were times where we realised: oh, they did want that, that change, after all. We definitely prioritised feedback that had a lot of strong voices, but as far as major things, we didn't get anything that was completely unexpected."
The prospect of playing a game that began life as an unfinished Akira Kurosawa script, and has been through several stylistic and story changes—originally a more traditional RPG, it then went in a more Dynasty Warriors direction before ending up as its Souls-like final form—is hugely appealing to me. I love a game with kinks and cracks in its creation; where development has evolved rather than remain crystallised from day one. That's how all games should come together. Nioh's real-world historical foundations, folded around local folklore in the form of the yokai enemies and allies, also represents an intriguing mix of the relatable and fantastical.
But I just can't see Nioh sticking in my PS4, in my home, where I have all the distractions of family responsibilities outside of working hours. Challenging games are reserved for on-the-go play these days; when I'm kicking back, for maybe an hour here or there in any given week, I'm unlikely to head straight to a bodying by a bird-faced baddie. I'd rather crack on with something I know I'll progress with, slowly but surely. It's how I finished The Witcher 3 after almost a full year's play, how I'm creeping through Final Fantasy XV—and why I'm still stuck in the toxic swamp of Farron Keep in Dark Souls 3.
Hayashi's enthusiasm for these kinds of experiences, though, shines through in our conversation: "I love playing games like this," he exclaims, "and the people who made this game love Dark Souls." If they've properly respected From Software's series, too, then admirers of its claustrophobic, acerbic, singularly strenuous charms are sure to find something to love here as well. If that's you, maybe tweet me your verdict, once you're deep into William's journey—as that's the only way I'm likely to know the outcome of his travails.
Nioh is released for PlayStation 4 on February 7 th.