Nioh (2017, PS4) and Team Ninja’s evolution through post-release patches.

 

Nioh just feels great to play. Sure, you’ll die a bit until you’ve got your timing down but you’ll start to find a combat groove several missions in. I personally went through the first set of missions 4-5 times each until I was able to really figure out the AI patterns and get a sense for weapon speed, range, and stamina management. Everyone I’ve talked to has played through Nioh in a different fashion, even when using the same starting weapon you’ll have to find ways to adapt to survive and the game gives a Mt. Fuji-sized set of options. There isn’t better action RPG combat around in 2017, it makes Dark Souls III combat feel like fighting off monsters with a balloon animal at 30 fps. But hey, the vanilla/launch Nioh experience was severely less complicated with fewer systems integrated, fewer weapon types to master, and a pretty chill co-op system. I remember writing a review for this game back in April and scrapping at least five pages of notes explaining the intricate systems of this game that lead up to powerful and fun character builds. I’ve jumped back into Nioh on my PS4 Pro for the first two thirds of the planned DLC for the game and each time I do I’ve started to wonder if my initial 101 hour long Platinum trophy run for Nioh was an experience that is no longer possible for someone starting with the most current version of the game.

Here are some basic patch notes if you want to read the actual in-depth changes: Nioh Patch notes (up to version 1.12)

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My stats and whatnot after beating the game the first time. This is pre-DLC completion although I had leveled up my main guardian spirits to level 30.

Team Ninja promised a lot of ch-ch-ch-changes upon release of the game. From tweaks to animations to PvP integration and co-op matchmaking improvements… all was delivered over the course of about four major version updates. Unlike most souls-like enthusiasts who already understood that ‘nerfs’ and ‘patches’ often meant completely altered PvP and PvE mechanics I binged and plowed my way through the game almost completely before version 1.06 had hit. Upon trying to solo my way through the last major level in the game, I was prompted to update. Version 1.06 added 10 main story missions, about half of which were challenging boss fights, and arguably extended my playthrough another 5-6 hours as I had to change my loadout and skills. I couldn’t complain about such a huge update to the game and it was nice that they included a lot of things that were maybe odds and ends, tests of skill, and things that were unfinished upon launch. What I had to complain about were tweaks to systems that were integral to cheesing the original version of the game, which was largely unchanged by the 1.04 update (most a reward for reaching 1 million units sold). Living Weapon skills in the game allow the player to become invincible, fire off a skill, and deal a bunch of damage with enhanced range. You only have about 4-6 seconds, maybe considerably more if you spec it right with gear, to start killing things and as you kill them you gain more time in this living weapon mode. Players had figured out easy ways to beat whole levels while invincible. This update de-cheesed the game for the first time by reducing the duration of living weapon activation by nearly half AND making it harder to maintain living weapon status. Suddenly the game was much harder and I was forced to change my loadout, farm different weapon drops, and buy into ninjutsu/onmyo magic skills that I’d otherwise avoid (Sloth, spirit talisman, etc.) and I had to switch to the Diaba-washi guardian spirit as the skill knocks over human opponents/bosses allowing you to stab them for massive damage. The hardest boss battles involve several human opponents at once (and often in succession) and knockdowns are incredibly important for success.

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Maybe I was being too thorough my first time through. It took 101 hours to get the Platinum trophy. That involved full proficiency with every weapon type, some collectibles, and completing every optional mission.

Not only was the original game asking me to adapt my playstyle as I completed the game and worked towards a platinum trophy, Team Ninja was also changing the rules in their patches as I found easier ways to play it. It sounds fun at first, any souls-like nerd wants to brag they’ve gotten good and all that, but Nioh was already a difficult test of skill, system management, loot requisition, and success was often dealt through sheer luck with the games AI. Patch 1.08 came along with the first DLC mission area and probably made the most disheartening changes to the game to date as Team Ninja essentially ‘nerfed’ every single high level player. The previous maximum level in Nioh was 750 and it was reduced to 400 making it impossible to max out all of the stats in the game and anyone who put in the ridiculous amount of time it took to grind up to level 750 was now forced to redistribute their stats. Serves them right, of course, for cheesing the game but it meant that my level 146 game was not only underpowered for the DLC but Team Ninja’s trophies for the DLC were essentially asking me to fully beat the game including optional missions three times (Way of the: Samurai, Strong, Demon). Don’t get me wrong, I will eventually do this, but it was hard enough to beat it once. I can’t imagine very many people stuck with Nioh at that point, the game got harder than it was initially and the PvP mode they debuted was notoriously laggy and devoid of players willing to try it because of the lag conversation surrounding it. I’m not a diehard PvP player in these games, but I did spend a lot of time in the Dark Souls II and III arenas and Nioh’s co-op modes are far better than those of the Souls series. In fact I’m restraining myself from a ten page write up on why co-op is amazing in Nioh right now. The Odachi is a great weapon, can’t complain about that. Whether or not the Nioh community felt that patch 1.08 was a disaster it changed the base game substantially with bug fixes, ‘nerfs’ and leveling progression. What does that mean? Anyone coming to the game after 1.08 will have a harder time leveling up and getting to the point where Nioh feels amazing to play. Team Ninja absolutely improved their game but also made their hard game harder for folks who aren’t hardcore about these types of action RPGs. Raising the barrier of entry with a DLC is just a wet butt-mess of a thing to do to a game that was perfectly fun to begin with.

Patch 1.12 had less effect on Nioh proper and instead focused on giving more incentive to engage in the Clan Battle system, a sort of meta-game similar to what Mortal Kombat X’s factions did where you pick a faction and get a bonus for remaining loyal to the faction. Beyond that they improved the co-op “Visitor” rewards systems so you get better loot, and gave greater rewards faster when joining games. Trust me, playing Nioh co-op is incredibly fun and giving loot incentives to help people through bosses and difficult levels is an amazing way to keep me motivated to beat the game three times on the hardest difficulties. At this point the PvP worked really well for me, less issues with ‘lag’ and matchmaking that appeared based on in game progress and match success. No PvP matchmaking is perfect but Nioh’s PvP is now what they’ve promised it would be. I had to re-spec my character’s points with this update as I didn’t realize a lot of the weapon/magic skill trees had changed. Having spent all of the possible points in the first playthrough I was frustrated to not be able to try all of the new options without doing the New Game+ style Way of the Strong difficulty. I was feeling pretty great about this game and figured everything was all set for the second DLC, which dropped a couple of days ago but then I read the patch notes: HERE

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Here’s hoping they add a Yo’Kai Necromancer to Nioh 6 years later like they just did with Diablo III.

Patch 1.14 should confirm for anyone who wasn’t completely sure, this game is Diablo. Yes, along with yet another stupidly impossible difficulty level where you can complete the game yet again you’ve got a new level of equipment rarity. Its OK just let it wash over you, achieve the Ethereal level, and reach the Way of the Wise. I’m still playing through the Defiant Honor DLC which already features some of the best level design (think Ashes of Ariandel as you play it) in the game and some awesome new characters previously hinted at with the infamously overused Red Demon armor. So, without doing some kind of silly pre-review of that content I can only look to the three pages of bug fixes, the further improvement to PvP modes with battle titles, extra maps, and even more reasons to co-op as to why this is still likely going to be my game of the year despite the rollercoaster the patches have put me through as a dedicated player. The question I’m asking myself at this point is whether or not I’m willing to put over 200 hours into Nioh, knowing that most of that time spent will be in red-faced, try-hard frustration as I try to cheese the game to death… fully expecting even more changes to the game when the third DLC arrives. With so many changes to the game in the first five months already, wouldn’t it make sense to wait for the last DLC and power through it once Nioh is a ‘complete’ product? Playing Hitman on PC last year I hotly anticipated the content roll-out as IO Interactive never asked me to replay things I’d already mastered unless I really felt the need but at this point every update to Nioh gives me anxiety that Team Ninja might fatally screw up a game that I’ve already invested over 100 hours of my life trying to master on some level. With all of that said I hope it isn’t too contradictory to say this is the best time to jump into the world of Nioh. The DLC has greatly changed the game into a smarter, easier to navigate beast of an RPG that might not hold your hand but gives you every tool possible (now with a Ninja Gaiden style Tonfa option~) to play it the way you’d like to.

It is amazing that Team Ninja has put so much stock in fan and player feedback, seeing the game change (mostly) for the better has been both a frustrating ride but also an impressive evolution from a developer who truly listens. I guess reaching to the larger topic at hand: Have you ever played the launch version of a game only to find it completely changed when revisiting it for DLC or just a second playthrough? Do developers more often ruin games spending a year plus patching and tweaking things? I would point to Dark Souls III and Diablo III as games that changed drastically in feel and content as they’ve been updated for better or worse post-launch/DLC.