On Games: Nioh

Nioh, Team Ninja, 2017

Nioh 2, Team Ninja, 2020


I am no Elizabethan scholar, nor trained in any form of combat, but I’ve always felt certain I could beat a seventy-year-old royal astrologer in a fight.

John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s advisor, the original 007, mathematician and cartographer, author of many occult volumes and investigations, has somehow managed to get himself blown up twenty feet tall, all of it covered with eyeballs. He’s powerful. He’s fast. And I, supposedly a trained samurai (although Irish born and raised), am really no match for him.

Dee, instead of frittering away his remaining years in a library like any respectable philosopher, has instead filled the Tower of London with alchemical devices powered by a rare “spirit stone” found only in Japan. Dee’s assistant, the diabolical Edward Kelley, spent his last few years in Japan, subverting shoguns and samurai in order to…to do what exactly? Create a brisk trade in these stones, delivering them to England? Import the monsters out of Japanese folklore known as yokai?

I am completely unsure how any of this is supposed to work. But I have given up trying to understand, and constant confusion is now officially part of the charm. All I know is that I too spent the last few years in Japan, opposing Kelley at every turn. I hate the guy not only because he’s absurdly buff and covered with awesome kabbalistic tattoos, but because he stole my spirit guardian Saorse and won’t give her back; even though as I fought my way through cursed villages and haunted mountains and spider castles, I gathered so many new spirit guardians that you’d think I would eventually be happy enough having twenty to forfeit the one.

But that’s not me, dogged Irishman in feudal Japan.

Now, when I say I’ve spent a couple years in Japan battling Edward Kelley, I mean it literally. Nioh came out in February of 2017, and I have only just now, in May of 2020, finished the island campaigns and returned to England to have it out with the various clones (don’t ask) (I don’t understand it myself) of Kelley and his eyeball-covered spymaster Dee. What took me so long was, initially, a very unforgiving level of difficulty, which past a certain point robbed me of all interest in fighting my way across Japan. I put the game down two years ago, figuring I’d had enough. What caused me to pick it up again in the last few weeks was a certain…Nioh 2.

*   *   *
“Don’t sequels always suck?” I asked my boss, when he told me we were going to follow up the game we had just shipped by making the same thing again but with a 2 in the title.

“Not when it comes to games,” he said. “Surprisingly, because of iteration, games often get better.”

I have come to believe that this is correct. Iteration is a deep part of the process of designing a game: Finding some little spark of fun, something that works, and then methodically building on that by trying everything that you can think of to turn it from a spark into a blaze. By the time your game is for sale, you have filled it with so many ideas that you can easily lose track of which ones worked and which ones you wish you’d had more time to tune and tweak.

This is where sequels come in. The delicate balance of elements that make a game challengingly fun versus boringly easy or impossibly difficult can be very hard to get right. But with lessons learned the first time around, a sequel gives the developers an extra opportunity to finesse. Nioh 2 arrived in March 2020. Still smarting years later from my failure to finish the original Nioh, I had not initially planned to pick up the sequel. But I kept thinking that perhaps they had learned from their mistakes. Perhaps they had balanced it better this time. And boy had they.

Nioh 2, while a perfected sequel to Nioh, is narratively a prequel, and thus a completely acceptable game to play first, which I would recommend. Team Ninja is a Japanese studio, and the world they conjure is compelling, vivid, beautifully rendered. Now, I am even less a student of feudal Japan than of Elizabethan England, and while I miss the skewed renderings of famous figures from English history, I am more than happy to be carried off dreaming through this stylized version of ancient Japan without questioning its authenticity, suspending disbelief in a way that was much harder when continually confronted with an Edward Kelley so different from the one I know from his engraved portraits. In fact, the campaign here is partially constructed around events from Japanese history, including the Siege of Osaka—a thing I only discovered when ransacking the internet for clues on how to get through certain tricky passages. So it’s educational!

Also less jarring than the presence of an Irish samurai is my playable viewpoint character in Nioh 2. This time around, I am half human and half yokai. Yokai are supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore, and they fill the Nioh games in astonishing variety. Being half yokai myself, I occasionally set aside my human heritage and transform completely into a powerful magical being. I am slightly troubled by the fact that I spend most of the game mowing down other yokai, but it’s no more than they attempt at the first sight of me.

The story of Nioh 2 is a charming one, delivered on the fly, mainly in cut-scenes that surround the lively missions themselves. Its developments and outright twists are at times surprisingly moving, helped along by the fact that the game is not so difficult that you become bogged down in details and forget the larger picture. You are paired up initially with a jovial merchant, himself displaying yokai-ish aspects of the mischievous Monkey King, and it’s not long before such minor sidekicks (some based on historic figures) become major characters in the story. These transformations are carefully wrought, and work their way into the very game we are playing instead of sitting outside it in a sealed expository bubble. Allies follow you through the landscape, assisting you in combat, pursuing ends of their own; some eventually turn to enemies.

Seeing the way in which designers are learning to more closely merge narrative with the gaming experience is one of the deep pleasures of playing videogames at this time. Nor are these narrative experiments confined to games that market themselves entirely on the strength of their story and characters. In truth, I find myself drawn to games where the story is scarcely mentioned, hardly hyped, but shines through in ways less forced, less pretentious, more natural to the medium.

The greatest improvement Nioh 2 makes over its predecessor is one that makes it possible to see the story through to its end, by an increase in the ease of cooperative play. In both games, a weak or uncoordinated player (like myself) confronted with a battle or boss too difficult to beat, can summon help from other Nioh players who are online at the time. The sort of players who volunteer their assistance tend to be extremely experienced and powerful, and can quickly get you over your current hurdle. To summon them, you must offer an “ochoko cup,” an item exceedingly rare and hard to come by in the original Nioh. The scarcity of ochoko cups was itself such a hurdle that I quit the game, and making them easier to collect was one of the most important changes Team Ninja made to Nioh 2.

Within both the game design and player communities, the issue of difficulty is currently highly charged and controversial. I personally favor a game that one can actually play from start to finish; a complete experience is something I value from most forms of entertainment. Other gamers play mainly for a challenge; beating an extremely difficult game gives them great satisfaction. Team Ninja’s answer to this in Nioh was unsatisfactory, but in Nioh 2 I found it perfect. If I hit a wall, I could always pull out a cup and summon a companion. If I felt like testing myself, honing my skills, alone against a challenge…nothing prevented me from doing that. And in fact, keeping the higher difficulty as an option meant I often sought it out by choice instead of feeling worn down by having it inflicted on me.

Thanks to this considered rebalancing of difficulty, I was able to work my way through Nioh 2‘s dazzling and intricate levels, battling dozens of human and supernatural bosses as well as thousands of lesser horrors (some of which still fill me with dread even after I have fought them dozens of times). And in the end, with the confidence I gained from finishing Nioh 2, I was able to return to Nioh, narratively the sequel, and finally finish that one.

Or almost finish it.

Septugenarian John Dee still awaits, and I can see in every one of his hundred eyes that he intends to kick my ass.


First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept.-Oct. 2020