It’s funny how things work sometimes. One day you’re trying to climb a ladder and a bird respawns out of nowhere to knock you off, and the next you’re being told which button to push on your controller to pay your respects. The day after that, though, is when a nun turns into a giant wolf monster and stomps you into the pavement. You know, funny.
For all of the design tenants that the Soulsborne games brought into fashion, I’d wager that few believed that big-budget games would start to get harder and stay that way. After all, with a rising development costs running a hit-driven release culture, it would make more sense that the more money gets thrown at a game during development, the easier it would wind up being so as to not alienate potential players. But here we are proven wrong, and this week’s release of Nioh shows yet again that there’s still a space for challenging games that demand a certain rabbinical devotion to conquer.
However, it’s easy to say that these kinds of games aren’t for everybody, but it might not be fair to say that they shouldn’t be. We could argue until we’re blue in the face about the inclusiveness of video games as a pastime vs. exclusivity of the hardcore niche that a Nioh or Bloodborne player might embrace. Personally, when Demon’s Souls came out in 2009, I would chase people down on the street for a chance to talk them into playing it. But I’m also not an idiot, and knew that folks didn’t want to deal with item weight and giant dragon gods that will drop you in a single hit. For most, the line between challenging and absurd is more widely defined than mine.
Let’s get back to Nioh, though, with a little thought experiment: say you’re reviewing a game for publication. You’ve heard different things about the potential length, and know a little something of the pedigree of its developers, so you do whatever research is available ahead of time and make any schedule adjustments you think necessary to properly absorb the game before the deadline hits (not to mention the time you need to write the article). Not to get too inside baseball here, but in Nioh’s case, this was only a handful of days between when codes were sent to media outlets and when the review embargo was lifted, so you’re really on a crunch for spare moments to do as much as possible. When it comes to games like this, then, that line between challenge and absurdity early gets pretty thin pretty fast. Coming to terms with a complex game with some byzantine controller demands has added pressure applied to it when you’re pressed for time. It’s then that you start to wonder –when did “hard” become “too hard?”
Maybe I was lucky. I settled into a playstyle in the early phases of the game, and used my prior knowledge from playing the betas that were released over the last year (plus whatever previous training the Soulsborne games granted me) to make my way through the game relatively painlessly. Other reviewers aren’t having such a smooth ride, though, and this will be reflected in their write-ups of Nioh as they post them. And they should be, really; a review is a snapshot of your experiences with the game. When you find that game more on the stupid side of the difficulty curve, you can probably bet that your readership will find it to be similar. Nioh, for its part, has a couple of bosses that are downright relentless and a few later sub missions that the game tells me that I out-level, but get stomped on whenever I try them. It’s made to be this way, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that people might have different levels of ability with this kind of stuff, so many players won’t be able to see the end credits.
But Nioh is a sort of unique double-whammy. It’s a hard game, without question, but it’s also one that encourages the player to make use of all of its mechanics. Let me be clear here, there are a lot of mechanics, too. If you go back to my review from last week, you might notice after you get a good dozen hours into the game that I didn’t even mention half of them. That’s because Nioh is so loaded down with things to accumulate, adjust, and append to just about everything within the game that it’s just too much at times. If you’re a person that wants to make use of ever advantage at their disposal and really get under the hood with Nioh to see the gears working, you’re dropping down a deep hole of minutiae. It’s just too much for most.
I took a bull-in-China-shop approach to reviewing this game. After going through all of Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne solo, I found early on with Nioh that I needed to come up with a plan and stick to it if I were to get through to the back end of the credits, and then I dropped my shoulder and started plowing through. I dipped my toes just enough into things like the Blacksmith and Twilight missions to get a taste of their use and benefits, but found them unnecessary. I eventually bailed on doing sub missions to muscle through the story. I think chunks of my soul had seared away in the process. But I did it by sacrificing the compulsion to learn multi-stance combat techniques and tweaking oddball equipment loadouts.
I stand by the score I gave Nioh, but a part of me is wondering right now if outlets like Polygon, who took some unfair flack for finding the game more difficult than they expected, are having a more robust experience for forcing themselves to play it in ways that I didn’t. If that’s the case, then Nioh’s frequent punches to the face of your gaming ego was worth the trouble, then. If not, it’s still a fine video game, even if you have to suck it up and get good at it the old fashioned way.
I don’t feel the need to debate the merits and flaws of hard video games; there’s plenty out there for everybody to enjoy no matter what your skill may or may not be. Realize, just for a second, though, that you’re hitting buttons with your thumb in concert with moving small joystick with the other, and not performing surgery. By that, I think readers and commenters need to temper their expectations with media outlets that work on a fleeting timetable to finish hard adventure, and understand that “hard” becomes “stupid” quickly. Nioh, for some people, is where they might find that line. But if you’re digging deep within yourself this week to try and hit Nioh’s summit, I can only leave you with the same wisdom I impart on everyone: