At my first 10 hours into the beta test for Nioh 2, I was ready for my well-earned temper tantrum. I am a child, and therefore, I will scream. The flailing of my arms and swearing on my lips has been a magma flow percolating beneath the mantle crust of my normally reserved state, the burst of "THE FUCK IS THIS" an eruption with, and I am not ashamed to say, some involuntarily flung saliva. And lo, I have mixed my metaphors and, to my credit, not chucked a controller into nearby traffic (for I am no savage). This is my life now. This is what Nioh does.
The Nioh 2 beta test is hard. I don't even want to lead you on to think I diplomatically mean that it's "challenging," or somehow simply "intense." No, this game is hard. Stupid hard in more than a few instances. Enemies can stun lock to the point of near death if they don't just kill you outright. Bosses will frequently one-hit kill you, often in unavoidable situations. The first game in this nascent franchise meant real business. The sequel, it seems, is cranking up the cruelty dial.
More Systems, More Everything
The last few days has left me with the feeling that Nioh 2 is about escalation over refinement. The first game kept throwing ingredients into the pan of its action/RPG/Diablolike/Soulslike/pain simulator paella. With all of the loot, stats to fiddle with, weapon stances to practice, and skill trees to dig into, it felt almost over-engineered. I personally went through the first game twice and didn't even touch mechanics like weapon forging. The beta presents all of these things and more right from the jump, along with new weapons and special Yokai Abilities, which are special attacks learned from rare enemy drops. It's a lot to take in at once for only presenting two full levels, one remixed level and an extra boss fight. These are games that heap systems on top of challenge on top of loot on top of (newly expanded) skill trees, and, as this beta proves, it can be difficult to play catch up.
Most of these things don't feel fully developed. Of course, this is the point of a beta test—a tool for developers to pinpoint those flaws and adjust—but every new idea that's been introduced is undercooked. Yokai Abilities are worthless in high stakes fights. They're fun to collect, but represent yet another system of statistical growth in a game overstuffed with them, and they typically placed me in harm's way while dealing low damage to little net reward. The new weapons are the same, never feeling as though they deliver enough damage or staggering foes when they should. I tried very hard not to fall back into similar routines from the first game, but eventually I wandered back to using heavy hammers and magic. It felt cheap, but I needed to see the end of the demo.
In fairness, the constant flow of loot from monsters and items found in the field still encourage experimentation. Though it's likely going to be adjusted for the final release, skill tree points are awarded liberally through weapon, magic, and ninjitsu use. It's unclear at this point if it will stay this way, but it seems likely that magic and ninjitsu will be untied to story events in the game so players can plan for respectively effective builds much sooner, which is nice. Since there are new specialty weapon stats like Yokai and Blessed weapons, too, it feels good to try out new gear just for a couple of fights and already have a skill point or two to spend the newly Sphere Grid-like skill trees. Even if, again, all of these new ideas aren't completely baked, it's a lot to play with, at least in the first level.
The Buddy System(s)
It all seems just a bit too much, all of these skill trees and menus and damage sponge monsters. To its credit, Team Ninja is addressing one of the largest flaws of the first game by implementing AI companions to help ease the struggle of both exploration and boss combat. I found three different avenues for this: first, players can use an item to leave a ghost of themselves for other connected players summon. If those aren't to your liking, an NPC companion of a higher level can be found in both stages, but at a higher summoning cost. Finally, one of the stages has a friendly NPC that helps guide you through the first half of the area. The actual AI, though, is relentlessly stupid across the board. No matter whom you summon or pal around with, they frequently stand around dumbfounded before being quickly killed. Their only utility is being a brief target to draw some fire away while they last.
NPC friendlies are often the self-selected "easy modes" for games like this, and I can certainly see them soothe the pain of Nioh 2. I can only hope that these are adjusted for the upcoming release. They don't need to completely carry a player through an encounter, of course, but they can't exist in the state that they're in now, especially given the difficulty level that the beta test presents. Of course, you're better served calling in another actual player from the online community, something the beta gives us access to, but for someone on a time crunch that doesn't want to sit around hoping other players are willing to help, the AI-driven player ghosts are a good alternative if they can be made to, you know, work.
Actual online co-op is better overall. The opportunity to be summoned into another player's game still exists, but players can now choose from the map screen to set up teams for level exploration. Again, this takes away some of the waiting for other players to volunteer to help when you're already in the thick of it as you can set up squads of up to three to go through a level from the start, complete with heaven-sent co-op resurrection opportunities. There are, of course, discrete mechanics to all of this that I sort of glazed over after learning dozens of other new systems, but it works well in the beta's state. Enemies seemed to be tougher up against three samurai instead of one, which means that it rebalances encounters according to team size, and thus keeps the game challenging enough.
Dumb AI, though, is especially egregious in the face of the boss encounters where you could really use a helping hand. Of the four bosses in the demo, difficulty spikes feel haphazard and unjustified. This isn't to say that enemy behavior is too erratic or that the stamina rules of the game simply stop applying to them (though it would occasionally feel this way), it was that Yokai bosses would employ a kind of "dark world" state that limits stamina recovery of your character. This could last for anywhere from 20 seconds to the majority of the fight, and is totally different from attempt to attempt. While this altered world state forces the player to employ the Nioh games' quick-recovery Ki Pulse mechanic (another system), the indeterminate length of time during these battles is just all over the place, and another key adjustment that can be made to balance out the challenge.
If I had to speculate, the challenge curve is perhaps the real reason this beta test is happening (other than building hype). The difficulty of enemies is much higher than even I was expecting coming from the first game. The beta, to its credit, is fairly robust with its packed levels to scour and stable online functionality. But given this past year's lengthy discussion of FromSoftware's Sekiro and its own jacked up difficulty threshold, it shouldn't be a surprise that Koei Tecmo will use the data from this week to tweak and adjust the amount of punishment enemies can dish out and take for the full game's release next spring. Compared to the closed alpha test that some fans were able to play in May, enemy types and their placement in levels that overlap with the current beta are clearly meant to ratchet up the stress. To me, this is a sign that Team Ninja wants beta players to go through the ringer to see what they can handle, and are likely looking over its options to change these for the spring 2020 release.
Here, in the cold light of day, I have tricked myself into thinking that it wasn't that bad. The first Nioh was difficult, after all, and I put that one down in a week. This, perhaps, is the great con of this franchise. In the moment, by smart play, constant repetition, or some sort of brute force, one can make it through a game like Nioh 2, but it isn't often pleasant. You have to know that you will be dragged face down through the muck. Reflection, though, gives you an opportunity to think and adjust, to see the flaws in your tactics and formulate new ones. It's a sign, for me at least, that I'm enjoying the overall experience. Nioh 2 has been giving me that so far, but it's got a way to go in terms of its adjustments.