Fumihiko Yasuda isn't afraid to lean into Team Ninja's fearsome reputation for difficulty. The Nioh 2 producer tells a group of journalists assembled for a new demo, "I hope you enjoy dying." And die we did. A lot.
Nioh was able to find success by pitching itself as an even more unforgiving Dark Souls, earning it a loyal following among Soulsborne aficionados for whom FromSoftware's semi-regular releases don't come frequently enough. But in the three years since the release of the original game, the discussion has shifted, with some wondering whether difficulty for the sake of difficulty is ultimately a positive.
It's for that reason that my subsequent interview with Yasuda dwelled quite a bit on hitting the balance with Nioh 2. We talked about accessibility options, but also "good difficulty" versus "bad difficulty"; improving Nioh 2's difficulty balance, and the always ferocious Tengu Raven. We also covered Team Ninja's future after Nioh 2, and whether it wants to continue down its current path into the next generation of consoles.
USgamer: Would you say Nioh 2 is easier, harder, or about the same as the original game?
Fumihiko Yasuda: It's a hard question. It depends on the way you look at it. In a way it's harder because the burst attacks that counter are pure reflex, so if you're not good at them then it's really hard. But the usual samurai action that you expect from Nioh 1 is still there, so that's similar. If you use the Yokai skills effectively, that will make your life a lot easier, so in that respect Nioh 2 won't be as hard.
A lot of people found the Dark Realm [special areas with more difficult enemies] quite difficult during the public tests. What was your reaction to that feedback?
We had two different solutions. One was to simply give the enemies less HP, and the other was that in the open beta, there was nothing good about the Dark Realm for the player; it was just purely punishing. A lot of them felt it was too unfair. We made sure that the more you risk, the more you receive. So we wanted to make sure that there was a good reward for hard effort.
What's been your main takeaway from the public test in terms of how you want to improve the final version?
Probably the difficulty part, including the Dark Realm. We have a strong concept around the game design that we want to make, but we didn't want the players to feel forced. So it was a great way to find out what the players felt through the open beta just so we could adjust the difficulty before final release.
You could say there's "good difficulty" and "bad, unfair difficulty." What are you doing to ensure that Nioh 2 has more of the former?
We didn't make the game hard just for the sake of it. We play and make the game every day and get numb from it, so we made sure to listen to what the players are saying and make sure it feels right when they die. It wasn't our intention to make a hard game, but we try and listen to the players.
Last year there was a lot of discussion around accessibility options in hard games like these. For example, lower difficulty levels, sliders to adjust damage output for enemies, accessibility for disabled gamers. I'm wondering what your take is on that conversation, and whether you plan to implement any of that in Nioh 2.
It's a good idea to provide different options to the players, and I personally like to be able to choose the difficulty when I play games. But one thing we wanted to do with Nioh was that when people say, "I have completed Nioh," I wanted it to mean the same thing. So it had to be still challenging to everyone. But in Nioh 2, we prepared different ways to approach enemies than before.
So if you want it to be hard, you can play it like Nioh 1. If you want it to be more accessible, you can play in online co-op, which is a lot more balanced than Nioh 1. Also, another thing that we added are the button assignments, so you can configure the button layouts the way you want.
How did you want to improve the level design for Nioh 2?
Nioh 2 levels will have a lot more variation. We got feedback from Nioh 1 that a lot of the levels were quite dark and quite repetitive, and lack of enemy types was another thing. The level you just saw in the demo was quite dark, so it might have seemed similar to Nioh 1, but each level will have a different character, different enemies, different colors, so it will look different.
I'd be interested to hear more about how you're making the enemies more varied for Nioh 2.
Because Nioh 2 has the Yokai aspect, it was a lot easier to be more imaginative and play with the Yokai moves and appearances, so it will have a lot more variety. Also, depending on where you are—a small area, a spacious area, high, low—you will see different enemy types. You will see some of the older enemies from Nioh 1 as well, but there will be a lot of new ones.
The Raven Tengu was one of the most notorious enemies in the original Nioh. What did you think of the reaction to the Raven Tengu, and will they be returning to Nioh 2?
[laughs] There will be loads of Raven Tengu in Nioh 2, and they will have new moves. But at least its eyes will flash red when it's about to do a big move, so as long as you're close enough, you can counter it. You might even find it easier.
There have been a lot of samurai games lately: Ghost of Tsushima, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and now Nioh 2. How do you feel about that in relationship to Nioh 2?
It's really nice to see the Japanese culture being so popular outside of Japan. It makes me happy. As for Nioh, we have the Yokai elements, so I hope people will enjoy that part of combat as well.
How are you going to expand the side missions in Nioh 2?
Most people played side missions just to unlock the main missions in Nioh 1, but in Nioh 2, the side missions will have more subtle effects. Sometimes you will only be to interact with certain characters in the side missions, which will add some little bonus story to the main story. Some side missions will unlock other side missions. So I think you will see how much more versatile they are in Nioh 2.
This is the second Nioh game for Team Ninja. Is this sort of genre now Team Ninja's primary interest?
It's been six years since I started working on Nioh. I enjoy it, and a lot of the dev staff like making action games, so it's been a great experience. With the new generation will come new opportunities and potential, so I look forward to seeing what they are. It will be great to work on something totally different, but we don't know yet.
Nioh 2 will be out March 13 on PlayStation 4. We had Soulsborne expert John Learned check out the beta last year, and you can find his thoughts on why it's a brutal brick wall of difficulty right here.