When given the opportunity to interview a staff member from a reputable Japanese studio, I cannot say no. Team Ninja made its mark many years ago with the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, and while the latter tends to be better known for an ecchi minigame collection now, that still does not diminish the impact that Team Ninja’s games have always had on the action game genre as a whole.
Which brings us up to the Nioh series, yet another bold step forward for action games and Nioh 2 is absolutely no different. With the game’s upcoming launch on PC and Steam, we were given the chance to chat to Nioh director Fumihiko Yasuda, who gave us some valuable insight behind the development of the franchise that you just can’t get anywhere else. For example, the potential sexy Yokai that could’ve made it into the game as enemies, or the fact that difficult games are akin to spicy food. For all of that and more, filtered through a translator via an international Zoom call, just read on below.
Nioh was announced back at E3 in 2005 but didn’t launch until 2017. Can you give me the short story of what happened in those 12 years? Was the team just too busy with other projects?
[Fumihiko Yasuda] As you noted, the game was announced in 2005 at E3, and it went through a lot of different design changes. Over those years, Koei and Tecmo merged into what you have today with Koei Tecmo as one company, and it was much further down the line when Team Ninja was chosen to be the development studio that would actually take on making the game right. So, eventually, that was released in 2017. So, that was the process from the initial announcement to the merger of the two companies and, eventually, it becoming a Team Ninja developed title.
Nioh followed the story of William Adams, a historical figure, but Nioh 2 follows a character that you can create. What made the development team make that switch from an established historical figure to a created protagonist?
[FY] With the first Nioh, you had a historical character, William Adams, as the main character, and that gives you one type of game where you have a specific story that’s being told with a specific protagonist that all the players can share. But with Nioh 2 the dev team wanted to give players the agency to be able to make their own character freely and to experience the story in the way that they would like to with their own original protagonist. But the story is the same in the sense that they’re going through a lot of the same actions, so they do get to share the same story, the same kind of adventure. But really both of the games share this really immersive action gameplay that’s the core of both titles. And we really feel that’s a very important aspect that both titles share that all players can experience regardless of the title and regardless of the protagonist, it’s just that very immersive action gameplay that ties them all together, and it’s a very key core aspect of the games.
I think a lot of players would agree with that as well. However, I have to say, I do really like the aspect of a historical protagonist. I personally had a hope that Oda Nobunaga’s African retainer Yasuke was going to be in a potential future Nioh game, does that mean that’s never going to happen now?
[FY] That’s definitely something to consider for the future, not necessarily Yasuke, but just utilising historical figures as the main characters. But I am a fan of Yasuke as a character, like William he came from a country outside of Japan, in this case, Africa, and then came to Japan and became a samurai. So that’s also a point that they share and it’s also something that’s really interesting to me, but in terms of them being a character in a new game, there is a possibility for a historical protagonist to take up the role in the future, but that’s all it is right now.
It has been said that there are currently no plans to make a Nioh 3, is there any particular reason for that?
[FY] In terms of a sequel right now, Team Ninja would like to focus on working on new titles, so there really isn’t a plan for Nioh 3 at this point. But after creating some new projects and gaining some new experience and skills from those new potential projects, I would like to go back to the series at some point, utilise all the experience and new skills that we gain from some new projects, and then potentially, go back into the series at that point, and create an even greater game to surpass Nioh and Nioh 2 and to create something even better.
Absolutely, absolutely. And what about a potential Ninja Gaiden sequel?
[FY] Nothing to announce or note specifically this time, but if the Ninja Gaiden series hadn’t existed, then there wouldn’t have been a Nioh series. So that’s a really important series to Team Ninja. While we don’t have anything specific to announce at this time, I would like to say just look forward to some potential news for some kind of announcement in the near future.
That’s good. So how does the team balance the difficulty of Nioh with all of the mechanics in the game? Is that a game of just trial and error, or did they have a really good idea of how this was going to work in the beginning?
[FY] The main way that we’re balancing the game is really through a process of trial and error. But of course, we want to make sure that we have a specific goal, or a specific kind of idea, or thought process in mind when going about balancing. And there is a wealth of systems and gameplay elements in the Nioh series. It really is just a matter of trial and error, and making sure that we have some kind of idea in mind when going forward with the balancing process.
Are there any weapons, fighting styles, or bosses that got cut from development in Nioh 2, or is it as content complete as the initial vision?
[FY] So in terms of the stances, the skills, and weapons, we’re really happy with all the content that’s been added in. But in terms of the Yokai, there’s a lot of different creatures and monsters from Japanese folklore that didn’t make it in. In Japanese folklore there’s a lot of incredibly powerful Yokai, there’s also a lot of comical ones that could have been interesting to add, and a lot of sexy Yokai that could have appeared in the game, but there are just so many to add and only so much development time. So that’s definitely an area where there were some ideas that were floating around that maybe didn’t make their way in.
You were kind of making it sound like an X-rated Yokai Watch then, but that’s good too. How does Nioh distinguish itself from the likes of Dark Souls while still taking inspirations from FromSoftware’s franchises?
[FY] So, the Team Ninja staff are fans of the Dark Souls series. So it’s not by coincidence that there’s influence there, they’re all big fans of the series, and that’s definitely something that they take to heart. But in regards to your question, a few points that definitely stand out would be, for example, the interactions between the player and enemies during those really intense battles. Other points would be that Team Ninja’s very famous for the way enemy AI is designed, so you’re going to get a really high level of variation in how the enemies are going to react to the player, which gives you a wealth of different experiences every time you play. That is something that’s a very big Team Ninja staple. And also we added in a lot of elements from the hack and slash genre, for example, going and collecting different loot drops, equipment, and weapons as you go along. So that’s something that is very important in the Nioh series, as well as taking on those elements of the hack and slash genre.
Why do you believe that this brand of difficult action game has become its own genre in recent years?
[FY] I really feel that, with the Souls genre and the masocore genre in general, some of the reasons for it getting so popular would be that it really allows the player to choose their own strategy and overcome challenges and obstacles. So it’s that level of satisfaction for completing or overcoming a challenge mixed with the fact that you can come up with your own strategy or your own method of tackling those different obstacles. So there are games that take a more casual approach to games, or more streamlined approach. And that has its own flair. It’s great that there’s a wealth of different other titles out there. The Soulsborne or masocore genre, in general, gives players something that no other genre is really giving them at this time. And that for players that try one of these titles, and then overcome a big challenge in there, that feeling of satisfaction and achievement is the reason that they get really invested in it, and then just continue to play it and love it for, potentially, the rest of their lives, and just become big fans of the series. So those are some of the key elements for sure.
[FY] Just to add one other little caveat to your question, though… If you think about spicy food, anybody can make something that’s incredibly spicy. But to make something that’s spicy and delicious is quite more difficult, right? So, if you’re eating something that’s just spicy, you’re not necessarily going to come back to it. But if it’s spicy and very delicious, there’s an aspect to the game that’s not just about the challenge – or the food in this case – that makes you want to come back to it. And that’s a really important part of Soulsborne and masocore titles, in general, is to have something that keeps the person, either eating the food or playing the game in terms of the player, coming back to that experience.
Good. I actually love that analogy. Are there any secrets in Nioh or Nioh 2 that players haven’t found yet? Or are there any new secrets to be found in the PC version of Nioh 2?
[FY] Players should keep an eye on the names of the Bloody Graves that you can find scattered throughout the Nioh games, if you go up to some of them, specifically the preset Bloody Graves that the dev team had put throughout the game, there’ll be some characters or enemies appearing from them that have specific names that contain inside jokes from the dev team. So I would like everybody, including yourself, to go through and look through all of those preset graves and try to see if you can find the little jokes that are hidden in there through the character names.
Nice. How has Team Ninja found working on the new Xbox Series and PS5 consoles and do you think these machines will change the kinds of games Team Ninja develop?
[FY] We’re releasing Nioh 2 Complete Edition on PS5, so we’ve had time to work with the newest hardware, and after getting a chance to develop a title for the newest hardware we’re seeing the improvements with the SSD and just how much faster the load times are on the newest hardware. I would like to try and take on an open-world style game in the future. So that’s definitely something that I think this new hardware will give us the ability to try out.
Excellent. So how many members of Team Ninja are actually qualified as ninjas?
[FY] There are 200 staff members in Team Ninja, and they are all ninjas.
Excellent. Great to hear. I have to ask, do you have an opinion on which is better: Naruto or One Piece?
[FY] [Laughs] Naruto.
Yeah, it had to be, you are Team Ninja, after all.
[FY] Yeah, there are also voice actors from Naruto that take on roles in Nioh as well. In Nioh 2 specifically, Naruto’s Kakashi [Japanese VA Kazuhiko Inoue] also performs the voice of Oda Nobunaga.
Excellent. Can we expect to see Ryu Hayabusa in a new game anytime soon, Ninja Gaiden or otherwise? I keep asking about Ninja Gaiden, I’m sorry.
[FY] Yeah, so that character is the most important character from all of our franchises. So, considering he’s so important, I would definitely like to have him make an appearance again in a game coming soon, and I would like to announce details about that in the future, as soon as possible.
Sounds great. How has the Coronavirus pandemic affected the workflow of Team Ninja?
[FY] In regards to the process in general, there were a lot of effects of the Coronavirus on everybody’s work style. Particularly for Team Ninja, there’s a big process of working from home, and not working from the office as much. So there was a process of transitioning to that new work style for Team Ninja in the beginning. We really wanted to make sure that we took into consideration the health of all of our staff, that being of utmost importance. But I feel that now that so much time has passed, and we’ve really gotten the hang of working amongst this new environment that the world is in right now, it feels like we’ve achieved the same process that we had before COVID as well. So we’ve really gotten the hang of how to work in this new environment.
Well, that’s really good to hear. I am running low on questions, which I’m sure is a relief. I just want you to know that I would absolutely play a side-scrolling beat ’em up with the Dead or Alive cast. I know that’s not much of a question, but you had to know.
[FY] Yeah, that would definitely be, from a design perspective, very retro. I would definitely like to consider making something like that, but I’m not sure we could make it anytime in the near future though.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Okay, I’m just gonna finish off by asking if there’s anything you think that I should know or that our readers should know.
[FY] I wanted to note that the Nioh series is where it is right now thanks to all the fans and everybody that’s played it up into this point. Thanks for all of that support. The complete edition of Nioh 2 will be released very shortly on February 5, coming up very soon. I hope that both the existing fans of the Nioh series try the game, try the complete edition of Nioh 2, and also people that have never experienced this series as well, hopefully, they come in and give the game a try. Team Ninja is working on a lot of new titles that are coming up, and I hope that everybody can look forward to those, and keep an eye out for all the future news, and try those games out in the future.
Perfect. Well, thank you so much Yasuda-san for taking the time to chat with me today. I really, really appreciate it.
[FY] Thank you so much.
Next: Nioh 2 Review: Rage-Inducing, Soul-Crushing Fun
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TheGamer Guides Editor. Opinionated about Nintendo.
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