Nioh Complete Edition (PC) Review – A Bloody Good Journey
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Sony (PS4), Koei Tecmo (PC)
Release: 7th November 2017 (PC)
When Nioh was announced in 2015 as a PS4 exclusive it seemed more like a japanese history themed Dark Souls, than a unique new game from Team Ninja. Yet with its release in February 2017 most of these doubts were quickly washed away as it turned out to be more and less than Dark Souls ever was at the same time. Now Koei Tecmo surprisingly brought Nioh to PC, promising a 60fps experience without having to rely on a 720p resolution if you don´t own a PS4 Pro. Also, please forgive me the occasional Dark Souls comparisons …
Set in the 17th century the game follows William, a skilled, english swordsman , who finds himself imprisoned in the London Tower only able to flee with the help of his guardian spirit. However in a world corrupted by Amrita a guardian spirit able to sense said mysterious power, such as William´s, is desired by everyone. So it doesn´t take long until the antagonist Kelley makes his move, stealing William´s spirit, robbing him of his most precious friend. Naturally it doesn´t take long until he follows him to a country, divided by war and home to giant Amrita sources, called Japan.
As known from Koei Tecmo published games, Nioh draws a lot inspiration from classic japanese history, all major characters for example are written after their historical counter-part. Obviously though Team Ninja doesn´t tell a true story, merely taking those models to infuse them with all sorts of dark fantasy elements. The chase after Kelley, a man clearly representing pure evil with all his cliché power, serves as a great set-up to send William throughout Japan, forcing him to cooperate and inevitable being dragged into the ever-present war. While realistic themes or events can often seem forced on a game, rather than integrated into its structure, it does a wonderful job at mixing those two worlds together.
Unfortunately the plot that binds everything together is Nioh´s biggest problem. As previously mentioned it´s doing a great job in connecting the two worlds without focusing too much on either of them. During one mission the focus lies on Kelley or Yokai, in another on saving a shogun from a castle. However, during this whole act of balance the game loses an important aspect, an interesting world. Tightly bound to the historic war, the story sends William through whole Japan, spending only a few hours at each location and character. At the same time it tries to tell an emotional, linear plot with gorgeous pre-rendered cutscenes. Yet, due to the little time we spend at each place, there´s never a chance for the game to establish a giant lore nor offer enough time for the characters to develop or even tell a comprehensible story. Where Dark Souls for example constructs a giant world, connected to depressing tales about loss or humanity, Nioh is held back by too many limitations.
Nonetheless, Team Ninja´s game is still an incredible great looking one. Even though the gorgeous cutscenes don´t tell a lot, action-packed scenes can look incredible great. In combination with the quite good in-game graphics, which may lack in terms of texure resolutions but deliver amazing lighting effects in exchange, that are able to truly shine on higher resolutions now, simply looking at the levels can often be a breathtaking experience. Especially bigger outdoor areas feature some real neat artistic vision. Sadly Nioh suffers from a very inconsistent artistic level. Slashing enemies in an infested village or harbour are moments where the graphics really shine, dark caves full of mushy textures … not so much.
Besides this problem, there isn´t much to complain but a lot to praise about the presentation and even the PC port. Having a port run smoothly for some hours, offer resolutions up to 4K, acceptable performance with a GTX 1070 on 2K and a few graphic options like shadow quality is outstanding for Koei Tecmo standards, making it an occasional crashing but enjoyable experience.
Although the story may be half-baked, Niog has one thing able to carry nearly everything into new heights, I´m speaking of course about the gameplay. Team Ninja had tons of experience developing great fighting systems and now they used their knowledge to forge a combat system to surpass every game in this “Souls”-genre. As usual there are different weapon classes, linked to classic japanese weapons like the kusarigama, featuring their own move-set and playstyle. Dual swords have a short-range but probably deal the highest DPS in the whole game, while axes deal the highest damage per hit, for instance. Yet with the addition of the “stance”-mechanic, every weapon comes with three stances, each associated to their own use case and move-set, between William can freely switch whenever he likes.
Additionally Team Ninja introduces another huge change to the stamina system, equipping enemies with this vital meter as well. In combination with the Ki-pulse, a move able to restore stamina after executed attacks, more moves can be executed if the pulses are timed perfectly, letting Nioh feel like a damn fast game, if you desire it to be one.
Especially later on it becomes possible to actually combo the stances together through smart Ki-pulses, finish with special moves and completely drain an enemy´s stamina, finding the perfect move chain for each enemy isn´t just a lot of fun but incredible diverse. Considering that Nioh heavily relies on “Souls”-mechanics in pretty much every other area, mastering the incredible huge set of actions for each weapon is essential. As expected it´s an incredible hard game full of giant, heavy hitting enemies and death inevitable means, having to recollect every drop of lost Amrita without dying. Anyone who played a Souls game until now should know how they work.
Nioh also introduces a lot similarities to the Diablo series, namely the focus on loot and with it the devaluation of latter. From Software´s creations in particular treated armor or weapons like truly significant objects, tightly bound to a lore, their location and design. Team Ninja dropped this concept entirely, shifting the focus on gear pieces as exchangeable loot, obtainable by nearly every enemy. Surely it´s neat to have an instant reward besides experience, creating the same effect as many other loot based games. In exchange the game sacrifices an important world building device by removing any unique aspect a weapon may have. Sticking to one is rare during the first hours, while finding new, far better ones isn´t a rarity. At the end it´s up to you which way you prefer.
Furthermore the mission design isn´t much different, relying on single, detached levels, rather than a giant, connected open world. Lasting around 2-4 hours every level, even the DLC ones, are reasonable big enough to build a little story, setting or artistic vision for each one of them. Compared to the masterfully crafted world of a Dark Souls, being teleported from level isn´t nearly as immersive, constantly dragging the player away from the world, presenting them new, better but sometimes worse ideas. Especially side missions, little quests to mainly gain experience or loot, take place in either already visited areas or little, unimpressive, extra ones.
There is a lot to love about Nioh, like its excellent combat able to surpass everything I´ve seen in recent 3rd person action games or the great artstyle, able to mix historic myths with dark fantasy. Yet Team Ninja didn´t create a Souls-clone here, in fact they probably reinvented the formula by concentrating more on “video game” aspects like the combat, tons of loot, side missions or clear structure in general. Playing Nioh feels completely different, sometimes way better in combat, sometimes way worse in its plot. Actually it´s not exaggerad to say, Nioh is the opposite of a From Software Souls game, heavily focusing on delivering a great gameplay, which results in a captivating experience, not vice-versa … if you get what I mean. By no means is it worse, just different. During my time I quickly fell in love with it and made itself a place in my heart through its truly fantastic gameplay. Even though the port might not be what this game deserved, it gets the job done and shouldn´t hinder you from buying this gem.
[A Review Code was provided by Koei Tecmo]