Nioh: Complete Edition PC Review

There is no doubt – even though it is technically the second entry in From Software’s Souls games – that Dark Souls has inspired a sort of sub-genre for action RPGs that other developers are inspired by. No matter if it is 2D or 3D, titles like Lords of the Fallen, Salt and Sanctuary, Titan Souls, and The Surge (with more games to come, such as Code Vein), have all taken bits of From Software’s popular series and tried to replicate elements, but I feel they never quite managed to capture what made Dark Souls so good. Earlier in the year, Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja released Nioh for what seem to be a PlayStation 4 exclusive, due to the huge market focus from Sony for the game, but just recently it was announced for PC and released a few weeks after with a subtitle the Complete Edition; featuring the main game and all the DLC included. I never managed to give the game a go on PS4, but after playing the PC version, I am surprised at how well the developers have managed to make a game that takes bits of Dark Souls, but twist it to make it its own thing, to the point that I feel this is the first game that truly rivals the Dark Souls series at its own game.

Nioh tells its Sengoku era story in a more traditional way, filled with cutscenes and dialogue, unlike the vague story that one passively learns when playing the Souls games. The protagonist in Nioh is William Adams, who is loosely based off the English sailor from the 1600s that arrived in Japan after 19 months at sea and became one of the few western people be given the authority of a samurai. There are some changes to the factual events that took place, since the story behind Nioh is one based on supernatural elements. Some how, William became an Irishman in his move to a video game, who is hunting down an enemy known as Edward Kelly in Japan, while England and Spain are in battle over a mythical resource called amrita (found in Japan), hoping the material will give their side an advantage in the Anglo-Spanish conflict. I always enjoy stories that twist historical figures and events with a fictional story, and Nioh does it well, blending in plenty of Japanese mythology into a plot that has enough to be enjoyable without over-forcing the story in the way of gameplay.

You only need to spend an hour or two with Nioh to clearly notice which mechanics are lifted straight from the Souls series, but even then, there are enough differences that keeps it engrossing. Death is one thing that will be familiar for Souls fans, and unless you are a master of combat and reactions, such a thing will not be avoided, as Nioh is unquestionably a challenging game. It plays into the death, reborn, find my amirta (souls) before dying again cycle that manages to get people hooked on these types of games.

Shrines act as the game’s bonfires, respawning enemies when using them to save. Dying sends the player back to the last activated shrine, but with all your amirta dropped and access to an equipped guardian spirit gone – an animal being that provides passive bonuses and an ultimate attack – until returning to the grave where you met your demise to collect them. Nioh is even more limiting in regards to how it handles death, as if you die before returning to your grave to claim amrita, not only do you lose those, but you also lose the ones currently gained, since it’s related to the guardian spirit, and the lack of one means you do not drop amirta on death. The spirit returns to the player back at the shrine when dying before claiming the dropped amirta, losing a double dose of the stuff unless you decide to call the guardian spirit back to you, a function available at the shrine, but this destroys the grave and any amrita residing in it. There is a very useful item called the Summoner’s Candle that will call your spirit back to the shrine while keeping all the lost amrita, a wonderful thing if you happen to die with over 100,000 amrita in hand before using them to level up William’s various stats.

Structure is more traditional in Nioh, as the game is played out with missions selected on a world map, with each one being a self contained stage with an objective (kill or find something), reminiscent of Demon’s Souls, but without the central hub. Level design is mostly good, capturing the substance of the folklore Japan, although, the first few stages do not display this, the game gets better as the levels go on, with themes based on Japanese castles, ninja strong holds, plains, mountains, forests, battlefields and snow covered villages, but occasional there is a dud packed in that feels either simple or uninspiring. Since side missions are reused maps but with a different objective and time of day, it can be a bit of a drag having to go through the dud map again. The designers have littered stages with deathtraps, be it from falling off into a river, getting squished by a spike trap or being burned alive, there are many ways to met your end without the enemies being involved, meaning patience and a keen eye is a must on a first visit to a new stage.

Stages never offer the sense of exploration one finds in a new Souls world, but I feel the stage implementation was never meant with that target in mind, plus, the smaller scope with these self-contained stages limits their size. These are environments for battles, and they do a great job in delivering tense situations against the foes that inhabit them. There are secrets hidden, such as the small tree spirits called Kodama that enable blessings at shrines to increase drop rates for specific categories of items,  while random chests and shortcuts are here to unlock a way back to the safety of a shrine, and it is possible to lose your bearings in an section (those mountain caves…) but don’t go in expecting to be wowed by discovery.

But I was wowed by the combat, and for a game like this, it’s arguably the most important element. I took delight in how its tailored for fast action, most likely due to Team Ninja’s background with character action games, which has transitioned well into Nioh to deliver an engrossing combat system that requires people to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Now it’s not a conversion of Ninja Gaiden-esque mechanics – players can’t simply mash light or heavy attack to their hearts content – as there is stamina (Ki) to manage that will limit spamming attacks, plus, you still need to be smart in how you approach enemies, as it is easy to have the unexpected happen and be decimated, or worse, get surrounded by too many enemies to deal with where even running might not help when all hell is coming down from range and melee combatants. Defence and movement are important, with a dodge, block and dash all available, and all using a piece of the Ki when performed (taking a hit while blocking depletes some Ki). Magic is also a part of combat, giving plenty of options for William. Elements can be added to weaponry with to give it elemental damage, or use spells to alter an enemy state, such as make them vulnerable to damage or slow their movement.

Managing Ki is of the utmost importance, and going over the limit forces a dizzy state that leaves William open to an attack until a portion of Ki has recharged. This is costly, because enemies do a lot of damage, so giving them a free reign to pummel William is not exactly ideal for survival. Ki is so vital that the developers added an extra dimension with the Ki Pulse, a move that enables recover of Ki within a specific time frame after an action, leaving a red bar to signal what can be recovered if the Ki Pulse is performed correctly. This is simply a timing mechanic that is pulled off by clicking a button at the right time to stock Ki and keep the assault going, or to use for an emergency move, as performing a Ki Pulse reverts William back to a neutral state, enabling quick reflexes to perform another action.

Extra help with Ki management comes with William’s access to three stances (low, medium, high) across all the game’s weapon types, axes, swords, rifles, dual swords, Odachi, tonfas, bows, just to name some, and William is able to equip two melee and two ranged weapons for quick switching during gameplay. Each melee weapon type has a set combo string within those three stances, which are effectively fast, medium or slow attacks, but increase the damage the higher the stance. The stances enables players who might enjoy the heavier weapons, but want them to be faster, able to adapt a lower stance to sacrifice some of the damage for faster swings. Stances are also used for enemy positioning. A short or crawling enemy will often have to be hit with a low stance, unless one of the other stances swings down to the ground, while enemies that are good at blocking forces the player to switch stance to get around this, unless you have enough Ki to waste on chipping away their Ki, resulting in the same situation as the player when out of Ki, a stunned enemy. It’s great to see a game in this subgenre force stamina on enemies, as it adds an extra dynamic to the combat, giving player options to try force the drain of Ki and take an advantage of the tired enemy.

While there aren’t hundreds of weapon or armour types in the game (7 melee, 3 ranged), there is a huge focus on loot that is very similar to game’s like Diablo, using similar colour schemes to alert the items rarity, meaning plenty of similar designs, but each with their own stats. A single mission can be littered with loot, as most enemies will drop something upon dying. I often found myself carrying an impressive amount of gear – players can hold 500 items at once, with the rest going to a stock house to retrieve or store items – that I would hold a select few and sell the rest in exchange for amrita. Nioh also includes blacksmiths on the world map that enable merging items together to improve them or even trans-morph gear to another if you have a favourite sword that you just want to keep. Customisation is a strong focus of Nioh that I am sure a lot of people will enjoy delving into over the course of this game’s 65 plus hours first playthrough content, with more through a new game + mode. All these features come together for an exhilarating, speedy combat system that opens up variety in how the player approaches a battle, I’d say more so than other similar titles. My only real issue with Nioh is with the bosses, some of their art looks fantastic, but in terms of actual fighting, none are truly expanding on what exists already in the sub genre.

Koei Tecmo is an interesting bunch when it comes to their PC versions, with a lot of their ports either being poor or including the bare minimal support when it comes to the features people are used to on PC. Nioh: Complete Edition isn’t a bad port in terms of performance, and while not a stunning title, it does have moments of beauty among its sharp presentation. Sadly there are some lacking features here that should have been included. Graphical options are limited to few options – shadow quality, ambient occlusion, dynamic reflections – and a frame rate lock of either 30 or 60. There is no middle ground when it comes to the frame rate, and there is no way to enable unlocked frame rate for anyone who has a higher Hz monitor. Resolution can be set all the way up to 3840×2160, even going as far as to render that resolution internally for anyone with a lower resolution monitor. Performance is mostly solid at 4K, with some advanced reflections during high special effects (tested on 1080 and 1080ti Nvidia graphics cards) causing the frames to drop , but this was absent when moving to a lower resolution.

Initially, this review was going to be published on the 27th November, but an announced by Koei Tecmo about a feature I had an issue about was getting addressed in a patch later in the week. Before this patch, the game lacked proper keyboard and mouse support. Now, for me, that didn’t matter, as I’m a gamepad user when it comes to playing games like this on PC, but not everyone is, and with keyboard and mouse such a vital part of a PC, it’s bizarre that Koei Tecmo had this missing from the game. Now, though, I can say that after the patch, this issue is addressed and players can use the mouse/keyboard combo and customise their buttons as well.

Clearly with the focus on combat and challenging enemies, there are similarities with Nioh and From Software’s Souls games, but unlike other games that have built themselves to be copies of the successful formula, the team behind Nioh have added their style into the mix to make it more than another game trying to lure the fans of hardcore action RPGs to it. Those additional ideas build on an already solid foundation, but enable Nioh to standout above the rest of the inspired clones with its hectic, faster paced and varied combat and addictive loot mechanics, to go toe-to-toe with the company that initiated this new wave of challenging combat, going as far as to better them in some areas. This is a true achievement by Team Ninja that no other developer has managed to accomplish when trying to take on what From Software has been expertly delivering over the years.

9 out of 10
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