One of the best games of the year comes to PC, complete with all of its DLC, but does that make this the definitive version?
If you’ve heard anything about Nioh before it’s probably the fact that it’s a lot like Dark Souls. Which to many will mean simply one thing: it’s really hard. And that’s true, this is not an easy game. But there is so much more to Dark Souls’ appeal than just its difficulty. It’s clear that developer Team Ninja understands that, and while Nioh does rely heavily on other games for its inspiration this adds just as much to the SoulsBorne formula as it borrows.
We know for a fact that Nioh (the name is a reference to two Buddhist manifestations, if you’re wondering why they didn’t translate it for the West) did not start out as a Dark Souls clone because the game’s origins extend back long before even Demon’s Souls. It started life as a multimedia project in 2004, but before that it was an unfinished film script for legendary film director Akira Kurosawa. Although at that point we assume it was a more straightforward adaption of the life and times of English sailor William Adams (we strongly recommend giving his Wikipedia page a look as it’s truly fascinating).
At some point the game’s script turned Adams into an Irishman and added a supernatural element about Japan being overrun by demons, and yet there’s still a veneer of authenticity to the 17th century setting. The plot is pure nonsense but the Japanese historical figures and supernatural monsters, even the bad guy Edward Kelley, all have a basis in history and mythology. And despite all the game’s many absurdities there’s also a strange sense of pseudo-realism to the combat.
Team Ninja are best known for the Dead Or Alive and Ninja Gaiden franchises, and there’s certainly some aspects of the latter in Nioh. But as in Dark Souls there are no complex combos to learn in Nioh, and at its most basic level the combat revolves around generic light and heavy attacks. The introductory level set in the Tower of London gives the impression that the game is essentially just Dark Souls with Beefeaters, as you cautiously attack, block, and dodge – painfully aware that the game will only afford you one or two mistakes before ending you.
Each action runs down a stamina meter (referred to as Ki), although to keep things fair enemies have the same limitation. This not only makes combat a lot more tactical, but it means lesser enemies can be quickly overwhelmed if you know what you’re doing. You can also take one of three stances to emphasis attack, defence, and speed. And there’s also a trick with the right trigger where you can regain Ki if you press it at the instant of an attack.
Add to this five very different categories of melee weapon, ranged weapons including bows and muskets, and a magic system and you’ve got one of the most impressively layered combat systems we’ve seen in years. The basics are still extremely easy to pick up, but the subtleties are revealed more slowly, as you experiment with each system and perfect your technique for each type of enemy.
Nioh is an action role-playing game, so there are not only stats to consider, but proficiencies in each weapon type to be earned, a skill tree filled with unlockable extra abilities, the option to specialise in ninjutsu, and both a loot and crafting system. Some of these concepts are standard parts of the genre, some are unique to Nioh, and some are pretty obviously borrowed from Dark Souls.
The purposefully limited co-op options and collecting dropped souls (sorry, Amrita) when you die are one of the most obvious steals, but the variant on bloodstains is interesting, as it combines with the idea of invading Phantoms so that you’re fighting computer-controlled versions of other players that died on that spot.
Although Nioh does plenty to distinguish its combat system from Dark Souls the other main point of comparison is the levels and boss battles. Just like Dark Souls the levels do often wind back on themselves and have unexpected shortcuts, but they’re not connected into one giant open world. Instead you just select missions from a menu, many of which reuse the same level with just some small variations.
This seems unnecessary though as the game is both extremely long and there’s a great deal of variety to each area, from corpse-filled battlefield to underground mines and destroyed villages. As for the bosses, this is where the Ninja Gaiden heritage shines most clearly, and while again they’re not quite as cleverly orchestrated as Dark Souls’ best they are much more varied in appearance and tactics.
As the name implies, the PC version includes all three of Nioh’s DLC expansions. And while they still seem unnecessary – given how full of content the main game is – they’re all very good. But PC gamers will know by now to be wary of Japanese ports of console games, and unfortunately this is not one of the better ones.
It’s also not one of the worst, but the keyboard support is awful and the mouse just flat out is not used. The graphical options are a confusing mess of seemingly contradictory settings, which always seem to lead to random frame rate fluctuations even when you try to lock the game at 30 or 60fps.
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The PC version of Nioh is still perfectly playable, and with luck the problems will be patched out soon, but at the moment we can’t award this the same 9/10 score as we did the PlayStation 4 original. But Nioh is still a superb action adventure, and we won’t demean it by arguing whether it’s better or worse than the various entries in the SoulsBorne series.
Nioh also stands as further proof that games do not need to constantly nanny their players, worrying about whether they’re too difficult or complicated or obscure. If the experience is rewarding enough then anyone, from the most experienced to the least, can enjoy any game. And that is certainly the case with Nioh, even if you’d probably be better off with the console version.
Nioh: Complete Edition
In Short: A sloppy port but this is still the best SoulsBorne clone out there, with plenty of unique ideas of its own and some of the best combat of the generation.
Pros: Wonderfully nuanced and customisable combat system, with some great enemies and bosses. Clever level design and welcome range of graphical options. The DLC is great.
Cons: Reusing levels seems unnecessary given the length of the game. Limited online options.
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: 7th November 2017
Age Rating: 18