Wot I Think: Nioh – Complete Edition

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Describing a game as X meets Dark Souls is a sure way to invite mockery and contempt. It’s lazy critical short-hand, people will say, and they’re often correct. Well, prepare to mock. But only a little.

I promise I’m not being lazy when I say that Nioh is Dark Souls meets Sengoku period Japan though, and to prove it I’m going to use that short-hand as a starting point rather than an end-point. Fortunately, where Nioh differs from Dark Souls is far more interesting than where the two games overlap.

In Dark Souls, I find myself replaying areas over and over again because I need to, whereas in Nioh I make the return journey deliberately. The mission selection map shows that a new threat has taken hold in a village I’ve already cleared, or that those mines are infested again and I dig into my wardrobe, pick out my fanciest outfit, and head back into the fray.

The areas range from the Tower of London to burning villages and demon-swarmed battlefields. None have the weird architectural and layout quirks I associate with the best of the Souls games, and they’re all discrete areas accessed via that map screen. There’s no attempt to connect them into a cohesive whole, as you may have realised given that most of the game is set in Japan while the Tower of London is indeed in London.

Immediately, the lack of interconnectivity distances Nioh from its Soulsful inspiration. I also expected it to be a mark against the game, given how important the looping labyrinths of From Software’s trilogy are to the sense of exploration and dread. The actual design of the individual areas in Nioh, in terms of both visuals and layout, is far simpler as well. I never found myself struck with the sense of awe and mystery that Dark Souls so often inspires, when I became an amateur archaeologist down in its undying ruins.

It’d be easy to look at Nioh and think it’s borrowed Dark Souls’ favourite hat and coat, but is wearing them all wrong. I wouldn’t have spent fifty hours with the PS4 version if it didn’t have something to offer though, and in fact it’s the way that Team Ninja have remixed the Souls formula, adding just enough ARPG-style looting and collecting, that makes it stand out from its inspiration. It might have borrowed the hat and coat, but it’s got an enormous wardrobe of its own to accessorise with, and the joy of dressing up is a very real part of the experience.

Rather than having a few armour sets and weapons with important backstories and unique abilities and stats, Nioh throws swords, guns, bows, trousers and hats at you as if it’s trying to make up for a lifetime of missed birthdays and Christmases. Every enemy is a potential giftbox just waiting to be cracked open and I quickly became intimidated by the sheer quantity of stuff clogging up my inventory.

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Fortunately, it’s easy to sort, however you might want to sort it. Just want to go with whatever has the highest ratings? Nioh lets you do that. Want to pick a certain type of weapon? Sure thing. Interested in ranking by rareness? OK.

I ended up hoovering up a lot of rubbish, sometimes really snazzy-looking rubbish, as I carved my way through Nioh’s monstrosities, but the initial feeling of being overwhelmed soon passed and I settled into a rhythm. And that’s Nioh’s great strength, that sense of rhythm. It’s most obvious in the excellent combat system, which is fast, flowing and demanding, but it’s also noticeable in the sense of progression and inventory management. In among the stacks of low-level junk dropping out of enemies, there are rich veins of quality. Whether it’s a particularly fine piece of armour, either completing a look you’ve been refining for a couple of hours, or a particularly excellent example of a weapon type you’ve never spent much time with, the loot system is designed to prompt changes in playstyle.

And it’s the combat, which is Nioh’s core, that shows how flexible your character can be. He always looks a bit like Geralt playing dress-up in a new world of horrors, but you can make him your own.

A few hours in, I was confidently switching between stances and weapons. In one fight, I’d begin with a lumbering set of heavy smashes and swings using a legendary odachi, and finish with rapid flurries of stabs, kicks and dives delivered with a small but swift katana. Every fight has a tactical element, whether you’re luring a soldier into a narrow path or toward a cliff edge, or feinting and pirouetting between spheres of corruption, purifying them to recharge your stamina and weaken your opponents.

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Many demons can leave their mark on the world, creating temporary localised dead zones that prevent your skills from recharging. To counter them, you push the right button at just the right time, making most encounters reliant on a combination of positioning, timing and planning. It’s exhilarating, rewarding skill and reflexes rather than simply relying on equipment levels, and I can’t think of a combat system I’ve enjoyed more in any RPG.

It’s unfair to compare Nioh to other RPGs though because it leans so heavily into that combat system that it really has more in common with Devil May Cry and the like than with even the action-heavy design of a Souls game. While it’s not as kinetic as a pure character action game and not quite as stylish, Nioh is more in line with what I’d want from a modern Streets of Rage than anything else. It’s a series of superb fights, book-ended by bosses of varying quality.

They’re often great, the bosses, but they sometimes make the mistake of throwing new rules into the mix that ignore or circumvent the skills you’ve learned in the build-up to the big showdown. That said, I never felt anything less than ecstatically heroic when I finally managed to kill each of them.

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Even when I don’t appreciate their attack patterns or the little tricks and secrets required to best them, the bosses, like the rest of the creatures, always impressed me. That’s because they look great. Horrible and inventive, the designs draw on Japanese mythology and are as weird and fascinating as any menagerie I’ve ever come across. It’s rare that I want to dig as deep into bestiary descriptions as I did here, even if the story that holds all of the lore together feels flimsy.

There are historical characters aplenty and it’s probably entirely possible to get invested in the rewriting of great battles that incorporates spiritual invasions and talking cats into the mix, but although I enjoyed some moments either for their silliness or their impressive scale, I’d have been quite happy skipping the lot. Nioh is a game about perfecting a fighting style, or several fighting styles, and every time it slows down to justify that in any way, I want to hurry it along.

Oddly, it’s in the story that the mission select screen and disconnected levels break the flow the most. The way new side missions and high difficulty versions of completed maps unlock makes it very clear that forward momentum through a plot isn’t a serious concern at all; Nioh is all about enjoying the moment. Or moments, rather. Tens of hours of them.

It’s massive. After a fairly naff tutorial mission, you’re dropped into the first proper area out in Japan and you could vanish into the game for days at that point. You can fight the ghosts of other players or trigger mini-boss fights, you can hunt down shrines to unlock new mystical ninja abilities. I sometimes forget what the actual objective I’m supposed to be focusing on is because there are so many tempting distractions at every turn.

Finish a level and there’s most likely a reason to return rather than moving onto the next one. Strip away all of the other reasons as to why you’d return and, yes, it’s probably to grind for better gear, but every new mission changes enemy positioning and even basic functions of a map’s layout. I never found myself taking repeat trips in the hope of a better equipment drop – as I might in, say, Destiny – because I was always learning how to play the game better rather than simply waiting for it to allow my character to be good enough to pass the next hurdle.

Unfortunately, also unlike Destiny, Nioh’s journey from console to PC has not been completely smooth. The game has no mouse and keyboard support to speak of, in menus or in game. You would likely be better off playing a game like this with a controller anyway, but it’s still an annoyance. Otherwise things are mostly fine: you have to change resolution in the launcher rather than via an in-game menu, but there’s support for 4K resolutions, it seems to run well enough on older PCs, and you can choose whether to cap it at 30 or 60 frames per second.

Nioh is like Dark Souls in so far as the halts to progress and forced repetition of fights function. You move forward, you fall, you learn, you try again. Experience works almost identically, tied to a form of currency that must be cashed in before death, adding a delicious risk/reward factor. The masses of loot initially seem like the biggest difference between this and a From Software game, and could kid you into thinking Nioh is a game about raising stats above all else, but it’s not. That’s a small part of it. Really, it’s a game about raising your own level and mastering one of the finest combat systems ever put on a screen. It might be standing on the shoulders of Souls, but it’s got its eyes on a very different destination.

Nioh: Complete Edition is out on Windows PC today and is available via Steam for £39.99.

28 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Thulsa Hex says:

    As someone who eyes Souls comparisons with suspicion, this does look pretty intriguing. I do want to try it out eventually, but it’ll probably be some time next year at this stage.

    • ramirezfm says:

      As a souls game it’s rather poor. As an arcade rpg it’s quite awesome.

    • killias2 says:

      One thing I wish this review discussed a bit is that the nature and pacing of combat shifts throughout the game. At the beginning, it is very Souls-y. You only have so many moves and so much stamina, so you have to be very careful to time your blocks and attacks and not leave yourself open. It’s deliberate and difficult, but you eventually get a mastery over it.

      However, by the NG+, you’re basically playing DMC or a Musou (Dynasty Warriors, etc.) title. It’s not uncommon for me to dispatch multiple enemies in a row at range before sparking some absurd super move to take down a more powerful threat immediately. At times, you’re just mowing down hordes of enemies, though while still being vulnerable to a few missed timings in a row if you get sloppy.

      There are other reasons it starts mores as a Souls-y title than it ends up as well. At the beginning, everything is new, and it’s interesting to get a sense of this world. However, the level design is pretty repetitive, and there is a fairly limited set of enemies. You’ve seen 90% of what the game will normally throw at you pretty early in the game, though they have lots of ways of jacking up the difficulty.

      I’d also say that they spent more time on level design early on, assuming that the game would coast on its mechanics over time. TBH, this assumption turns out to be pretty fair. Regardless, it also means that the game starts feeling very much like a Soulsborne title.

      Overall, Nioh has a great combat system and some interesting Souls-y elements early on. But it’s how that combat system evolves and develops that really sets it apart. It really deserves top awards for just its combat and progression design elements, which are some of the best in business.

  2. Banks says:

    I’m very interested, as I love the setting and enemy design, but I’ve heard so many mixed opinions about level design and repetition. I also don’t have enough free time for a 40+ hour RPG…

    • Angel Dust says:

      It’s level design is poor compared to the Souls games (disconnected, flat, linear, samey and there are no nooks and crannies to explore) and while the enemy design is indeed cool, most of the time you’re just fighting the same 2-3 enemy types over and over.

      • Banks says:

        Thanks for the reply. I think this is overall not a game for me right now.

      • Premium User Badge

        maenckman says:

        You are right, Nioh’s level design doesn’t stand a chance against Dark Souls. But then again, which game does? ;-)
        The combat system on the other side offers a great variability and feels awesome.
        As others have stated, the obvious comparison to Souls games falls short, as Nioh is a quite unique mix of genres.

  3. Procrastination Giant says:

    While I do think that Nioh is a pretty fine game I do have to say that I still think that Dark Souls comparisons should come with a huge, possibly obnoxiously blinking caveat in this case, since it’s such a wildly different beast and oh so much more game-y and arcade-y. Expecting it to be a proper soulslike in ways other than gameplay and difficulty could quite possibly lead to disappointment, since it’s essentially much closer to a diablo-like with static levels and souls character progression and combat (well, bloodborne combat, really)

    Even the itemization is basically ripped straight from diablo 3, since you’ll quickly start to ignore any piece of gear that doesn’t belong to that one set that fits your character build.

  4. abstrarie says:

    The first island or two have decent variety but you can tell where the budget ran out. No new basic enemies are encountered after like the first 10 or 15 hours. The bosses remain unique, but I wish there were some different low level guys to fight. Level design also gets worse the further in you get. But the combat is very very good so I didn’t end up minding that much. One thing it definitely shares with dark souls is that sense of empowerment by the end where enemies that used to be a problem become a breeze. The difference with Nioh though is that they become easier mainly due to how much better you are at the fighting system rather than loot or stats (though those certainly help).

  5. Dominic Tarason says:

    An extra couple tech notes from my first couple hours with the game:

    ‘High’ shadow detail seems to bring no visible improvement, but does give you a hefty hit to framerate. I’ve got everything else maxed and my 1060 is giving me 60fps locked if I drop shadow detail down one notch.

    Also, the game is a 30gb download, decompresses to 75gb on your hard drive, and using Windows 10’s Compact feature, it crunches down to a mere 22gb at little to no cost to load times.

    I recommend the little open-source tool CompactGUI to make the process even easier. Just point it at your Nioh directory, click go, go make a cup of tea and enjoy some biscuits. Should be done within 10 minutes and you’ll be 51gb richer for it.

    Weirdness aside, this is much nicer-feeling than the already very good PS4 version. 60fps lock, plus a bunch of quality of life improvements have been patched into the game since I last played on PS4.

    And yeah, while parts of this is Souls, I’d say there’s a good chunk of Ninja Gaiden and Onimusha in here as well. Not quite as fast as NG, but faster than your average Souls.

    • falcon2001 says:

      Windows 10 compact mode? Tell me more. Hadn’t heard of anything like this.

      Edit: sounds like it’s this: link to technet.microsoft.com – news to me but good news at least :)

      • Sheng-ji says:

        That was one of the big deals with gamers moving on to windows 2000, and onto the Windows NT line. You could do it in ME and 98, but it wasn’t as good, and I think you could in theory in 95, but you just wouldn’t ever want to cripple your computer like that.

        • Dominic Tarason says:

          I gather it’s something Windows 10 significantly improved on. Performance loss when running compressed stuff is bordering on nonexistent now, and you can often shave 50% or more file-size off many things.

          Only problem is that it’s a pain to use normally, but CompactGUI gives it a proper interface:
          link to github.com

          Neatest feature is that it automatically cross-references with a database of games with known compression ratios, so if you’d only save 500mb off a 60gb install, you’ll know it’s a waste of time before you hit the button.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I was surprised not to read any mention of Ninja Gaiden, and not only in this review but most others as well. I mean I understand that Dark Souls pretty much set a new bar for this whole genre, but these guys have been making arcade RPGs for a good long while now. It’d be weird not to find the roots there and not in Dark Souls, however big its influence might be.

    • spacedyemeerkat says:

      Well, Dominic Tarason, I don’t know who you are or where you’ve come from re RPS in the last few weeks, but tonight I shall drink a beer in your honour for that compaction tip!

  6. vahnn says:

    I bought a PS4 Pro to play Nioh (and also Bloodborne). What a waste of $400!

    Not sure why I didn’t like Nioh. I tried really hard to like it. Loved the Souls games. Play(ed) DS1 and 2 with gamepads, and DS3 with keyboard and mouse. There was just something weird about how Nioh felt that rubbed me the wrong way. The combat’s great, the monsters are cool, the setting is great (even if environments are boring), and there’s lots of stuff to fiddle with to create a perfect, unique character… But I just didn’t like it.

    I mentioned the gamepad/keyboard use because I’m adept at both forms of control, and after 560+ hours of Dark Souls 3 and another 400 between DS1 and 2, I feel keyboard and mouse is superior. Playing Nioh with keyboard and mouse is pretty much the only reason I’d consider purchasing it again for PC, so with the news that there’s no support, this is a definite no. If they ever patch it in in the future, it’s going to have to be legit af.

    As for Bloodborne, that game plays like a slideshow with bad input lag. Kudos to all the people who can do it without being bothered half to death by it, but I can’t do it.

    TL;DR: Add solid keyboard/mouse support and I’ll consider giving this another shot.

    P.S.: Anyone want to buy a barely-used PS4 Pro?

    • svge says:

      I don’t remember any frame dropping in Bloodborne or a lack or responsiveness and that was on an old PS4.

      • Procrastination Giant says:

        It definitely has some slight framerate issues here and there. Hairy or particle-heavy bosses (Amelia and The One Reborn spring to mind) in particular can be a bit rough. The real issue are the horrible (and well documented!) framepacing issues, though. Even when it’s running at a “stable” framerate it never quite feels smooth and always has a slightly sluggish feel.

        Bloodborne is one of my favorite games of all time and From Soft’s strongest title, by far… but technically it’s honestly a bit rubbish.

      • Vandelay says:

        You must be one of those fortunate people that can’t tell sub 30FPS. Bloodbourne regularly drops a fair bit below that.

        It’s awesomeness outweighs those issues though. It is definitely the best of the Souls games (can’t comment on Demon though, as I’ve not played it.) It could do with some more interesting build variety and the chalice dungeons are a tad bland, but beside that it is a near perfect game. Pity it can’t be on PC, so we can brute force our way through the tech issues.

    • fish99 says:

      HDTVs usually have >30ms of input lag (the equivalent of 2 frames in a 60 fps game) but if your set has game mode it should reduce that. Really doesn’t help that BB is capped at 30fps too and is prone to dipping lower, and has frame pacing issues (aka stuttering).

      The game mechanics are sympathetic to all these limitations though, and I’d say there’s only a couple of genuinely hard bosses (both in the DLC).

  7. Person of Interest says:

    Are those screenshots captured in-game by you? They look a little fishy, and in the past you’ve sometimes included a little disclaimer when the screenshots are provided by the publisher or an outside source.

    • Procrastination Giant says:

      The steam store page uses the same set of screenshots, so I’d say they’re from the publisher’s press kit.

  8. michelangelo says:

    I’ve been visiting Nioh in the playstation demo and it was rather awesome to have to learn entirely new mechanics, which goes to handling every single type of weapon. The atmosphere was there. Also, a story of history grounded yet interestingly crafted fiction layers upon, which being praised by critique authors I respect and few of them much better aware of Japan history than myself, is just another reason for me. Postponing for time-consuming reasons since its release.

    There is only one question I have. Can you turn off the whole UI now? It was not possible in the demo/trial.

    I found out that no UI makes me enjoy and play Dark Souls (1st one, rest series is hit/miss to me), and especially Bloodborne much better. One focus on the game and not losing focus by watching how many potions one have, or how bad one’s health is at the moment.

  9. Suopis says:

    Bought deluxe edition on PS4. Was very excited by the game. But after finishing it twice my advice would be to play the first time through. Do all the DLC and have fun then leave it be.

    Because all the new game cycles with additional loot rarity, loot crafting into better loot, abnormal amounts of money needed to do it right and constant inventory management is far from fun. Also destroying bosses in several hits completely forgetting any strategy or on the other end of the spectrum bosses killing you in two hits if you do not have an optimal build really left me with a sour taste.

    The game has amazing combat system, but the “play it again for the loot” mentality really bogged the game down for me.

    • MonolithTMA says:

      Yeah, the loot grind got really old in NG+. I had already done all this work to have pretty good gear and suddenly it was almost all outclassed. I was thinking “Nah, I’m not going to do this all again.” Still a great game though. I’ll probably pick it up during a Steam sale.

  10. Jazzhole says:

    The more I play Nioh, the more it looks like a DMC game that decided to become a Diablo game, rather than a Soulborne game. I’m really amazed at the difference between my initial thoughts on the game based on streams and letsplays, and my thoughts now, once I actually played it. It’s more than worth it. And it’s probably my GOT of 2017, because I’m having the first playthrough of DS1 levels of excitement with it.

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