When it was released as a PS4 exclusive earlier this year, Nioh was greeted by a generally favorable chorus of reviews. But it was complicated. In particular, fans of From Software's Dark Souls series were conflicted. For some, Nioh was a disappointing imitation of their favorite franchise; for others, they recognized that the game built a number of new systems on top of gameplay that was, admittedly, very similar to Dark Souls.
With games as diverse as The Surge or Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild containing Souls-like elements, it is time to recognize that Dark Souls-style games are not a franchise, but have evolved into a sub-genre of action RPGs. It's pretty easy to define the characteristics of the genre, too: action that relies on timing and learned skills, a focus on stamina management, as well as a host of mechanics and concepts that inform level design, enemy placement, and story progression. Seen in this light, Nioh is a generally successful product, with a unique setting, challenging and layered combat, and a fair amount -- some might say too much -- of complexity around its various systems.
For PC owners unfamiliar with the game, Nioh is set in 17th century Japan and the main character is an "Irish samurai" named William, who travels to the country to obtain Amrita, battle the supernatural yokai and eventually becomes embroiled in a much wider power struggle. Nioh's story, although a little opaque, is an interesting historical mashup and allows the game's world to be populated by a large cast of characters from both Japanese and Western history and any number of supernatural and human enemies.
Because it is in the Souls genre, Nioh's level design is often convoluted and marked by unlockable shortcuts that circle back to the game's relatively frequent shrines (i.e. bonfires), where the player's character can level up, align with various guardian spirits, and call on fellow players for co-op help. Praying at shrines of course re-spawns enemies and as with any Souls-like game, progress through every level is incremental and marked by frequent player death. Death means a loss of accumulated amrita -- the game's primary currency -- which can be collected on the next run.
Where Nioh really departs from the genre is in its combat, which is fast, subtle, and a good balance between offensive stances and combos and defensive moves. Enemy AI is pretty vicious and capable of surprises and bosses almost always rely on a signature hook, move, or ability. There is a staggering number of weapons and variations of armor, all grouped into sets and levels and stat-altering properties. Nioh is a seriously loot-heavy game but there are opportunities to sell off unwanted gear both at shrines and at the home-base.
Nioh has so many systems at work that understanding and managing them all can feel cumbersome and the game would certainly benefit from a "less is more" revamp. Not every system feels impactful and some are relatively broken. Nioh does not have PvP invasions, replacing them instead with the opportunity to challenge an AI version of a player character that died at a specific spot. Succeed in this duel and you'll earn their gear (and, of course, lots of Amrita) upon defeat.
As a PC port, Nioh comes with relatively few options in the graphics department, making it feel like a bare-bones transfer. Which is not to imply that it doesn't look great: it does. On the console there was a option to choose cinematic visuals (at 30 fps) over performance (at 60) and this is still there. Nioh is a game that really must be played with a controller, so mouse and keyboard devotees will feel slighted and at a disadvantage. The PC edition includes all of the game's DLC.
As a console game, Nioh was in my top five titles of the year and it was a pleasure playing through it again on PC. Nioh moves Souls-like games into their own genre by expanding the vocabulary of combat mechanics and gameplay systems while keeping a structure, flow, and feel that align with From's signature games. PC purists may balk at some of the port's paltry options but the game's elegant and precise combat shines just as brightly on PC as it did on the PS4.