The last two months have been remarkable for fans of Japanese games and with the release of Nioh for PlayStation 4, the trinity of highly anticipated, long in-development games is now complete. We're, of course, talking about Final Fantasy 15 and The Last Guardian - two games that, along with Nioh, were first announced more than a decade ago. All three games have undergone a significant transformation since then but perhaps none more than Nioh. What we have in the end is a dark, brutally difficult action game that combines the best elements of Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls into one remarkable package. This is, simply put, Team Ninja's return to form.
At first glance, Nioh is a visually conservative game - one that pushes modern post-processing effects and cutting-edge rendering techniques off to the side in favour of a more reserved presentation. It won't leave your jaw on the floor by any means, but over time, it leaves a strong impression. In many ways, it feels like an evolution of what Team Ninja started with the 2004 iteration of Ninja Gaiden - sharp, clean lines and detailed texture work combine with fast, fluid animation to great effect. Rather than relying on features such as parallax occlusion mapping, for instance, Nioh instead adds surface detail through sheer geometric density taking a page from Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne, in a sense. Large, rocky surfaces undulate convincingly while fully modeled tiles make up the ground on which you walk.
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Nioh simply oozes with atmosphere thanks to stylised lighting and weather effects. The rain-swept village encountered early on fills the screen with droplets which, using a screen-space technique, take on light from surrounding torches and attacks. Texture work is solid with plenty of detail slathered across each scene while specular highlights allow for dynamic lighting to play nicely off the detailed terrain. Character models feel like an evolution of what we've come to know from Team Ninja with rounded edges and clean lines. You'll run across a handful of low resolution assets here and there but the overall appearance is solid.
Team Ninja games have traditionally focused on sleek, polished visuals, a fast frame-rate and fluid animation but Nioh takes things further by offering players a selection of options to tailor your experience. There are three gameplay modes available here - action mode, movie mode and a variable movie mode. Action mode focuses on delivering 60 frames per second at the expense of image quality, movie mode is instead capped at 30fps with a priority on resolution while variable mode tries to find a middle ground. All three options are available on both PS4 and the PS4 Pro.
On the PS4 Pro, adaptive resolution feature plays a significant role then. After pixel counting a huge number of shots, we came across a wide resolution variation in each mode. While using the action mode, Nioh presents resolutions including a full 1080p, 1728x972, 1665x940, 1472x828 and even 1280x720 in rare instances. In comparison, the movie mode sees a variation in resolution ranging from 2160p to 1800p down to 1440p. The variable movie mode even exhibits drops to 2304x1296 at points. This option also enables slightly higher resolution shadow maps, while the increased pixel count helps enhance texture filtering.
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The same technique is used on the standard PlayStation 4 console as well. When using the action mode, Nioh spends a lot of time at 720p mark but regularly jumps up to higher resolutions, such as 1600x900 or 1728x972. You can expect these higher resolutions when pointing the camera towards less complex scenery but on average, image quality is visibly less refined on the base system. For those demanding improved image quality, movie mode bumps the game up to 1080p at 30 frames per second. We still spotted the odd drop in image quality now and then but it's 99 per cent locked at 1080p using this option.
With so many different modes available, the big question is one of performance. To start with, Nioh defaults to the action mode preset on both systems. Team Ninja games have a rich history of focusing on 60fps: from Dead or Alive to Ninja Gaiden and even Metroid Other M, its games are all about that high frame-rate and Nioh is no exception. As one would hope, the action mode hits and maintains this target frame-rate almost all of the time while providing reasonable image quality. As a result, we feel that action mode on the PS4 Pro is the best way to experience Nioh.