More than ten years after its announcement, the PlayStation exclusive Nioh reemerges under the guiding hand of Team Ninja for release this year. On the surface, Nioh feels like a cross between Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden 2004 and after playing through this rather challenging alpha demo - available now on the PlayStation Store - we're excited by its potential. But for many, it's the ability to trade resolution for higher frame-rate that makes this a fascinating release.
Team Ninja titles have always aimed to deliver smooth 60 frames per second experiences but Nioh throws a curveball in the mix with user-adjustable performance options. The options menu presents players with a choice between movie mode - which focuses GPU resources on image quality - or action mode, where frame-rate takes point. The choice is clear-cut: the former serves up a 1080p resolution, while the latter sees a drop to 720p, along with reduced texture filtering quality.
Beyond that, the general visual quality is strictly average at this point. There is some nice texture work and the atmosphere is absolutely fantastic, but the world seems to be polygon-starved and animation is often stiff. It's not an unattractive game by any means but it does feel decidedly last-gen in many ways and considering its roots, that isn't surprising.
On the other hand, Nioh benefits greatly from lightning fast loading times. It's a difficult game and death comes quickly but, thankfully, there is virtually no waiting between retries. It's almost instantaneous. In the wake of Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne, this is a much welcome change of pace that helps prevent the game from becoming overly frustrating. You're always ready to try again.
Of course, it's the performance metrics that are perhaps the most interesting thing here. Action mode doesn't quite hit the target, but it gets you close to the traditional Team Ninja 60fps experience. In this 720p mode, Nioh averages around 55fps, but the busiest sections can see this dip even lower. It's far from optimal but thankfully, this is an alpha version and the development team has plenty of time to polish the game up for release.
It's only in 'movie mode' that we uncover real problems. Rather than simply capping the frame-rate at 30fps, Team Ninja allows the game to run free in this mode, delivering between 30-40fps across the run of play. The end result is a jerkier experience that feels inconsistent and unresponsive in comparison. However, without a frame-rate cap in place, Nioh is actually something of a rarity in the console space, actually becoming a performance benchmark of sorts for PlayStation 4, demonstrating the difference in frame-rate between 720p and 1080p. It's not clear if this split will remain in the final game or if it's simply included as a result of the game's alpha state.
We should expect to see performance improvements by launch but beyond that, Nioh actually presents an interesting case for the potential PlayStation 4 Neo. Perhaps when Nioh is finally released later this year, the base mode will deliver 60fps at 720p while an enhanced Neo mode could deliver 60fps at a full 1080p instead. Beyond that, if the movie/action split remains, perhaps we'll see 1080p in base mode and an actual 4k while in Neo mode. It's certainly something to consider.
One thing to bear in mind here is that Sony is asking for all developers to ship PS4 titles with Neo functionality from October 2016 onwards, so games like Nioh - and basically every Q4 title - should stand to benefit in some form. The extent of that support remains to be seen though, and will almost certainly change on a title by title basis.
In its current form Nioh offers potential. It's rough around the edges but the core game is promising and we're hoping the issues highlighted in this alpha code can be smoothed out by launch. This is a game that would benefit greatly from full-on 60fps gameplay and we're hoping that all of the stops are pulled out to reach this target. Team Ninja has a lot to prove after the disappointing Ninja Gaiden 3 but it might just be on the right track here - we'll certainly be keeping an eye on the game as its development continues.