There are a lot of action puzzle platformers in the video game space, with new ones appearing approximately every 6.7 hours (at least that’s my estimate, I may be wrong). Some are more heavy on narrative, while others focus on amassing loot, weapons or armor. A few are roguelikes, where death means a restart through a random maze of levels. Nocturnal has a pretty focused mechanic — we won’t call it a gimmick — that helps it stand out from the crowd. But is that singular idea a good one?
Nocturnal’s story is centered on Ardeshir, soldier of the Enduring Flame. Ardeshir returns to the island of Nahran because a deadly Mist has shrouded it with suffocating, poisonous darkness. Your task is to lead Ardeshir to the depths of the island, discover the secret of the Mist and free the island from the inky fog. Along the way you’ll encounter NPCs, victims of the Mist and texts to help explain the mystery. None of the NPCs are voiced, unfortunately, which would have added a little more character to the slightly skeletal, bare-bones tale. The NPCs themselves are pretty forgettable.
The Mist can only be beaten back or dispelled by fire, so it’s lucky that Ardeshir has a sword imbued with flame. That’s his only weapon, but as he progresses, it becomes a more powerful and flexible one, with new abilities. Aside from some coin hidden in breakable containers, there isn’t a lot of loot to collect. Nocturnal’s main loops are exploration, puzzle solving, platforming and combat.
Nahran itself has a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces, but they’re similar to the kinds of levels seen in other Metroidvanias and 2D platformers. There are lots of spartan rooms, elevators, libraries and vaguely gothic, dungeon-like environments. Thanks to the torches you’ve lit along the way you can figure out where you’ve been, but some sort of map would be welcome. Generally, there’s not a lot of backtracking except when you die.
The Flaming Hook
Nocturnal comes down to this: you have a flaming sword which dispels the Mist and dispatches enemies. Your flame sword is on a timer, so you constantly need to re-ignite it from the torches you light along the way. Some of the torches are also switches that open doors or move platforms. Often a series of torches are part of a puzzle. You also use fire to burn tapestries to reveal clues, and while lit, your torch can also magically heal you. As long as you can stay out of combat long enough, you can sneak in a heal or two.
As you progress, you unlock upgrades that let the sword stay lit longer or give you more health. The upgrade tree is compact, mainly because the game is so narrowly focused on its core mechanic. Because Nocturnal is a platformer, Ardeshir can dash/dodge and jump. Jumping is a bit unrefined and laggy enough to be frustrating when precise timing is critical.
Outside of the Mist — exposure to which will kill Ardeshir in seconds when in darkness — enemies some in pretty standard forms. If you’ve played these kinds of games you know that archers are weak to melee, polearms must be dodged and swords should be approached dead on. Nocturnal does some cool things with its fire mechanic, but its combat is less inspired.
Don’t Get All Misty
Nocturnal has an attractive, hand painted style that doesn’t use the retro, pixel art approach common to so many Metroidvanias. The vaguely Arabic or Mediterranean-themed areas are less organic creations in a real place than puzzles waiting to be solved. Lighting and fire effects are well done, and the ominous Mist feels oppressively heavy. Nocturnal’s sound design and music are spare. Like the visual design, the music is focused on intimations of exotic scales and Middle Eastern rhythms.
Nocturnal has a strong core mechanic that generates some interesting puzzles and game play. Aside from that, the environments and story aren’t especially interesting, and while there is progression and a bit of depth, there’s some frustration, too. Nocturnal does a lot with its basic premise, but the rest of the game feels like an afterthought.
***PC code provided by the publisher for review***
- Strong core mechanic
- Some excellent puzzles
- Decent combat
- Environments and story are thin.
- Sound design and music are bland.
- Some frustrating platforming.