By Jonathan Higgins / November 1st, 2012
Developer: Nicklas Nygren
Release Date: October 25th, 2012
Genre: Puzzle (Physics-Based)
Rating: ESRB E
Games like Cave Story, La-Mulana, and VVVVVV don’t just have a publisher in common. All three of these games, which a vast majority of you have heard of before, tend to be associated with a few common ideas: nostalgia, minimalist design, and (at times) brain-breaking difficulty. Over time, I’ve definitely associated Nicalis itself with these ideas. And that’s part of why I find NightSky so fascinating. This game is unlike anything Nicalis has ever published before, and may be one of the most unique experiences found on the eShop thus far.
To get some preliminary matters out of the way right off the bat: yes, this game could be played on PC for the same $9.99 asking price since 2011, so some of you may have experienced this game before (and possibly at a reduced price courtesy of some Humble Indie Bundle somewhere down the line). But at the same time, the eShop version of the game has a few things to boast over its PC counterpart: 1) There is obvious portability to the NightSky eShop experience; everything you loved about the PC version of the game is faithfully brought to the handheld, and 2) the 3D, as is consistent with Nicalis’ approach to the system with Cave Story+, VVVVVV, etc, is absolutely outstanding.
That’s out of the way. I realize most of you may have missed out on this game until now, so from this point on, my review shall focus upon the game itself.
A Definitive Example of Video Games as Art
A handful of you may be familiar with my philosophical approach to games in general. An even smaller handful have perhaps seen my editorial regarding this year’s Art of Videogames Exhibit at the Smithsonian here in the United States. After playing NightSky, I can honestly say this game would be an absolute front-runner if such an exhibit would ever happen again. More than any game I’ve ever played before, this one seemed to give off the impression of a living, breathing painting versus anything I would consider a “real” video game.
… which is to say, there is no story really. There’s no violence, no conflict, no rising action, no resolution—nothing. The player’s drive to continue relies solely upon the trace the game puts you in through how all its other elements work together to create something unique. As someone primarily driven by the story elements in games, I initially thought reviewing this experience would be folly for me. But by the end, I realize how wrong I truly was.
The visual and audio experience is truly visceral. As seen from the screens above, the game’s graphics are indeed quite minimalist, but at the same time they can be seen as an interactive abstract painting. While the game’s eleven “worlds” do tend to adhere to certain graphical conventions or themes (such as the Giant Leaf level featuring some forest elements, and The Void level featuring tons of stars and outer space-like elements), everything you ever see will look just like the screens you see above: shadows cast upon a brilliant night sky.
The soundtrack doesn’t adhere to many rules either. This isn’t going to be some fantastic testament to 8 or 16bit music like something found in Cave Story or VVVVVV, nor is it a lofty orchestral medley. It’s experimental jazz—nothing more, nothing less. The music doesn’t keep a sense of rhythm and doesn’t so much serve to accompany you through the experience of NightSky as much as accent it. So, while neither visual nor audio are truly groundbreaking or revolutionary, they serve as a means to invite you into the game.
Whether or not you stay, once invited, is another matter entirely.
The gameplay of NightSky does follow rules and conventions—tons of them. The point of the game is simple enough: roll ball across abstract stage by any means possible.
I made a point to put the term “physics-based” describing the game’s puzzle elements in the information above for a very good reason. NightSky functions entirely upon its physics, which are indeed conventional for the most part. Roll ball uphill, traction increases and you’ve got to hold that d-pad in the right or left direction just a little bit harder. Rolling the ball downhill, but don’t want to fall off the stage? You best gingerly press that d-pad like you’re carefully cutting the wire to a bomb, or the ball will roll barrel down the hill and…into the abyss.
Sometimes, the game warps its physics a little bit by putting you in certain areas where gravity can be reversed (directions are inverted as a result) or placing the ball in certain vehicles that do any number of things. Indeed, one does not simply roll the ball into the next area. The ball can be sped up with the Y button or come to a halt with the B button. Sometimes the ball is inside a plane that can fly, a bird-like contraption that must flap its wings, a strange beast that can jump across gaps with the push of a button, and tons of other strange contraptions. Furthermore, the game allows the player to control certain switches in areas that must be activated to make puzzles work properly.
The game’s first level tends to throw most of these things at you right away, but some of the crazier vehicles, switches, or other means of navigation don’t appear until much later on in the game.
And the game is sometimes cruel by taking away the ability to speed up or slow down, so navigating an otherwise simple hill by speeding up becomes a test of patience, or…sometimes complete luck. If you do fail, there are no death, lives, or game overs to fret. You simply restart the area you’re in, infinitely, indefinitely, until you advance about…three screens or so to the next area. The game consists of 11 levels and double or triple the amount of “areas” within these levels. “Areas” consist of three-screen puzzles that must be navigated in order to reach the next one. At any time, players can select from areas or levels they’ve visited previously, which makes for a great pick-up-and-play experience and reduces almost all frustrations one could find with a puzzle game.
Overall, these gameplay elements work with experimental music and visuals in order to create what amounts to nothing short of a hypnotic experience. NightSky is artistry at its finest, destined to be experienced and enjoyed by anyone who considers himself or herself a “higher-brow”, “sophisticated” type of gamer.
But Why Would Some Turn Away?
NightSky caters to a specific niche of people. You’re either captivated by this kind of artistry, and the game’s spell lures you in, or…you’re the type that enjoys conflict, goals, and other more tangible rewards in the games you play. NightSky does have its fair share of secrets (such as hidden items littered across certain areas that unlock something when they’re all found), and it also has a “Hard Mode” of sorts for replayability.
But this game itself is very polarizing. It’s not for everyone; I feel like some fans of Oprainfall (and more importantly, Nicalis) will turn away from this game because it’s so avant-garde. The game can be challenging, and if said frustration is enough to break the game’s spell over you, you may not find much reason to return once you’ve started.
This review is reflective of my personal experience with the game, however. And while I am mindful of my audience (some of whom would turn away from the game, as I stated), I have to judge this game based solely on the fact that it accomplishes what it sets out to do with very little, if any real flaws. I can’t call it “the perfect game” of its caliber because it is rather short and offers very little incentive to progress outside of the fact that it’s confident enough to assume you’ll be addicted to it throughout your journey.
But… NightSky is something that seekers of art over philosophy will truly treasure.