Fear is Fascinating…
(Note before reading: This review is concurrent with the patches and updates that have been applied up to May 11, 2016.)
So, have you ever had a Thanksgiving that just didn’t go your way? One of your relatives promised the best dinner ever, and since they usually make awesome stuff, you let them go for it. Then, in the middle of cooking, the power went out. In a desperate attempt to salvage the meal, they had no choice but to cook the rest of it with a a hot poker and a crème brûlée torch. What was finished was good, even great, but you had to pick through pieces of burnt bird and squishy stuffing in order to get to it.
…That’s what playing NightCry is like.
On the surface, NightCry is an atmospheric point-and-click horror adventure game in the vein of Clock Tower, where you lead your character around by clicking the mouse at things. Single-click is walk, double-click is run, and the game will play a noise and show a circle when you’ve grazed over things that you can interact with.
Sounds simple, right?
For the most part. While the actual controls work most of the time, sometimes simple exploration can get finicky when you have to edge over a click point in a certain way in order to access it. This can range from simply getting out of a room, finding a plot-critical item, or getting to a closet so the scissor-wielding maniac won’t chop you into chunky salsa.
I wouldn’t call the controls ‘awkward’ or ‘hard to use’, but it will take some getting used to, even for long-time Clock Tower fans.
For the most part, this is due to how the game is presented. Namely, its more cinematic approach.
While previous Clock Tower games had cinematic elements, NightCry goes for broke and treats each camera angle like it’s from a lovingly-shot horror movie. Music pipes up at appropriate cues (unlike at launch, where it was extremely buggy and didn’t even play half the time), the lighting effects are beautiful, and the developers use visual symbolism and color to striking effect to create an atmosphere that is, at best, nail-biting and suspenseful.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to get sucked into great colors, lighting, and music when they get in the way of actually playing the game. Click points are sometimes obscured by camera angles, and the lighting effects are hard to admire when they shine over flat textures that would have been laughed out of a PS2 game.
Graphically, NightCry has two modes: “decent” and “is that a glitch, or is that really the texture they went with?” Character models sometimes look fine, livened up with little animations that give character where the developers didn’t necessarily need to. At other times, they’re blank, wide-eyed, and expressionless, like blow-up dolls. The textures have a similar effect: most of the time they look all right, and even good, but then you get those moments where a room or object looks shiny and flat, like the texture didn’t render properly (or it’s covered in oil). Worse yet, there are times when the texture glitches out entirely, and either bleeds into the background or simply doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to. This leads to unnecessary breaks in immersion, such as when little black boxes start appearing on the edges of some object in the background, or when a character model’s face has about as much depth as the wallpaper.
Needless to say, the graphics aren’t always great, and technical issues are everywhere. The development team has been working on fixing them since NightCry’s disaster of a launch, which says a lot about their dedication to their product. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a good sign when the purchasing public has to be used as a QA team.
What about the game as a whole, though? How does NightCry hold up as a horror game?
…Honestly? Much like the graphics, it’s hit and miss.
NightCry comes off as a game that wants to have its cake and eat it: It tries to bring the atmosphere and artistic flourishes from Clock Tower: The First Fear together with the goofy exploitative violence and cheesy dialogue from its PSOne sequel, Clock Tower. Both games had different artistic visions in mind, and while they were great horror games in their own right, they knew when to be silly and when to be serious for maximum effect.
Most of the time, this makes NightCry a campy piece of spooky fun with fancy window-dressing, which I think may have been the point. The B-movie quality English voice track was Mr. Kono’s true vision for the dialogue, for example, while the far more nuanced and better acted (for the most part, anyway) Japanese track was crowdfunded and added later due to popular demand. While the campiness does work, and brings a delicious dollop of dark humor to the game, it also feels like two separate visions are constantly competing for screen time. One moment, I’m dealing with a legitimately heart-wrenching character death, and the next I find a serial killer turning to me in embarrassment because they were caught waiting for a movie to start.
The game’s serial killer du jour, the Scissorwalker, is handled in much the same way. Encounters are triggered only by traps and story set pieces, and while the game goes out of its way to make her seem like a pitiable tortured soul, she makes hilariously grotesque displays on hat racks, and can be thwarted by hiding behind a stack of funtime blocks.
Escaping from the Scissorwalker can get annoying, and certain mechanics – such as the dash mechanic and looking behind you – are functionally useless. Sure, you can do a quick dash to give you some distance, but that’s only going to make you run out of stamina, forcing you to either walk (and hope your pursuer’s character model is hung up on some stairs or something) or fall to the ground for two to three seconds, basically assuring you a game over and trip back to the title screen. I really like the idea of the stamina system, and with some polish and tweaking this could have made the chase scenes tense and pulse-pounding. As it is, it just makes things frustrating.
…the story can be described this way, too, come to think of it. NightCry is a lot of things, and does a lot really well, but the story is probably its weakest point, short of its technical issues. This isn’t because it’s full of bad ideas, or that the writing is particularly horrible. Dialogue can get cheesy, and there are typos abound, but there’s a good foundation for a story here. It could have even been great, had the majority of it not been left on the cutting room floor. From how scenes abruptly start and stop, how important exposition is simply ignored or left out, to how even the beginning of the game throws you into the story with little to no explanation, it’s obvious that a lot had to be taken out of the final product due to either time or budget constraints. What this leads to are characters who are hardly defined (you wouldn’t know that the tough-as-nails Monica worked two jobs and was from an extremely poor family unless you read outside material, for example), plot points that come out of nowhere and are hardly explained, plot threads that don’t go anywhere, and endings that are usually abrupt or anti-climactic. For my money, there are only two noteworthy endings, while the rest either don’t make much sense, or feel incomplete.
Overall, NightCry is a mixed bag. The atmosphere, Japanese voice work, loading system, memorable set pieces, campiness, and replay-focused design are great touches that entertained me for hours. The glitches, bugs, wonky framerate, emaciated story, bland puzzles, and uncertain vision? Not so much.
I enjoyed it immensely, but NightCry‘s definitely not for everyone, especially since all the bugs and technical issues haven’t been smoothed out yet. If you want a very flawed but spooky good time, check this game out; otherwise, I’d say hold off and spend your money on something with a higher budget and a bit more polish.
Final Score: 3/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Playism; Developer: Nude Maker; Players: 1; Released: March 29, 2016; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRB: 24.99
Full Disclosure: I contributed to this game’s Kickstarter. This review is based on a copy of the game received by donating to the Kickstarter.