In Nightmare Review (PS5)

In Nightmare Review: A Nightmare By Any Other Name

 

Dreamland tends to conjure up some of the strangest worlds and creatures—a mesh of bizarre architecture (bizarchitecture?), unnatural obstacles, and a coterie of bizarre monsters for good measure. Chinese developer Beijing Magic Fish Technology delivers all that and more with In Nightmare, a genre-mixing game featuring horror, stealth, puzzles, and more, taking you for a not-so-dreamy dive into some freaky worlds. You’ll be playing a game of hide and seek with a ghastly, gothic woman, red-eyed cyclopses, and more if you aren’t already running full-speed for the nearest exit. But is this deep dive a sweet dream or the worst kind of nightmare? Let’s find out!

 

Diving Deeper and Deeper

 

What happens when you leave your kid at Hot Topic for too long.

 

You play this game as Bill, a young boy haunted by some rather painful memories of his waking life, involving divorce, trouble in school, and other fraught childhood issues. A good chunk of the story is told through finding notes tucked away in parts of the environment. What makes this really interesting is that these notes aren’t just notes from Bill. Sometimes they’re reports from teachers, dialogue from the parents, and even a few medical diagnostics. The variation makes an interesting way to tell the tales of Bill and what all his life entails. That said, the translation isn’t 100% on point, and there are also some flashbacks that will occur involving ghostly apparitions of the past that are sometimes tricky to tell apart.

For gameplay, while the controls do feel a touch stiff sometimes, I don’t feel like I’m fighting the controls too much. At least, until I got to trying to jump. For some reason, if you try to get to close to an edge, Bill will stumble and you’ll be stuck in that animation until he’s done. Thing is, he’ll also do this even if you’re trying to jump off said ledge, sometimes leaving you stumbling around when you’re just trying to jump to the next platform. Other than that though, you can sprint, pick up objects, move objects, and crouch/climb with relative fluidity. Pretty basic, but that’s really all you need to get around.

I did notice though, that even on my PS5, sprinting around and sometimes even basic movement elicited some frame skips and stuttering. I tried doing a reset of my PS5 to see if maybe it had just been on too long, but it definitely was suffering from some issues running the game smoothly. It wasn’t absolutely game-breaking but it definitely liked to peek its head out every once in a while, so here’s hoping that might just be a slight optimization error to be patched out later.

Something I do like is Bixty, your luminescent fairy friend, and its ability to explore independently of Bill. It’s handy for surveillance, having an ability to go through walls and objects that creates ease of use. You can even overclock it so it can go even farther, at the cost of randomly found dream essence. It’s a really neat system for navigation and puzzle solving. You can also use Bixti for finding hidden objects (yellow spots on the ground) and for sonar to figure out where creatures are lurking around at. The best part is he’s entirely independent of the player character, operated with the right joystick.

You’ll also have the opportunity to upgrade darn near anything in your arsenal: sprint limit, the number of consumables you can hold, Bikti’s abilities – there’s a lot you can do to improve yourself and Bikti. However, you absolutely don’t need to get these upgrades. I made it through with just one sprint upgrade. Speaking of collectibles, there are tons of these to find, anything from concept art and music to ghosts and paper cranes that can unlock skins for Bill and Bikti. I was actually quite shocked at just how packed the levels were with stuff you can find, and some of it can even show up in the hub world.

 

Stumbling in the Dark

 

You ever get so scared of a monster you start defying gravity?

 

Stealth sections are really hit or miss with horror games. Implemented right they create great tension and require alertness and responsiveness from the player. If one element or another misses the mark though, it turns into an exercise in futility. Sadly there are more misses than hits, with stealth sections being firmly implemented with bad design weighing them down. Basically, the monster can detect you either via line of sight or through sound. Crouching makes you harder to detect, though this becomes moot and I’ll explain why in a moment. If you’re spotted, you can use shortcuts to delay the chase or smash some stuff nearby for a distraction, and you can even get items called Dream Orbs you can slam on the ground to stun the enemy as an escape method. Sounds like you have all the tools you need to get along, right? Well, let’s get into why these don’t always equate to a pleasant experience.

In the first section, your first monster to deal with is a tall lady dressed in tattered gothic garb. While the tutorial section gives you a good idea of where to go, any points going further don’t really let you know where to go from there. It shows you that you can use shortcuts to evade the monsters, but those don’t come often enough to be useful. You can use distractions… if you have the time to use them. I more often than not didn’t (or the prompt just wouldn’t register my button presses). Bikti couldn’t help much due to me needing to be in a safe spot to use him to scout ahead, and if you sprint, the little guy can’t keep up with you, which often led to me getting stuck on a part of the environment that was too dark to see.

More often than not, you’ll show up in a stealth section with no idea where to go. Distractions and the Dream Orbs you can use to temporarily stun the monsters, don’t help much when you have no idea where you’re supposed to be going. You can press Up on the D-Pad to show a little clock hand pointing where the exit is. Problem here is it’s quite arbitrary if you’ll be getting a guide to the next objective or just the exit itself. Sometimes it can point to the next area to go to for accomplishing the objective, doing pretty much what’s needed. Other times, it’ll point to the exit, completely forgoing anything in between. If there’s a puzzle in the way, you’ll be wandering around figuring it out because that clock hand is useless here, not pointing at all to wherever the next step of the puzzle or path is. I’m not saying I want my hand held by this feature, but when I’m plopped in a stealth segment with only a vague hint of “Make your way to [insert area here]” with no indication of where to go to navigate your way there, it just becomes a game of wandering around, avoiding monsters that can, and likely will, set you back to square one.

 

Hiding in Plain Sight

 

Peek-a-boo!

 

Where we get to the real struggles is when we look at the monster’s AI pathing and hitbox detection. The first indication of this was seemingly open spaces being safe to some extent because the monster’s hitbox enjoyed getting caught on things. Find an area that’s just a bit too small for the monster, and it’ll just stand and stare for a few moments before deciding to waltz off like you disappeared. Hell, in half the stealth sections I was in, I just started sprinting in random directions knowing that if I needed to escape, I could run in any random direction and the monster was more than likely going to just get caught on something, or I’d be able to find a spot where it’d stand there for a few seconds and stare like I can’t be touched before heading off, which quickly destroyed any tension or fear the hunt would normally contain. The best moment though was when gothic lady seemingly grabbed me from an area she shouldn’t have been able to grab me from and caused something really screwy to happen to the player character. I was stuck tilted at a 45-degree angle, got stuck in the wall for a while, managed to trigger the next stealth section, and even when I could move around the main area, there wasn’t any way for me to interact with anything. The monster could still see me though! I initiated a chase scene until I seemingly got electrocuted, then I straight up bugged out to the point that I couldn’t even move. It was at this point that I realized there was no manual save system, nor was there a manual quickload feature. I had go back to the main menu, then hope it checkpointed at some point during that particular level.

Moving on to the second example, in the second level, there’s a bunch of eyeball ogres that emit red beams to let you know where their line of sight is. An abundance of well-placed hiding spots did somewhat help me navigate, but I still had an issue with vagueness in direction. In the same level, on the second floor of the school section, there was a later portion where you are “forced” to get caught and run. What makes this awful is there is no way to tell this was supposed to happen and that you were meant to run. What makes this even worse is that the hallways are way too cramped to support that chase scene, resulting in me getting caught several times and needing to replay one of the smaller stealth sections several times. There was no indication telling me “Hey, idiot, run!”, just a feeling like I missed a puzzle segment somewhere that was getting me caught over and over.

If I had to weigh in thoughtfully on this, I feel like the game should never have gone the stealth route, or at least minimized the stealth and taken a puzzle approach to it. Little Nightmares did this very elegantly, using the environment to navigate away from the monster while never being strictly stealth. The stealthier parts are just taking things slowly but surely and using the environment to hide. In Nightmare wants to do that but relies on gimmicks and usable items, which feels detrimental. Interacting with the environment more would’ve added to the atmosphere, created more interest into the world around you, and allowed you to create a clear path by understanding environmental objects, but environmental interaction is instead limited to pushing some boxes around and flipping levers. There was an instance with distracting an ogre with a car alarm before burying it in the debris was a small taste of what I wanted, integrating puzzle mechanics with stealth. I still needed to not be careless getting to the car alarm, but I understood exactly what was happening when the car alarm went off, moving out of the way and circling around before eliminating the threat by burying it in debris. Other than that though, the stealth never contributes anything to fear or tension, just creating unnecessary annoyance.

 

Not For The Sleep Deprived

 

If you’re having nightmares of three dimensional rubix cubes, that’s definitely a sign of deep-seated trauma.

 

When the game wasn’t wanting stealth from me, it occasionally asked for me to expend some of my brain power for the occasional puzzle. This was a bit of a mixed bag, because the puzzle experience for this game likes to jump to extremes. It’s example time again, so let’s take a look at the good and bad here.

There’s one good example of when the game throws a simpler puzzle in that really made me enjoy my experience. A little bit into the second level, we get to a puzzle-solving segment that I see as one of the neater parts of the campaign. You have to align parts of a statue to match a portrait. There’s three pieces scattered around the area… except the area starts moving and changing on you in a flash. Move to one piece and your way back could be entirely different, or even gone entirely. This is the stuff I like, the surrealness starts messing with your brain and making you second guess yourself. You could replace all of the stealth segments with mindgames like this and I’d love it! It doesn’t need to be complicated, just make it work for your theme by making solving the environment matter as much as solving the puzzle.

How this goes south is towards a later level. When you start the third level, you’ll get dropped into a room with five rings lined with doors. These rings all have a point you stand at where you can rotate the rings clockwise or counterclockwise. You can only go through the door the path goes through, and only when you see the tentacle on the mural on the floor light up. Seems simple, until you realize that the path will stray so far away from the mural, that you’ll have to run all the way back to see if the tentacle has lit up. This leaves a long chunk of time between the guess and check parts of this puzzle, and it becomes even more infuriating that the whole puzzle resets back to square one if you screw up. This isn’t a puzzle, it’s a chore disguised as one, and really brings down the experience.

 

The Short Sweet Dream

 

Hogwarts ain’t got nothing on this stairwork.

 

One thing I will add to the positives though, the music is stellar. It knows when to chill out with a music box melody or when the hype things up with some scary string sequences. The soundtrack always knows what to play and when to play it, helping immerse the player in its atmosphere. The best example of this is the Hall of Dreams, where I really started to love the soundtrack. It nails that dreamy sound, mixing soft bells with background strings and a sweeping synth to create a floaty, warm feeling in the Hall of Dreams.

Speaking of the Hall of Dreams, I miss back when games could let you see tangible collectibles amassing in these little hubs and its nice to see it return. You can access all of the levels from here, as well as visit little subareas that contain where all of your collectibles show up. New costumes, a jukebox (gramaphone technically, but, eh, details), and even a trophy case make the hub world feel like a welcoming safe place for Bill. Also, this might be one of the more minute details, but when I got to the Hall of Dreams, it opened with this poem that just hit me right, for lack of a better term. It was well written, and, mixed with the music, gave this somewhat hopeful and uplifting vibe. I don’t get to comment on good poetry hardly at all but you can’t just open an area with wordplay like that and have me not comment on it. It warms the heart!

Lastly, I will give this game one serious bump up, it’s got visual aesthetic down to an art form. The dreamlike surrealism is mixed lovingly with both horror and mystery, sometimes even getting fancy when you start seeing the architecture twist and wind into this almost palace-like design. It feels authentic, like, if I had control of my dreams, even to a limited sense, I’d want familiarity with a hint of grandeur and embellishment. They’re always so detailed and fleshed out no matter the vibe it’s going for, making authentically dreamy worlds to play in. The lighting, while sparse, reflects just right off the walls and objects, and the colors, while toned down, knew when it was the right time to pop and made it count.

 

Dreaming of Better Days

 

 

Unless you have the patience of a saint, I would steer clear of In Nightmare. It really is a shame, as there’s an interesting story being told from Bill’s eyes and a really vibrant and vivid world with a unique style to explore, but any semblance of gameplay is horribly hampered by a nightmare of poor gameplay designs. I’ll keep dreaming of how much I’d enjoy this game once it sees some quality of life improvements show up to fix the plethora of lackluster stealth gameplay and frustrating “puzzles”.

 


Final Verdict 2/5

 

Available on: PS4, PS5 (Reviewed); Publisher: Maximum Games; Developer: Beijing Magic Fish Technology Co., Ltd.; Number of players: 1 (campaign); Released: March 29th, 2021; MSRP: $19.99

Full disclosure: The developer provided a review copy.

 

Cory Clark
With a passion for all things musical, a taste for anti-gravity racing, and a love for all things gacha, Cory is a joyful and friendly gamer soaking up any little gem to come to his little Midwestern cornfield. An avid collector of limited editions with an arsenal of imported gaming trinkets he's absorbed into his wardrobe, he's usually always near his trusty gaming rig if he's not on his PS4 or Xbox One. And when he's not gaming, he's watching anime off his big screen with his lap lion Stella purring away.

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