A solid action platformer that actually understays its welcome, Nocturnal's unique fire mechanics and excellent art elevate what is an otherwise standard entry in the genre.
We live in a universe of relativity and opposites: there is no shadow without light, no vacuum without matter, no long video games without — short ones? Filling a niche I’m not entirely convinced needed filling, Swiss-based SunnySide Games’ 2D action platformer Nocturnal left me feeling conflicted upon completing it — a task that took me a little over 2 hours. The developer’s stated goal was to “avoid stretching out the playtime”, but I could have used a lot more Nocturnal than I got. Still, what’s there is at worst a competent action platformer, and at best a gorgeous indie title with some fun twists on classic game mechanics.
The game opens with you returning to your home island of Nahran, only to find that it’s been enshrouded in an insidious dark mist, corrupting Nahran’s inhabitants and also making it pretty hard to find the sister you’re looking for. Said mist is closely linked to the game’s core mechanic, which is fire: scattered throughout the game are flaming torches — attacking one will temporarily ignite your sword, allowing you to light unlit torches, and causing your attacks to do more damage (and set enemies alight). The mist is also harmful to pass through, but fire drives it back, and lit torches or a flaming sword allow you to safely traverse the mist.
Fire’s not just for damage or mist traversal, however: it’s also key to solving basically all of the games (relatively simple) puzzles; it’s never that tricky to figure out what to do next, but it’s still satisfying each time the way forward unlocks. Often, this boils down to using the ranged attack you get early on in the game to toss a flaming dagger at an out-of-reach torch, or otherwise finding a way to get a torch lit before the flames on your sword run out. You can also consume your sword’s flames to either heal or release a powerful flame wave attack.
While brief, the time the fire lasts on your sword can be improved via upgrades at the shrines that appear every so often. A handful of other upgrades are available, all fairly standard stuff like increased health or a slightly better heal. The upgrades feel impactful, but there aren’t too many interesting choices. Enemies all drop the upgrade currency, encouraging you to take them out — but you’re very often locked in a room with enemies anyway, so this doesn’t come up as often as it might in similar titles.
These enemies have a decent amount of variety, as you face both regular soldiers and spooky mist creatures, the latter requiring that you have a flaming sword in order to damage them. Facing these mist foes often leads to an interesting choice mid-combat: whether or not to consume your sword’s flames to use the heal or the flame attack, therefore requiring a return to the nearby torch to re-light the sword. Enemies telegraph their attacks clearly, and feel relatively “fair” — it was never a surprise when I got hit by an attack, and all of the movesets are simple and easy to learn.
This also meant that I never felt a great sense of satisfaction when I defeated an enemy or cleared a room; combat in general is serviceable without being mindblowing — although the controls are very smooth and responsive, crucial for a game like this. Still, it’s all standard fare for a side scroller: you’ve got a dodge roll, a normal attack, a ranged attack, and your special flame attack — the learning curve is essentially non-existent for anyone whose played similar titles (which could be a positive or a negative depending on what you’re looking for when picking up Nocturnal). The boss fights were similarly “OK”, with none taking me more than a couple tries. None were boring, but neither did they particularly excite or challenge.
More exciting were the old-school platforming sections where the black mist (and the screen) moved horizontally or vertically, with death as the result of letting your character be consumed by the darkness. These parts felt well balanced, being fairly challenging but never frustrating, and making it to the next checkpoint gave me that special feeling of satisfied relief I look for in action titles.
Sadly, these sections are relatively few in number — though this is in large part due simply to how short Nocturnal is. The games concise nature also means there isn’t much variety in terms of environments, although you spend so little time seeing them that it ends up not mattering too much. What is there looks great in any case, and you go between palatial building, cavern, and outdoors often enough that there’s a real sense of traveling across the island.
Nocturnal’s sound design deserves special mention, in particular the sparse use of the soundtrack. Much of the game has no music, and this lets the excellent FX — the crackle of flames, the swish of your sword, the soft patter of your character’s feet as he leaps from platform to platform — be heard with clarity. When it does make itself heard, the soundtrack fits the mood perfectly, whether in a swell of spooky sounds in a dark cavern, dramatic strings for a boss battle, or a triumphant theme as you make your way out into the light of day.
While my initial take on Nocturnal was that it was a little basic, after about an hour I was really getting into it — the fantastic art style; the good balance between combat and platforming; it was coming together in a way that I found very satisfying. I went through a few sections where you find these special relics that let you stay on fire permanently, meaning I was able to use the heal and special attacks on cooldown — this contrasted the sparse flame use required in previous sections, and lent my character a feeling of power — and it was awesome. But after just a few sections like that… it was all over, and the end credits rolled.
I’m still not sure how I feel about just how brief Nocturnal is. While it’s a focused, polished experience, I don’t know that it’s unique enough to justify a game length of only a couple of hours. Perhaps I’m operating under the false premise that more is always better — there’s something to be said for experiences that don’t overstay their welcome — but I feel a few more sections of Nocturnal would have given the game room to breathe. It certainly could have used a few more challenging sections, and I’d just started really appreciating the game when it ended.
It’s worth noting that the game offers some speed running options, including the ability to skip cutscenes and a permadeath mode. If you’re into beating your best time, or want to do a challenge run, there is some replayability here.
Nocturnal is available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch for 10% off for the first week, making it $15.29. While 2 hours is pretty short, a little less than 8 bucks an hour isn’t really that expensive compared to other forms of entertainment — you just usually get more bang for your bucks when you spend them on Steam. So while I wish it had been longer, I’d still recommend Nocturnal to anyone who likes the art style and/or enjoys action platformers. While it’s unlikely to become your favorite game of all time, it’s equally unlikely that you won’t have fun playing it.
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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.