I have played a ton of side-scrolling action platformer titles — okay, more like 16 since the beginning of the year — so before playing Nocturnal, I thought it would be similar to those other games with lots of sword-slashing and jumping. But boy, was I surprised by the unique gameplay gimmick that awaited me. Before delving into that, let me give you a brief overview of the game's story.
The world of Nocturnal is divided into two realms: the World of the Seen, protected by the burning flame of the Phoenix, and the Unseen, a deceitful and dark place where people are trapped in an endless Mist. The inhabitants of the Unseen longed for the green yet savage world of the Seen, where people prayed to the sky for strength. Though life in the Seen was brutal and short, it was vibrant. Eventually, the Unseen breached the barrier with their dark Mist, prompting the people of the Seen to plead for the intervention of the Phoenix to save them.
Now, let's meet our protagonist, Ardeshir, a soldier of the Enduring Flame who has returned to his island home of Nahran after a rough sea voyage. The island is engulfed in a mysterious Mist that consumes everything in its path. Ardeshir embarks on a quest to discover the source of this destruction and put an end to it, however, he must venture into the deadly Mist, knowing that no one can survive its darkness for long. Thankfully Ardeshir wields a special weapon that the enemy is weak against — a sword that can be set ablaze. This sword becomes his only defence, providing a source of light in the darkness and shadow-infested areas.
In rooms with lit candles or torches, Ardeshir can ignite his sword by striking them. This creates a source of light that not only illuminates the surroundings but also inflicts damage on enemies. Anything the sword touches — such as drapes, hanging scrolls, or plants — catches fire as well. With everything in flames, the Unseen enemies have no chance and are easily taken down. Personally, I enjoyed burning the rugs they stood on as it was difficult for them to escape the flames. The fire on the sword lasts for a short period and is indicated by a line decreasing in length at the bottom of the screen. To refill the gauge, strike another burning candle or torch along the way.
If the flame on your blade extinguishes, you must find another source of fire as quickly as possible. Stepping into dark areas without light activates a different gauge that indicates how long you can withstand the darkness before dying. The time is very limited, so it's best to avoid dark areas when you lack a flame. Not only does darkness inflict damage, but there are also hidden Unseen enemies that can harm you, taking no damage from your flameless blade. Fire seems to be the only thing that weakens them, so without it, your only option is to run and hope you can escape in time.
Like many action, adventure, and platforming games, you can smash pots and crates scattered throughout the game. These containers hold "gold" pieces, which resemble flattened diamonds. Collecting as much gold as possible is crucial as it allows you to power up Ardeshir and enhance his abilities. While exploring, you will come across monuments dedicated to the Phoenix. Praying at these shrines opens the "Phoenix Gifts" menu, where you can exchange gold pieces to increase your maximum health, strengthen your fire sword's attack, gain the ability to heal with fire or improve Ardeshir's movement speed when he has the flame. Once you've acquired the main abilities, you can learn two additional ones: Embers Throw, which launches a Fire Wave attack, and Heal Efficiency, which allows for significant health recovery.
Nocturnal's visuals reminded me of the original 16-bit Prince of Persia game, particularly when exploring dungeons and the structures on the surface, thanks to the excellent lighting effects. The game features smooth cinematics and beautiful level design with intricately designed architecture and even ornate stained glass windows in some buildings. The backgrounds have a hand-painted appearance, lending the game a charming antique storybook feel. The soundtrack is calming and perfectly complements the exploration aspect, but it shifts to epic battle music when facing enemies attempting to impede your progress.
Nocturnal differs from other games of its kind as it follows a mostly linear path and doesn’t require you to revisit areas you have seen before, like many other titles. Once you enter a room, the door slams shut behind you. I have to say it was a relief not to have to remember specific locations to revisit later on. The game features fire-related puzzles that you must solve to unlock new areas to progress. Often I found the solution is hidden within nearby paintings if you observe closely, but trial and error can work too. Controlling Ardeshir never felt difficult or cumbersome, as it was enjoyable to battle the various enemies I encountered throughout the game; some could be destroyed easily, while others require quick reflexes. It got a lot more challenging in the moments when I was surrounded by a large number of Unseen all at once!
Nocturnal successfully introduces a fresh twist to a genre I've played many times before. The constant need to keep the flame burning or have fire readily available adds a new layer of difficulty you don’t usually get. Although the game isn't overly long, it remains challenging but never frustrating with conveniently placed checkpoints. Some areas and bosses may require a few attempts to learn the right strategy for victory or progression. However, I never found myself thinking the game was unfair; instead, I was hooked and eager to uncover what would happen next!
Nocturnal (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Nocturnal is a must-play title for fans of 2D action-platformers. While it may be relatively short, it offers a satisfying challenge and a refreshing twist on the genre.