Can I cram the third of my Humble Bundle Reviews into that last thirty-six minutes of Boxing Day? Probably not – I’m too much of a perfectionist. But that won’t stop me. I have other things to do too, and the night is young.
Physics-based action-platformer NightSky by NICALiS (awesome website) will test your reflexes, your mind, your skill, and your determination in ways you would never imagine possible, while constantly luring you further into its dreamlike world of silhouettes and ambient music. The gameplay ranges from supremely relaxing to incredibly frustrating, but is always satisfying whichever the case.
In NightSky you play a ball. I won’t go into the specifics of how you control this ball in case you, like me, decide to play Alternative mode from the get go. In Alternative mode you are dropped into the world with a list of the buttons required to play, and are given no further instruction. Since getting to grips with the game I have given it to my mother to try out the normal game mode, which spaces tutorials throughout the first few levels in the form of helpful hints at the bottom of the screen, and features less challenging obstacles throughout.
For the first few screens you’ll simply roll to the right, then you’ll encounter your first jumps. Dropping off the bottom of the screen resets you to the last checkpoint you passed; these are generally every three or so screens and are indicated by a simple fade-to-black. It’s a little while before the physics puzzles are introduced, and this is done very gradually. The most important thing to me though, is that the physics never become the definitive aspect of the game, your concentration is almost always squarely on controlling the ball.
The physics are, however, what separates NightSky from other platformers. Without the physics the game would not be what it is, and it’s actually quite unusual for me to like a game so dependant on its physics engine. Puzzles are worked expertly into the incredible level design in a way that, sadly, checkpoints are not. There were a particular sequence of levels that seemed to have been designed specifically to follow-up a time-consuming or pure-chance obstacle with a difficult, skill-based jump, only to throw you back to the beginning every time you failed the jump, and these really got on my nerves. Still, far from the frustrating grind of Super Meat Boy, NightSky somehow always makes me feel like I’m heading somewhere, and I’m still compelled to complete the game after already pushing through some really hellish levels. Perhaps it’s the reward system? NightSky usually rewards you after each challenge with a peaceful section, something new and creative, or a different type of challenge. Meanwhile, Super Meat Boy rewards you after each level with another incredibly difficult challenge of the same type, using the same tired obstacles (there’s only so long before I’m not impressed by saws and fire, okay?).
No really, NightSky constantly surprises you with things you just weren’t expecting? Did I expect to begin this level in a balloon with fans powered by my rolling? No. Did I expect this entire room to rotate with my weight? No. Did I expect to have to balance atop a log while it rolled through those obstacles in the first bloody level? No! I’ve been constantly amazed at the amount of creative and original obstacles I’ve encountered in this game, and these are interspersed with standard jumps and old obstacles in such a way that it’s never even overwhelmed me.
One thing I’ve barely touched on so far is the graphics. These are in a sort of silhouette with minimalist use of colour, so you don’t always know what something is until you roll into it. Backgrounds are usually all you get colour-wise, and they’re pretty enough to stop the game being bland. There are moving critters in some worlds (which I’m not too fond of), trees and grass that blow in the wind (lovely) and various other features. Overall the game is pretty, not stunning, but its aesthetics compliment the atmosphere well.
The atmosphere is one of peace, mystique, and a little danger, perhaps. This is enforced by the high black content and subtle use of colour; the experimental soundtrack provided by Chris Schlarb; and crisp, lifelike sound effects. The sound effects were my second surprise in this game. Knock on wood, rattle chains, move something heavy and large, or fall onto some rocks, and you’ll hear the purest incarnation of the sound you’d expect. This can be useful for identifying objects, but it also lends the world some living quality, and emphasises the lonely atmosphere, as the loudest, sharpest sounds in the world come from your interactions with it.
I don’t have any criticisms for the game really, apart from some of the cruel checkpoint spacing, so I’ll spend this paragraph talking about The Void, my favourite level so far in NightSky. The Void is beautiful, features some of the most satisfying (though by no means hardest) puzzles in the game, and no less than two fantastic vehicles for you to master. I really enjoyed playing through this level, and I hope that you will too.
Positive thoughts for this one then; well done NICALiS. This is probably my favourite of the Humble Bundle so far, so now I’m off to play some more NightSky. At night.