STAFF REVIEW of Nocturnal (Xbox One)

Monday, July 3, 2023.
by Adam Dileva

Nocturnal Box art Imagine returning home only to find everything destroyed and everyone you know has perished. That’s how your journey begins in Nocturnal, trying to free the island you grew up on from a mysterious and deadly darkness that’s engulfed it. Expect a blend of challenging combat, fluid platforming, puzzles and a constant race against time to not let the flames that keep you alive be extinguished. Like the great Bob Ross once said, “Gotta have opposites, light and dark and dark and light”, and that’s a constant theme in Nocturnal.

You play as Ardeshir, a soldier of the Enduring Flame who has just returned home to his island of Nahran. There seems to be a deadly and dark mist that’s enveloping the island, and while you’re wanting to find out what happened to your fellow soldiers and brothers, you’re worried about your sister’s whereabouts as well.

The mist is deadly and you’re unable to survive within its grasp. The only weapon you have against it is fire, which will be your lifeline as you progress further to uncover the mystery of what has happened to your home. Ardeshir must wield fire upon his blade, though it’s only for a finite amount of time before he must replenish the fire once again, as it’s the only way to keep him safe from the mist. Without fire you have no hope to survive, and it becomes as necessary as breathing.

Part 2D sidescrolling platformer, part combat based, Ardeshir will be searching for an exit in each area to the next before the mist can catch up and take over. The platforming mechanics start basic at first, simply jumping from ledge to ledge and over gaps, eventually becoming a bit more involved when lighting torches act as switches for moving ramps and turning on other platforms to cross pathways. You’ll need to have precision and purpose when trying to get from one area to the next, as focusing on the actual parkour is only part of the equation, you also need to ensure you light the next torch with your fire before it runs out.

Again, fire is ever important in Nocturnal. Not only is it what keeps you safe from the mist, certain enemies are only attackable with fire, and while you can coat your blade in fire for a short period of time, it’s certainly not permanent. This requires you to make note of where the permanent fire fixtures are, as all you need to do is slash the fire to coat your blade in flames for a short period of time. Attack any unlit torch and fire will then be permanently there, which I always thought of like an anchor, the closest place you can come back to reignite your blade if you happen to lose the flame.

Fire is not only what keeps you safe in certain sections, but can also be used to heal your limited health. At certain times you’ll want to use your remaining fire to heal, but that is where the risk versus reward comes in. In the middle of a difficult battle do you choose to try and get one or two more fire hits in on your enemies, which does extra damage, or use it to heal to prevent a death and restart?

Every so often you’ll see a row of three or four torches that need to be lit, but when you place fire on them all they seemingly extinguish themselves. This is where some light puzzle elements come into play. Some secrets are behind locked doors, and to open them you’ll need to light these torches in a specific order. Remember, your fire only lasts a short time, so once you’ve attempted a combination of torch lighting, you’ll probably need to quickly go back to the permanent fire location to light your blade and try once again. I do wish there was some sort of subtle environmental hint as to the combination for these puzzles, as I found it was simply trying to brute force through it with every combination until I was successful.

Combat starts out simply with being able to dodge, attack and jump. Regular enemies are simple enough when fighting one on one, but once you fight two or more simultaneously, even regular enemies can be deadly. Combat is challenging once you have to deal with certain dark enemies that emerge from the mist, as many can only be harmed with fire attacks. While there’s no way to block or parry, you’ll need to time your dodges if you want to be successful and survive. There were a few frustrating sections, as in the latter half of the game you’re having to constantly fight against multiple dark enemies while having to manage your fire timer as well. The fighting alone isn’t too challenging, but having to balance dodging and recollecting fire while doing so is where it can become a little chaotic at times.

Often you’ll be suddenly pit against a new enemy type without any clue of the best way to defeat them or their attack patterns, so some trial and error comes into play as you try to react and adjust on the fly as best as you can. After defeating the first boss you’ll get your only new combat ability, a dagger that can be thrown that automatically returns to you. This is how you’ll light out of the reach torches, attack enemies from afar, and even cut ropes that hold up a platform. Using the right stick for your dagger slows down time, allowing you to aim with precision and just feels great to use.

While the core combat mechanics feel great when it all comes together, there’s nothing really new introduced after you gain the dagger aside from throwing more enemies at you and making the fire more challenging to reach during these sections. Boss fights aren’t often, but the few you do get were the highlight, as there were new mechanics to deal with, including screen filling attacks that need to be dodged. While some battles required a few attempts, none felt unfair, as I knew it was either my reaction time or misunderstanding of best strategy to defeat them to unlock the next door.

Destroying certain jars and urns will net you a special currency, spendable on upgrades at certain shrines to improve Ardeshir in a variety of different ways. At these Phoenix Statues you’ll be able to upgrade your health, fire duration or speed when fire is equipped, all of which are useful. Depending on your playstyle you may upgrade one way or another, but each is certainly beneficial in its own way.

For a small indie game, Nocturnal’s hand drawn aesthetic is gorgeous. Animations are smooth, and when you get those brief moments of being outdoors or passing by a large open area seeing the vistas I couldn’t help but take a few screenshots. The lighting is done quite well, which I expected nothing less given its premise centers around darkness and light. Watching bushes, rugs and banners burn quickly when I swipe at them with my sword ablaze is always satisfying. The score is just as beautiful, and while there’s little dialogue, I did wish those few lines were voiced so we had just that little bit more of immersion.

While mechanically simple, Nocturnal is very well made and feels quite polished. While able to be completed in a single sitting, it short length felt like the appropriate amount of time, as anything more would have started to wear out its welcome. A great indie title that deserves some attention, Nocturnal is challenging in the darkest times, but makes for a satisfying experience when you fight against it with flames.

**Nocturnal was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.3 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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