Review: Nightfall

Official web page; Altor Systems (creators).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Mediocre (better in the endgame)
Dialog and writing
Poor (ditto)
Terrible (sort of okay in the endgame)
Fairly easy (very easy if you're willing to use brute force)
Forgiveness rating
You can't get stuck within a level, but you can easily leave a level without getting all the clues you need later. Save often. (On the other hand, see below.)

Nightfall was a good try. Well, okay, it wasn't a very good try, but it was an interesting attempt -- from a design perspective -- and I'm going to try to analyze it, because experiments are always valuable. This is probably going to sound like a laundry list of complaints, and I apologize for that.

Note: There are more spoilers in this review than I usually go in for.

(Heh. I'm pretty sure I've written that in a different review. Can't remember which one. I think I prefaced it with "Because I didn't like this game..." And that's certainly the common factor. When something works for me, I want it to be equally fresh for everyone. When something doesn't work, I want to figure out what the authors were trying to do, rather than just tossing up my hands and walking away. And then that is the thought I want to spread around. Does that make sense? Never mind, I'm rambling. Consider it spoiler space.)

Okay. Nightfall is the first game I've seen which uses the mechanics of the Doom genre -- first-person, true 3D modelling, movement physics, no pre-rendered scenes -- in the service of a story-adventure. That's what drew my attention in the first place. It's certainly been suggested before; I've been waiting to see someone do it.

Also, the authors took an additional step: this is the first Doom-style game (that I've seen) which applies physics to game objects besides the player. When you pick up a stone, it floats up off the ground; it stays suspended in front of you if you move or turn. It's constrained by walls. You can put it up on a ledge, or stack it on another object. If you throw the stone sideways, it falls in a parabola. If you bump an object on the floor, it slides. This is pretty serious stuff.

Furthermore, if you grab onto a fixed object, then you become the floating dependent; you can drag the mouse left, and thereby push yourself right. You can pull yourself up a wall this way.

And here I ran into the first problem -- fortunately, a reparable one. All this movement is handled with the mouse, with the four arrow keys as synonyms. Click in the center of the screen to go forwards; click left or right to turn, high or low to pitch your view angle up or down. But you also use the mouse to hit switches and grab objects. And that can only be done when the object is in the center area of the screen. So trying to grab an object on the floor is frustrating. You click, the object swerves upward (as you look down), and then you have to release the mouse button and seek it again. Worse, once you're dragging the object, trying to level your gaze means lifting the mouse, and thus the object. If you drag the object to your inventory bag in the lower left corner, you gaze down and turn left.

And, about sixteen times worse than any of that, try swinging yourself up on a fixed object above you. Look up; grab. Pull the mouse down. You're pulling yourself up, but you're also pitching your gaze down, which changes the relative position of the mouse cursor -- it's higher in the world. Thus partially cancelling the move you were trying to make. Add an insufficiently damped arm-spring, which can cause you to oscillate wildly, and rather jerky wall-collision constraints, which can cause you to flicker wildly. The result is that I solved most of the climbing puzzles by energetic flailing, rather than controlled use of the interface.

Not irreparable, no. What this interface desperately needs is more keyboard commands. The arrow keys, as I said, work for move fore/back and turn left/right. That helps tremendously; they're far more precise than the mouse, and don't collide with object-dragging. Add pitch up/down keys, and all sorts of things would clarify. For an added bonus, add six keys for object movement, independent of your own movement. Not necessary, but it would round out the control set.

(Yes, I forgot to mention, if you hold down "shift" and drag an object up/down, it slides farther/closer to you. Half the time when I tried this, it then fell out of my hand. Probably due to the uncoupling of cursor position and object-on-screen position.)

Oh, yeah, and before I forget -- let people customize keyboard controls. Everyone has their favorite set of Doom keys. The arrow keys are not mine.

Enough, the interface.

The plot.

Theoretically, there is one.

You're exploring an Egyptian pyramid. Did I only just remember to mention the Egypt theme? Well, it's that kind of game. The plot is less interesting than the mechanics. The introduction explains that you're an archaeologist, you're about to lose access to the site because of Some Damn Greedy Oil Company, and as you're taking a last look inside, there's an earthquake. Trapped. So you're off down the passages, guided by the Cryptic Notes and the Cryptic Diary, following the path of -- as it turns out -- the Twelve Hours of the Night. As in the William Ashbless poem. The journey of the sun beneath the ground, to dawn. And there are all sorts of puzzles down there. Surprise!

At that point -- the beginning of the actual game -- the plot simply stops. There is no more text, no more explanation, except for the aforementioned Cryptic Notes and Diary. And those are entirely about the puzzles. You have puzzles and corridors. It ain't enough.

I'm having to hold myself back from ranting here, because it seems so obvious a point to a scion of the text-adventure community. Whatever richness the authors had in their mind's eye, it's not transmitted. Yes, the walls are all nicely decorated with Egyptian motifs, and you wind up putting a heart-containing jar in Alcove One and a feather-painted brick in Alcove Two. That's a start, but it ain't enough.

Case in point: there are rivers of water; there are rivers of molten gold. You can swim in both. No difference. No pain; there's no room for pain in the interface. You can hold your breath forever. You can fall arbitrary distances. I went through half the game saying, "Wow, this sure is superficial. They didn't consider any kind of world-consistency or atmosphere at all."

And then I reached a Cryptic Note, where the writer -- in a fit of lucidity -- expressed wonder that he could swim in molten gold, and breathe water, and fall hundreds of feet. And I thought, that could have worked. Obviously the authors are visualizing a strange, half-spiritual place, not the everyday world at all -- an Hour of the Night. The underside of reality. Of course death and pain are suspended. But there's no way to express that, in this interface. In a text game, it could be as simple as "You step into the liquid metal. Heat runs up your veins, heat and no pain at all." Merely point it out; the player will generate the wonder. In Nightfall, it just looks like a mistake.

Whoops, I ranted after all.

I'm really not sure how to fix this problem. The narrator in a graphical game is so very voiceless. One can add subtitles or running commentary -- printed or spoken -- but it's hard to do in a way that isn't annoying or patronizing. Many games add a Kibitzing Sidekick, but that isn't appropriate here. (And the Sidekick is usually annoying and patronizing anyway. Buried In Time played it for laughs, at least, but that'd be really inappropriate here.)

Graphics. Nightfall does not look very good. Okay, if I went back and played Doom or Marathon 1 today, it probably wouldn't look very good. I've seen Unreal and its ilk; they raised the stakes. But there you are. This game has big flat square polygons. Some areas are interestingly designed, some are painfully dull, but they all wind up looking crude and angular. There are lots of textures, and that helps a lot, but it's still no comparison at all to current pre-rendered (Myst-genre) games.

And since the engine isn't really up to current Doom-genre games either, it's just not impressive. Lighting is static -- and very uneven, I must say. There are lots of corners -- or even straight sections of corridor -- where the lighting falls to zero and below. That's not my monitor turned too low; it's flat black. Atmospheric, if used sparingly, but mostly just hard to navigate. Put in a non-zero ambient lighting term, for Ra's sake.

In fact, even where the lighting is good, the navigation is tricky. Polygons are so big, and often so repetitively textured, that in many spots only one or two polygons fill the screen. You can't orient yourself from that.

The physics sometimes gets weird, especially on sloped floors or with low ceilings. I found myself slewing off in strange directions, sometimes uphill. In a couple of places, I managed to squirt myself outside the map, and whizzed ethereally through solid rock until I intersected open space again. (Lucky that I did, I suppose!) In another place I fell into a narrow crack; as far as I can tell, it was a bug, and there was no way out except to restore a saved game.

And, speaking of navigation, speed it up. I spent the entire game with the caps-lock key down, for double-speed movement. For long corridors, I wished for quadruple. Yes, there were a couple of narrow bridges for which the base movement rate was easier, but even then not necessary. If you're adamant, put in three gears (normal, fast, creeping.) And label the current one "creeping".

The puzzles are, well, puzzles. Since they're all the game really has going for it, my expectations were high, but they didn't live up. You click switches to open doors. You click switches to turn on elevators. There are combination locks (several switches in a row, several positions each.) There are a few square-tile jigsaw puzzles. Many puzzles of Stand on the Magic Spot, or find the Magic Object and put it in the Magic Spot. And, of course, the exploration-mapping problem. I think that's it. Oh yes, a few animated objects -- statues, etc -- which try to slide into your way. (They're slow and ineffectual, is all I can say. I barely noticed them. Maybe because I was always at double-speed. The play-testers weren't?)

The physics, which should have been one of the selling points of the game, barely gets used. I had to climb a couple of times (see "flailing".) I think once I had to drag a brick somewhere and stand on it. There was a single puzzle of swinging yourself from one ledge to another, which was one of the high points of the game -- they're doing something with their mechanics! But mostly, it was wasted. You don't need physics to put the M.O. in the M.S. It might as well have been Doom's colored-key icons.

Oh yeah -- inventory. You can carry one object in your inventory bag; and a second, awkwardly, in your mouse-hand. (See "frustrating".) This is not good. When a substantial portion of the game is running back through complex map to get another object, because of the inventory limit, something is wrong, wrong, wrong. The inventory limit puzzle became boring in 1982.

Oh yeah two -- brute force. You can wiggle through cracks that are supposed to be opened by puzzle-solving. Worse: all the jigsaw puzzles, all the combination locks, yield trivially to blind moves. Wave a jigsaw piece around until it sticks. Cycle through switch combinations until the switches lock. The Grand Endgame Access Puzzle, the one whose clues are scattered through every level, opened for me in about five seconds. Yes, I was lucky. A full keyspace search would have taken, gosh, three full minutes of clickery. Hardly a blip after hours of corridor-creeping. And I didn't look at a single one of the clues.

Which particularly grates, because at least two of the fourteen levels can be completed in less than a minute each -- if you don't go looking for Grand Endgame clues. There are large swathes of the game that I never saw. Didn't have to.

One might argue that this is flexibility -- allowing multiple solution paths. Fine, but I judge a game by what I did, not what I could have done. If I can solve a puzzle by brute force, I will, because it's easy. It's not fun; I do it because I want to explore more of the game. Thinking is fun, but piecing together hieroglyphs for yet another combination lock isn't thinking, it's note-taking. And so my predominant impression, after all is done, is a game where I explored, yes, but I pounded switches and didn't have to think. A travelogue, not a game. And, mostly, a travelogue of crude angular rooms.

(I spent a lot of time editing that paragraph, because I have to deflect the criticism that "If you enjoy thinking, you'll solve puzzles logically, and if you don't, you'll solve them by brute force." No. For one thing, some puzzles aren't interesting enough to think about. For another, when you're staring at a lock, it's not obvious that it's interesting. Perhaps the runes scattered around the level form a brilliant focus of imagination and looking-glass logic, but I don't know that yet. I see two dials, each of which can be set from 1 to 6. Takes about ten seconds to try all the possibilities. Off I go. That's what I judge the game by. All your effort is wasted.)

The thematic apperception, at least, is competently done. I mentioned the heart-and-feather puzzle; most of them are like that, with attention paid to the twelve-hours myth. Building the city; defending it from serpents; appeasing guardians with their names. Everything may be blocks and elevators, but what you want to do fits the theme pretty well. The Cryptic Notes get that much across.

(Mini-rant: The Cryptic Notes and Diary -- uh, folks, meditate upon the spelling checker. And then find someone who can write. I know you're hackers first, and the writing in Nightfall wasn't awful. Just mediocre. The spelling, that was awful.)

And then we approach the end. And there's some hope. Because nearly everything I've complained about starts to improve. The last few levels -- and I mean the twelfth of fourteen, no sooner -- become really visually interesting. Much better use of the engine they've got. (Possibly I'm prejudiced, because I like the surreal and science-fictional motif more than square stone corridors. But I started to care.) There was a big complex puzzle that I found interesting; interesting enough to play through, instead of loading the cheat-file for the next level.

And finally, there at the end, the plot shows up again. It was like being dropped into soup. There was plot explication (through the Marathon-like device of computer screens all over the level.) There was a sense of what I was doing. There was scenery that meant something, in the context of the game-world; after level upon level of mere puzzle machinery. I really felt like I was in a whole new game.

Albeit a very short one.

The actual story ending was a bit trite, and certainly nothing stunning, but it was a story ending. Well, the story beginning and middle too, since it's sprung on you unheralded 13/14th of the way through the game. But at least it was there.

And, with bad spelling and the portents of a sequel, we ride off into the sunset. Pardon me -- the sunrise.

There we are. I see I've spent four pages criticizing what I disliked about Nightfall, and three short paragraphs praising what I did like. Sorry. Please believe me, it's all in the service of getting it right next time.

Conclusion: Interesting in places, but not impressive. Might be worth the price ($30, low for a graphical adventure), but whether it's worth your time depends on what else you have to amuse yourself with.

Availability: The authors (Altor Systems) are selling it only mail-order, through Kagi. A sensible move for a small company -- getting shelf space in retail stores is, I've been told, expensive and impossible.

System requirements: PowerMac, 100MHz or better, 4x CD drive, 9 megs free RAM, thousands of colors. (150MHz recommended. Apparently it's really snazzy in millions of colors with a 3D card helping out. But I reduced the viewport size, left it at thousands, and had no trouble on my unenhanced 120MHz box.)

Macintosh-ness: Amazingly, a Mac-only game. (Yes, I wish it were a better ambassador.) So it's plenty at home on a Mac, with one big exception: It changes my monitor resolution without asking me. Don't change my monitor resolution without asking me. Wait, was that clear enough? DON'T CHANGE MY MONITOR RESOLUTION WITHOUT ASKING ME. I can say it again if you want...

Oh yeah, and when you quit, it asks you twice if you want to cancel. That's dumb.

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