Review: Nightmare Reaper
Let me tell you, one of the best feelings of being a reviewer is when you get your first impressions of a title from screenshots, video, and early release info… and you’re wrong.
See, the thing is (and this is a deep secret of being a game reviewer) that when you’ve played a lot of games, you can generally get a pretty good idea of what a game’s deal is going to be from a fairly small slice of gameplay. Heck, you can generally get a sense of what sort of game you’re going to be playing just from early release screenshots. Sure, there’s some room to tune that opinion which is why actual play is vital, but more often than not you go in thinking that you have at least some idea of what to expect.
And then there are the games that surprise you, the ones that have unique twists or just such a perfect balance of ideas that you can’t help but sit up and say “wow, that’s brilliant, I would never have guessed this from the previews.” And it’s even better when the game in question surprises you in the best ways.
Nightmare Reaper is releasing on March 28th on Steam for PC players.
The story of Nightmare Reaper is vague right from the start. In fact, it’s very easy to have no idea what the story is if you miss the notes on the table in your room… but you can guess at some of it just from the environment.
You start off in what is, for all intents and purposes, a fairly standard-looking FPS room. Nothing unusual or noteworthy in any fashion. You get a brief tutorial in how to play the game, and you move through killing monsters and such with minimal explanation. Then you clear the level…
And you wake up. You’re in what appears to be a mental institution. There is a bookshelf full of things, a toilet, a sink, a bed, and a table. You are given no explanation for why the main character is here; the closest thing you can start to piece together is by looking at the doctor’s notes on the table in your room. Each level completed adds another page to the notes, more about the Patient you’re playing and what is going on with her.
Your only escape? Lying back down in bed. At which point you spawn into another level, slaughtering your way through things in bloody and violent fashion.
The point of the story and the setting is to be disorienting; you’re not sure exactly what the Patient’s deal is, and it’s quickly unclear if the institution that she’s in is safe or even if she’s entirely keeping herself together between levels. (Items move around, graffiti appears and disappears, and that’s before doors start being left open…) This is a disturbed woman and you’re only getting to scratch the surface of what’s going on, with no clarity as to how much her nightmares of slaughter are based on her real life and how much they’re just… violent, delusional fantasies.
Deep? Not particularly. But it’s an interesting and immersive way of telling a story, a feeling that these violent fantasies are an escape from the prison she’s been forced into even as you wonder what she did to get her put here in the first place. The sense of claustrophobia and paranoia weaves its way in, and the disorientation is real – especially when you die in the middle of a level and find yourself snapped back unharmed in the middle of your room. It’s gripping is what it is.
Of course, just figuring out what the Patient is up to wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if she was just walking around and occasionally interacting with things. The bulk of the game is, well, the game. And it’s here that the title becomes a seriously engaging piece of work.
At the most basic level, Nightmare Reaper is a retro FPS in the vintage Doom mold. You are maneuvering through blocky corridors while shooting 2D sprites of enemies, which have a variety of different attack types and attack patterns. You know how an FPS works. There’s an emphasis on quick movement and dodging; enemies drop health when defeated, but you aren’t terribly durable, and it’s easy to get yourself chewed down quickly.
However, what helps you is the fact that your arsenal is not limited to predefined weapons. Enemies also drop weapons, ranging from rocket launchers to pump-action shotguns to esoteric fare like necromantic skulls to summon an army of skeletons. Weapons range from being Common to Legendary, with more modifiers on weapons the rarer they are. Each weapon is also rated on a level system, with more powerful weapons having a higher level to compensate for their higher base power.
Unfortunately, you can’t take it all with you. You have to pick which weapon you want to take with you at the end of a given level; all your other drops are sold for cash. Cash, in turn, can be used to upgrade your abilities in one of the game’s skill trees; the skill trees, in an interesting turn, take the form of various cartridges you place into what is clearly a not-explicitly-named Gameboy Advance SP, with each one providing you a different minigame to play in addition to the currency to unlock new upgrades.
Now, let me be clear about something: The main game here absolutely rocks. If you have any affection for old-school FPS action, the levels are satisfying, fun, randomized, and absolutely awash in neat events and stuff to do. The action is vicious, high-intensity, and nasty, and you feel like every satisfying kill shot is earned, just like you’ll feel a rush of satisfaction each time you notice a crack in the wall and kick it open to reveal one of the level’s secrets. Everything is always playing fair; the game is difficult but not cruel, and upgrading over time makes you feel more accomplished and makes the difference between victory and defeat.
Heck, even defeat doesn’t sting too much; you don’t get as much money for the end of level clear bonus, but you have some extra coin and can try again. Sometimes you get a bad draw of weapons and rooms. It’s no big deal. Get back on the horse.
The one weak point is the mini-games for upgrading. I appreciate what the designers were going for here; it creates another later of stuff to do and explore and it keeps the upgrade process feeling more immersive. At the same time, the minigames fall into that dreaded space wherein they’re just involved enough to feel like their own little game, but not involved enough to be fun or rewarding on their own. The Topaz tree in particular is an absolute mess of systems that don’t quite work together, and I feel like the game would be better if it were just a bit simpler overall.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that the core game is both fun and addictive in the best way, and if there are some mild irritations about how the upgrades work, they melt away once you get back to that frantic shooting and looting action. It’s the sort of game that inspires you to go in for just one more round of play, and I found myself going back to the game time and again hoping to earn just one more upgrade along the path.
Visually, the game has a rough, blocky, and pixelated look that’s very much a throwback to the earlier days of the genre without being an explicit ripoff of any of them. The textures are rough but they look good, that simple look freeing up space for the suggestion of things rather than aiming for perfect fidelity. It’s an entrancing look, although the 2D enemy sprites do become hard to see when you’re above them (and since this game is very much a true 3D title unlike, say, the aforementioned original Doom, that will happen from time to time).
It’s especially evocative if you’ve played the Brutal Doom mod, especially with its splatters of blood, ichor, acid, and other things in the wake of your path through the level. This is the sort of game that revels in carnage in the broadest sense; it’s not meant to horrify, it’s meant to feel satisfying.
The sound effects are nice, crunchy, and loud, while the music augments the situation perfectly; there’s a low ambient tune that plays when you’re just exploring, followed by loud, driving rock that kicks in once the enemies are aware of you and a battle is joined. It also fades out once the threat has passed, an effect that was always nice; I found that the music kicked in and left me behind in the best way to amp me up and then let me know that I could breathe easier for a bit.
One thing I did find a little obnoxious is the keybinding for opening different skill trees; if you have, say, one of the skill trees open but you want to open another, pressing the button won’t open it but will instead close your current tree, forcing you to hit it twice to open the one you want. It’s not a game-ruining bug, but it’s mildly bothersome.
I seriously don’t know if my review has successfully conveyed just how much vicious fun this game can be. I seriously found myself unable to get enough of it, meaning to stop every so often before finding myself pulled right back to the game in an unexpected drive you get more upgrades, hunt more weapons, just get another sense of satisfaction as an enemy charged at me and I unleashed a rocket straight between their eyes.
This game looks, at first glance, to be a little on the rough side. But when you actually play it the whole thing is a smooth, stylish, and above all else polished explosion of sound and fury. It’s a savagely effective action game that mixes in roguelike elements so naturally that you’re all the more inspired to keep playing, yet you never feel like failure is the only option or even the preferred option.
If you have any interest in the old days of FPS gameplay when you were expected to wade in, unleash firepower at top speed, and leave a mess in the process, you will want to play this game. And if you’ve tried to play those games but can’t get over the gap in technology, this is going to be a darn fun experience for you as well. Give this one a shot; it deserves everything it’s asking and then some.
Just don’t be surprised if it sucks you in. Seriously, this game kind of freakin’ rules.
Review copy provided by Blazing Bit Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Blazing Bit Games.