Noctropolis

Review by Scout
July 2003

Who hasn't secretly wanted to be someone else? Who hasn't, as a child, conjured and inhabited futures of spectacular adventure and sumptuous rewards? Rock star, lost royalty found, superhero, to the wizard class born ... Fantasy role-playing is the name and entertainment is the game. Books do it, movies do it, comic books and computer games do it too. Sometime in the early 1990s Shaun Mitchell and Brent Erickson of Flashpoint Productions imagined a double knock-out combination—a computer game built around a comic book superhero. Lacking the resources to license an existing property, they made one up: Darksheer, champion of the night, protector of Noctropolis. Only a single issue was ever published, a limited edition included with the game Noctropolis.

Noctropolis, published by Electronics Arts in 1994, is a comic book world come to life ... literally. You play Peter Grey, a mild-mannered bookstore owner down on his luck. For an idea as to how bad things really are, click on Peter at the start of the game when he is still in his bookstore and you'll get this description: "Perpetual depression has rendered you lethargic and hollow. Numbed by apathy, you sigh vacantly, wondering when your existence turned so bleak." The roof leaks, sales are down, the bills are piling up, utility services are about to be cut and, worst of all, Cygnus Comics has just delivered its very last issue of Darksheer, your favorite comic book, in which your hero Darksheer hangs up his cape and calls it quits. This is not your beautiful life. But wait, you have won a contest put on by Cygnus, and after a strange little girl dumps your prize through the mail slot, you open it. Inside are two coins, silver and gold, and oh joy and rapture, a new original Darksheer comic. After eagerly reading the comic, you flip one of the coins in the air and are magically transported to the eternally twilight world of Noctropolis. Things are looking up. Or are they?

Darksheer's inexplicable retirement has left Noctropolis without a hero and the comely leather-clad Stiletto without a partner. All of the archvillains have escaped from prison and are on a vengeful rampage, nightly beating the citizenry to its collective knees. In the midst of all this chaos a mysterious skyscraper is being built, a tower so magnificent that it pierces the eternal cloud layer that covers Noctropolis, soaring out of sight. As the new Darksheer, your first order of business is to drag Stiletto from her drunken retirement. After gaining her trust (and apparently her affection) by besting her in a little punch, kick and claw, the two of you head off to battle the bad guys. Oh, and what a delicious dastardly dire group they are. There's Succubus, a spirit-sucking demon residing in the voluptuous body of a young nun, Greenthumb, a reconstituted mutant horticulturist, Tophat, a magician savant gone mad when her mentor assaulted her, Dreamler, a psychotic with advanced mental powers who can manipulate your dreams, Master Macabre (my personal favorite), a talented surgeon turned sicko sadist, and finally the man behind the curtain, the brilliant mastermind of mayhem, the ever-enigmatic Flux. The theme of transformation, so dear to comics in general, is in full play in Noctropolis. Everyone has been someone else in another life, everyone has experienced a transformative, defining moment and no one is any better for it. Change is a bad thing in Noctropolis. Nothing good ever seems to come of it.

Noctropolis is a mouse-driven, point-and-click adventure game. It has optional keyboard commands printed on the back jewel case insert, though I never did get the hang of them ... and I actually like keyboard commands. A right-click brings up the interface pyramid, wherein reside your commands. Want to talk to a character? Right-click to the pyramid, left-click on Talk to change your cursor, left-click the cursor on your subject. It sounds a little awkward, and it is. Other commands are Travel, which takes you to the game map, Move, Look, Open, Get, Use, GoTo, Inventory, File and Setup. There are an infinite number of save slots, accessible by clicking on the Save As New button in the Disk Service Box. To restore a game you use the Loading a Game button. A handy feature here is the Info button, which tells you the location, time and date of your save so you don't have to bother typing in descriptions.

You progress through the game in the usual way, exploring locations, running through dialogue trees, building your inventory and, of course, solving puzzles. The puzzles are easy to medium in difficulty. The few times I got stuck were when I had carelessly overlooked an item I needed. The game has an obvious comic book look to it, and while at times it can be a feast for the eyes, the result is an overall visual homogeneity. Nothing stands out from the background, everything seems to blend in with everything else. Luckily, the hotspots react to your cursor, so be sure to take the time to scan the rooms when you first enter them. Items you need usually are lying around in plain sight and are easily acquired if not always so easily noticed. Eagle eyes are required here.

The game won't let you advance beyond the point of no return if you don't have a necessary inventory item, so don't worry about dead-ends. Only once did I have to return to a location to retrieve an overlooked item. Unfortunately, it was the most difficult location in the game to access, especially with a slower computer. So, a word of warning, try to make sure you have taken everything that's not nailed down before moving on to the next location, especially if you've just spent the last two hours sneaking into a certain building.

Items are used by clicking on Use, which opens up the inventory. From there, you click on the item. If it isn't relevant, the game will tell you so. If the item is usable, the game will complete the required actions automatically. Noctropolis is fussy that way. It knows what it wants and when it wants it, thank you. This makes for some autopilot puzzle-solving, as all you have to do is click on the right item at the right place and then stand back and let the game do its thing.

Gameplay is a simple as dirt. Confront and defeat the villains. One by one. There is a twist, though. Several of the fights end up with Darksheer being poisoned, gassed, stabbed or otherwise physically compromised. When this occurs, a timer will start up in the lower left corner of your screen. If this timer reaches zero before you've made your way to the Darklair for a dip in the old mystic mother liquid, you die. Cheesy cutscene and you're back to the opening sequence. In practice this isn't as onerous as it sounds. I only died once this way and never really felt undue pressure, as the timer stops during dialogue or cursor-triggered actions, giving you plenty of time to think, explore and experiment. Plus you can save inside the timed sequences, which is always nice.

At the end of each confrontation, the game more or less dumps you back at Darklair with little or no direction as to what to do next. Unfortunately, unless you revert to a hint guide or a walkthrough, be prepared to roam from location to location, running through dialogue and clicking on inventory until you find your way again. To be fair, the game does drop subtle hints here and there, so it is best to pay close attention, especially during conversations.

The sound in Noctropolis is notoriously hard to configure so that the voice dialogue plays throughout. If for some reason you can't get the voices to play, the game defaults to a stylish dialogue text box. But if you can manage it, do—while the actors vary wildly in their deliveries, their work gives the game a much-needed extra dimension. Master Macabre and Tophat were especially wonderful (though the rest of the female leads were obviously hired for attributes other than thespian). Still, if you require quality acting in your games, be warned. Noctropolis glories in the cheesy, the bloody, the gross and the questionable—in all areas. Other things that might offend are mild scenes of female nudity, sexual situations and occasional profanity. Also, a bunny rabbit dies. Sorry, but it's true. The wascally wabbit bites the big one.

As you progress you learn the cosmology of Noctropolis, why it became the city of eternal darkness and who are its secret movers and shakers. There's a lot about Elementals, natural phenomena, Light and Dark, Good and Evil and the standard operating procedures of the local demigods. It gets pretty complicated pretty fast, but the player doesn't need to take notes. While there are no pop quizzes, there is a big info dump at the end that pretty much killed Flashpoint's shot at a bang-up climax.

Despite all of its shortcomings, Noctropolis is a fun and engaging game. It has a campy, tongue-in-cheek humor and never takes itself too seriously. To get the most entertainment value for your money, I suggest you play this game in a similar spirit. Take it for what it is and you'll come away happy. Want it to wear sensible shoes and eat its broccoli? I'm afraid you're in for a bit of a disappointment. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Flashpoint Productions
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 1994

Available for: DOS

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System Requirements

386
DOS 4.0 or higher
4 MB RAM
2X CD-ROM drive
Super VGA or VESA video
Sound card
Mouse

Where to Find It



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