Nocturne

Review by Old Rooster
March 2002

In the fall of 1999, Gathering of Developers, one of my favorite publishing houses, made a brave and controversial overture into the adventure/action genre with Nocturne. Touted originally for its, at that time, high-spec engine, the game was one of the early titles to use what we are now more generally accepting—a third-person approach to adventure/action. Admittedly, there is considerable killing (a la Resident Evil), but there is much, much more to Nocturne than the famous billowing raincoat of "The Stranger," our enigmatic hero and monster hunter. Nocturne is not just another pretty face. Let's revisit this wonderful game.

The World Is a Dark Place

As the back-story goes, in 1902 a secret government agency, known as "Spookhouse," was formed to combat unpleasant supernatural anomalies—like vampires, werewolves, hackers, and assorted demons of the night. Research is carried on, including weapon development, but primarily Spookhouse sponsors "wet" field work. Into this setting comes the Stranger—a mysterious, quietly effective, and deadly super-agent assigned to four distinct quests between 1927 and 1935.

The quests, or novelettes, each have 4 to 11 chapters and are playable separately. They include the following.

  • Act I—Dark Reign of the Vampire King—The Stranger and his half-vampire associate, Svetlana, travel to Germany to retrieve an artifact, having to deal with a few little obstacles along the way.
  • Act II—Tomb of the Underground God—Stranger and another associate, Hiram, who feels "grave danger" (he's right!), start with a thrilling train ride and end in Texas, to find if the dead truly walk in Redeye (they do!).
  • Act III—Windy City Massacre—"There's been some peculiar activities in Chicago." (This is new?) "The Mafia is employing the Undead." A German scientist helping Al Capone forms the backdrop for what develops into quite a "fragfest."
  • Act IV—The House on the Edge of Hell—Set up by a chilling history from Doc Holliday (Stranger's equivalent of Bond's "Q"), our hero is confronted by incredibly difficult and frightening encounters, largely in a possessed mansion, reminiscent of the Bates pad in Psycho.

It is best to play these in order, for purposes of character introduction, but due to still rather high hard disk space requirements, I found it preferable to load them one at a time.

How Is Nocturne Set up and Managed?

Installation is smooth, with at least 500 MB free hard disk space required. Recommended specs are much preferred to minimum, although there are some adjustments allowed—even a software mode! I found running 800x600, 32-bit was fine, with infrequent slowdowns. Teen or mature settings, as well as sound and control options, are available.

These controls, allowing gamepad or mouse/keyboard combination, are what we have grown to know and love with such titles as Alone in the Dark 4 and In Cold Blood. Primarily, you'll be using four movement keys, a draw weapon key, and a fire/pick up/open/converse key. That huge overcoat stores inventory. Quick and regular save/load is available. All in all, controls work nicely and, although movement isn't as fluid as a first-person perspective, it's about as good as it gets with this third-person, three-quarter view approach.

The shifting camera angle may lead to a rare case of blindness in corners, but this engine handles the great majority of the game effectively. Which brings us to the question of ...

How Does Nocturne Look and Sound?

From the famous billowing raincoat to breath mist on a cold day, graphic quality is outstanding. There is a lack of facial/mouth mannerisms, which may bother some. Cutscenes are rendered in-game, with a motion picture level of detail and realism. The overall atmosphere is done in shades of grey, fitting for the themes of the ministories.

Voice acting, especially of the jaded Stranger, is superb. Ambient sounds, from the gentle rush of a gas streetlamp to footsteps, to the approaching moan of zombies, all contribute to the tension and terror. Music is presented much as it may be in horror films, giving a crescendo of warning when an attack is imminent.

"I Don't Like People, and I Hate Monsters" —The Stranger

Some have thought of Nocturne as a shooter, even a Resident Evil clone. This trivializes the carefully constructed set of novelettes available for your hair-raising pleasure. The game brings back, for this old guy (who could use some hair-raising), memories of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, as well as other classic black-and-white horror films. Another memory is evoked of an old radio program—The Shadow ("What evil lurks in the hearts of men? Only the Shadow knows.").

There is exploring; there are keys and levers; you need to wend your way through dark and foreboding graveyards, castles, and towns, talking to residents, gathering information. Of course, there are fiends of every description along the way (think X-Files). I'd like to be there when a "sentinel" first happens upon you as you play. This hideous, foul-smelling thing will be glimpsed scurrying to meet you around the next corner. Yet, except for some frantic moments, this is more of a quiet, tension-building, bump in the night, adventure thriller.

We've given a brief overview of the four short stories, and we encourage playing them in sequence. There is shooting, a lot of it in story 3 especially, but it seems secondary to the unraveling of the mysteries sending you to Texas, France, and Chicago. Weapons are fun and fancy, featuring auto-aim, flame-throwers, a gun-mounted lantern. But don't buy Nocturne expecting Quake. This is as much an adventure as an action game.

Is Nocturne Fun and Recommended?

The mysterious Stranger, an antihero for whom one forms some admiration and attachment, will hopefully appear in further stories. Interestingly, what Acclaim Studios has tried to do, with limited success, in resurrecting the comic-book licence of Shadow Man, Virtual Reality has nicely pulled off by creating an agency (Spookhouse) and a protagonist (Stranger), along with a colorful supporting cast.

From the helpful manual to sound, graphics, story, and play, Nocturne is one of the best adventure/action (horror) games I've played in the last two years. Games like this make major strides in reinvigorating the sometimes static adventure genre, as well as the frequently boring and redundant action world. Writers and developers are realizing the value of story, atmosphere, puzzles, NPC conversations—overall, richness and creativity in productions, which can border on being an art form. From my perspective, Nocturne crosses that border as a cross-genre production of depth and quality; indeed, a gaming work of art.

Games Nocturne Brings to Mind

  • Resident Evil series—due to the presence of zombies;
  • Alone in the Dark 4—perhaps the game Nocturne is most like;
  • Blair Witch series—same engine; not nearly the same quality games;
  • In Cold Blood—story quality and engine efficiency is parallel;
  • Clive Barker's Undying—about as scary as Nocturne, and prettier.

What I Liked the Most

The overall and individual stories are nicely done, even compelling; graphics and sound are stunning; gameplay is varied and long.

What I Liked the Least

System requirements are high (though not so much by today's standards); there are occasional bad camera angles; rare frame-rate problems do occur. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Terminal Reality
Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Release Date: October 1999

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

PII 200 (PII 400 preferred)
64 MB RAM (128 MB preferred)
500 MB HD space (1 GB preferred)
3D card if using acceleration

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