I’ve long been a fan of comics, despite them commonly being viewed as a child’s pastime in many other parts of the world. In France, however, “bandes dessinees” are taken much more seriously as an art form that adults don’t need to be ashamed of, and Enki Bilal is one of the more revered graphic novelists in that country. Bearing this in mind, I was excited to find that Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals is not only the first game adaptation of his famous trilogy, but one in which the original author has taken a close interest. Perhaps here lay something that would combine my two favourite hobbies, comics and games, in one satisfying package. To my great disappointment, this was not to be so this time.
Alcide Nikopol, the hero of the game, is a struggling artist in a near-future Paris. This Paris is a dark and dismal place under the iron fist of a totalitarian regime. The city has been split into two distinct parts. The First District, centred around the monolithic seat of government, Montparnasse Tower, is home to the wealthy and the privileged, while The Second District sprawls out from this centre and is, for the most part, little more than a slum. Nikopol lives in the latter, in a building that seems on the verge of collapse. Worship of all except the state church has been banned, but a disillusioned Nikopol has joined a secret religious order in defiance of this edict. As he nears full membership of this order, a mysterious pyramidal ship has appeared over the city. Who are its strange inhabitants, what do they want, and is Nikopol’s long-lost father somehow involved with them? To find the answers, Nikopol will have to risk his life penetrating to the very heart of the corrupt state.
The game lays out its antecedents in an opening cutscene that naturally mimics the style of a graphic novel, with animated panels flashing onto the screen over wider background shots. This style is repeated in the cutscenes throughout the game and creates a dramatic effect, as the panel arrangement allows multiple views to be shown on the screen simultaneously. The prelude terminates by introducing Nikopol, signing one of his paintings, before dropping players into the game proper.
The main game presentation is first-person and shows a breathtaking amount of detail. The seedy and cluttered apartment is highly realistic in look, with flickering lights, crumbling furniture and cracks in the propped-up ceiling. This level of detail is maintained throughout the game, with the lush interiors of later sections, such as the luxurious Elysee palace, being as finely drawn as the decaying interiors of the start. While certainly impressive visually, this does have one unfortunate drawback, which is that it makes it hard to determine what objects you can actually interact with. The external views through the windows are similarly detailed, and have been layered to create a parallax effect as you pan the camera. This is further enhanced by animations such as hover cars flying past, flags flapping in the wind and animated holograms. These animations are just enough to give realism to the environment without filling the screen with needless distractions.
The look of Nikopol will no doubt invite comparisons to Blade Runner, and it does share some similarities. However, this dark future is not full of towering skyscrapers but is a more squalid version of modern Paris instead. The majority of buildings appear to be run-down variations of current ones, with just enough additions to render this a futuristic setting. The graphical tone perfectly captures a once-proud city decaying under a corrupt regime, with reconstruction and improvement only available to the select few. Enki Bilal is said to have had close involvement with the graphics in the game and I would say that this has truly paid off in the quality of the final depiction.
Sound has also been used well to set the tone. Most scenes have music running in the background, all of which fits the dark futuristic tone without ever seriously intruding. However, the real stand-out is the ambient noises. A whooshing noise accompanies the passing hover cars and failing lights buzz convincingly. Most areas of the city are also subject to the broadcast pronouncements of the controlling regime, such as the delightful “Distrust and vigilance are the best weapons against heresy.” These small touches augment the realistic feel of the setting already created by the graphics. The voice work is mostly of a high standard, though Nikopol himself is the only character we hear much from, as there are few other characters for you to interact with.
Unfortunately, the good work done in the areas of graphics and sound to create an immersive atmosphere are wasted when it comes to the actual gameplay. Sadly, Nikopol is littered with ill-thought out ideas that serve to make playing a frustrating and annoying experience.
Using the mouse to move between nodes, you have a complete 360-degree field of view on each screen, with nearly 180-degrees up and down. The interface is point-and-click with a single discreet dot in the centre of the screen as the focus. When pointed at a hotspot, a cursor appears around this dot appropriate for the action available. Whilst this could be considered an improvement on the intrusiveness of the more traditional cursor, it can be easy to lose track of the dot when searching crowded bits of scenery for hotspots. Right-clicking brings up your inventory from which objects can be selected for use. Unusually, there is no facility for combining items within the inventory, so any multiple object interaction requires you to place the first item into the main game scene so you can use a second item on it. It should also be noted that this is not a game for anyone who suffers from motion sickness, as the camera panning can become disorienting after a while. Though not generally a sufferer myself, I did begin to feel slightly unwell after hunts for missing items led me to explore the full range of view in several scenes.
When not forcing players to twirl around in place looking for necessary objects, the game imposes a severe limitation on movement. Within the tight spaces of Nikopol’s apartment, the minimal number of nodes available feels reasonable. However, before long you travel to much more open areas where the restriction leaves the player feeling confined and makes navigating confusing, as it can sometimes be unclear where a large jump has taken you. The worst example of this comes at a late stage of the game where a courtyard the size of a football field only has three available nodes. Whilst I understand the reasons for the limitation, the immersion would have been better served had the designers kept to tighter locations, as this issue is scarcely noticeable in those conditions.Continued on the next page...