Adventure Gamers Awards
When I was younger, I rented an unusual looking game called Clock Tower, and I was impressed by how differently it approached the horror genre. While the few other horror games like Resident Evil that were available at that time were arguably stronger games, Clock Tower was undeniably scarier. This was a direct result of the protagonist being more or less completely helpless, a feature that has become more popular lately with games like Amnesia and Outlast, and it’s no coincidence these games are considered some of the scarier modern day titles. At the time, however, this approach was unique, and I tensely guided my character in fleeing from a deformed little humanoid brandishing ludicrously giant scissors in a panic. Would I be able to find a hiding place in time? Or would I trip and be impaled? And, if I did find a hiding place, would I be safe even there?
I clearly am not the only one who remembers that game fondly, as NightCry is a spiritual successor to the series. Successfully crowdfunded through Kickstarter and released in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the original Clock Tower, it’s even directed by Hifumi Kono, who performed similar duties on the first two Clock Tower games. But does the new game live up to its predecessors’ cult legacy? That may depend on where you’re starting from. I had a lot of fun playing NightCry, but I have to admit that the nostalgic feelings it evoked made me much more willing to overlook some of its many flaws, as objectively it’s far from the best of games. Not only is it being released at a time when horror games are far more plentiful, but frustrating controls, mediocre graphics, and a baffling story undermine what should have been a solidly scary adventure.
NightCry takes place mostly on the cruise ship Oceanus. A group of students and their professor are returning to America after their studies in Greece. During a festive party, Monica, one of the students, heads deeper into the ship to find her friend Harry. The first thing she sees is one of the staff cutting up a dress with some scissors and scratching at a weird-looking wound on his neck. She also encounters the owner of the ship, Vigo, who is sterilizing his glass eye by boiling it at a table in the ship’s bar. Being blonde, busty, and starring in a horror story, Monica simply raises her eyebrows slightly at these encounters. But she soon witnesses a gruesome evisceration involving a vending machine, followed by a cloaked figure brandishing giant scissors emerging from the understandably large bloodstain.
Monica’s only defense at this point is to run in terror and hide, which becomes a common theme throughout the game. As the story progresses, you also get the opportunity to play as the professor, who explores a nearby island that contains clues to what is happening aboard the Oceanus, though it’s inhabited by some very creepy people in masks. In the final and longest chapter, you’ll play as Rooney, another of the students, as she attempts to find out what has happened to the professor, the other students, and the handsome composer she met at the party.
The controls are a little wonky at times, but fairly straightforward. You can click on the ground to move your character and double-click if you want them to run. Clicking on a hotspot will allow you to examine or possibly pick up an object or talk to another character. It’s important to click on each spot multiple times, as sometimes you won’t get a critical item or hear an important piece of dialogue unless you do. When being chased, the camera always shifts behind your character, and you can sprint by pressing the middle mouse button. The more you run, however, the more tired you get, and eventually you will collapse in exhaustion and become easy prey. In quieter moments, you can look at your phone by clicking the icon in the upper-right corner and try calling other characters or even using social media. At certain points in the story you’ll have to perform some basic Quick Time Events, such as rapidly clicking on a circle, in order to avoid certain death.
The camera is the first real issue with NightCry. When following you, it isn’t always the best at giving you an angle you can work with, especially in the smaller rooms on the cruise ship. This makes it impossible to see where the killer is sometimes, even when they’re literally two feet away from you. At one point I was trying to click on a bed in order to hide from my pursuer, and my character ended up running to a different spot, which changed the camera angle, which made it impossible to click on the bed. I spent literally a minute and a half trying to compensate for the camera’s interference, the whole of which I spent anxiously wondering if I would be suddenly stabbed.
NightCry has multiple endings, which are achieved by acquiring (or not acquiring) key items along the way, or by examining (or not examining) certain documents. There’s only one “good” ending, which requires doing everything perfectly to find. The game helps you attain this ending by supplying a flowchart in the main menu. You’ll be able to see which path you’re on, whether it’s the “good” one, and what you could have done earlier in the game to get a better ending. The problem is, you’ll only learn what you did wrong after finishing a whole section. Monica has to find someone’s wedding ring in the first scene, for example. You likely won’t find it your first time through, won’t know you missed it until you’ve completed the chapter, and will then have to do the entire level over in order to correct your oversight. Repeating a section you’ve already completed is easier, as you’ll know where the hiding places are and have solved whatever puzzles might be in your way, but it can still be tedious and takes away a bit of the horror. The monster chasing you becomes much less scary when you know exactly when it will appear.
Speaking of appearances, it has to be said that NightCry is a very ugly game. The 3D graphics look like they came from the PlayStation 2 era, and are even on the lower end of that spectrum. There are lots of small rooms and hallways that all look the same, and while the characters’ faces are fairly appealing, there is no apparent attempt at lip synching. I saw multiple instances of objects popping through walls, most notably the murderer’s giant scissors, which seem to phase through every door before the killer is able to open it. This is not a big-budget game, of course, but there are plenty of low-budget titles that find a way to look much better than this. NightCry almost feels unfinished at times.
This sense of being only partially finished is reinforced by the weak audio. The voice acting is fair, apart from some bad line readings from time to time, but that's only when the characters are voiced. It seems like only about 30% of the lines have voice-overs while the rest just have subtitles. The Clock Tower games did this too, but it's one of the issues from an earlier era that really should have been fixed by now. The lack of music doesn't help much either. When it plays, the soundtrack does a good job at ramping up the tension, like when you're being actively attacked by the killer. But most of the game has no score at all, and you're left walking through hallways with nothing but silence.
Puzzles are pretty rare and generally very basic. Most of them consist of thoroughly exploring your surroundings to find the items you need, and then using them where they obviously need to be used. Using “non-stick” gloves to climb down something slippery is a prime example. Some add a little complexity, such as figuring out how to find and free a missing friend from her predicament, but not many. The real challenge of the game is finding the hiding spaces before you are murdered, which often seem to be few and far between. There are also several occasions when you find yourself unexpectedly in danger and have to rapidly complete a QTE to stay alive. These can involve anything from a room service cart suddenly charging towards you at a lethal pace all on its own, to a baby doll floating up in the air and viciously attacking you. They're all pretty easy, but they do a good job at keeping the stress levels high even when you aren't actively on the run from the killer.
Running for your life takes up around a fifth of the game as a whole, the pressure of which is increased by the fact that you'll have to start over from the beginning of the section every time you die. The good news about the hiding spots is that there's no ambiguity about when to emerge; the game’s soundtrack makes it pretty clear when it’s safe to come out. The bad news is they pretty much all only work once, and one didn't work at all (though to be fair, it was a very foolish place for me to hide).
The Clock Tower series never excelled in these areas either, so where I found myself most disappointed in NightCry was its story. It starts off very strong with some compelling questions: Why was that porter cutting up a dress and scratching his neck? What is the obviously evil Vigo planning aboard his own cruise ship, and what does it have to do with the cloaked figure with the scissors? Who is the mysterious old woman prepared to murder you in the elevator if you aren’t careful? Every chapter contains more of these questions, and seeking the answers is what makes playing the game most intriguing.
But while the plot is fleshed out a little, it isn’t explained nearly enough. I still don’t know why some crew members were cultists, and I continue to have absolutely no idea who that old woman in the elevator was and why she was so dangerous. Rooney says something towards the end of the game suggesting she has some idea who the scissors-wielding killer used to be, which is impressive because I'm still in the dark about that one as well. I can’t tell if this is due to translation issues or not, but either way it leads to a very unsatisfying conclusion.
I’m not the only one to be confused either, as I found several online forums of people comparing thoughts in an attempt to make sense of the game and the identity of the killer. There were some pretty good educated guesses, but guesses were all they were. Even little things can be perplexing. At one point you are warned not to trust a certain crew member who, logically, you should definitely not trust. But this crew member gives some good advice that will kill you if you don’t take it, and offers you some medicine which will kill you if you don’t swallow it. His motives and true character are never explained.
NightCry is not without its memorable moments: the fate of some of the characters is creative and gruesome, even if the game gives you no way to save them. There are some genuine scares that survive the graphical and control issues, and a scene towards the climax has one of the creepiest settings I’ve seen in any game, no exaggeration. But this isn’t quite enough to raise the overall experience above its many flaws. I still found myself enjoying NightCry, but I'm pretty sure this is mostly because it reminded me of the game I loved as a kid, which in retrospect hasn’t aged particularly well. So you’ll need to be prepared to accept the bad with the good. Are you a fan of horror movies, including the ones you know are horrible but can’t help enjoying anyway? Because NightCry is a classic B movie horror game. The small budget may be evident in its limited production values, the acting a bit off, and the writing full of holes, but fans of schlocky horror can still sit on the edge of their seat and enjoy it anyway. Fans of well-made adventure games, however, should give this one a pass.