I'm Just Going To Roll With It.
NightSky was a game that was settled right in one of the Humble Indie bundles I purchased and had long since forgotten about. Like a few other titles there, I knew pretty much nothing about the game, but having finished a different PC project that left a sour taste in my mouth I was eager to try another game, so after rooting through my game library I booted this up to see what it was all about.
Visually the game is very distinctive. The environments are silhouetted locations that span areas like the beach, construction sites and bizarre places high in the night sky. These places, while seemingly devoid of human life, nevertheless do have creatures around the place that look like they might take an interest in what's going on. These creatures also play on a gamer's instincts; some of them look quite vicious and big enough to swallow you whole, but you don't interact with any of them, even though I spent the whole game fully expecting the next one to be the one to have a go.
While foreground objects are mostly varying shades of black, the background is the one to steal the show. As the stages progress through a specific night the background reflects this very well, and some areas really throw out some pretty patterns up there that give you something nice to look at without getting in the way.
One critical problem though is the poor size of the visuals. Going with the default windowed option results in a hilariously small game screen (note my computer resolution is at 1440 x 900) and while you can opt for maximized or full screen options, there's no other customising options for the visuals. On a platform where gamers are accustomed to much bigger resolution even from indie developers that's a hard thing to face. In addition, the text (most notably that used for the tutorial hints) is blurry and barely legible.
The music was rather uneventful though I must say. I guess it fits in with the whole soothing theme but honestly I can't remember a single tune from the game even moments after shutting it off. So, I can say it's not bad as such but that's about it. Even with sound effects I couldn't tell you much about them for lack of remembering them at all.
The story is also a weak point, in that it almost doesn't exist. Somehow it has even less impact than "bad guy kidnaps princess now go save her" types of plots. The gist is that some guy finds a sphere and takes it with him and has some odd dreams that I assume is meant to be the gameplay. After the opening "cutscene" the story is then ignored until the end of the game, where you get a very brief cutscene that seems entirely strange. Is it supposed to be artistic or meaningful? I couldn't really tell as I didn't really get an idea of what all that was all about.
So NightSky is an action-puzzle platformer that relies heavily on physics as the core selling point. You control the sphere mentioned in the game's story as you generally make your way from the left side of the current area to the right. However, because you're rolling a ball around and not a character that can run and jump then your approach has to be quite different to that of other platformers. The key draw to the game is figuring out just how you're going to launch yourself up to that ledge or ramp.
This is where the brilliant level design comes into it. At first you simply have gentle slopes and ramps to deal with and you become used to building speed to launch yourself into the game. Then the game starts adding more challenging aspects, like flinging the ball around a loop or throwing you in vehicles that act differently depending on your movement. As you approach the end part of the game you'll have some notably complicated tasks to clear, such as setting a platform in motion and then racing along to use it at gaps or using your weight to turn platforms into ramps in order to reach higher areas. One interesting thing to note is how careful they are in relation to how your sphere reacts to the environment. Hold right on the ground and you'll move right. Hold right when your sphere is touching the ceiling and it'll fly to the left due to the rotation of the ball. That's clever attention to detail and helps build some of the game's puzzles.
Just in case actually having control of the ball directly seems a bit boring, some areas of the game don't let you move left and right on your own. Instead you're left to rely on the level layout and physics to send the ball to the goal. In some of these areas you might have control over pinball-style flippers or can rotate certain platforms. It's quite fun figuring out how to use these to keep your sphere heading in the correct direction.
It's certainly impressive the number of scenarios the developers could craft while maintaining a very simplistic input system. Well, moving left and right isn't the extent of the controls. A and S are your two special power buttons. The effect of these depend on the level you're in currently, and are selectively disabled whenever the developers don't want you using them. There are three powers that are most common and each provide their own use. One power acts as a sort of brake, allowing for more precise movements and reducing your movement speed. Another is the opposite, acting as a turbo that really lets you launch at speeds. The final one is a different one that essentially reverses gravity, sending anything loose towards the top of the screen. Sometimes these powers may be always active, forcing you to approach obstacles slightly differently as you cope with altered movement mechanics.
In many locations there are also certain objects that you can activate at any time by pressing Enter. Most of the time these are blocks that disappear; often to release something they were holding up but can also include things like cannons that fire in whatever direction they are facing. At first any given scene will just have one, but later areas may have multiple such objects that you can cycle through with the up and down arrow keys. Figuring out in what order to activate them provides a good challenge. All of this mounts up to a lot of variety, yet not once did I feel confused by it. Entering a new area and trying to figure out what the new rules are is in itself an enjoyable task.
The difficulty of the single player game can be a bit up and down. There is a general sense of progression, like overall the last level is harder than the first one. However the challenge presented as you move from one area to the next jumps around. In a given level you may face a decent challenge in the first area, a harder task in the second, a ridiculously easy segment for the third and then hit with a harsh difficulty spike for the fourth. It's not a terrible thing by any means, but it's odd to have such dips and spikes scattered throughout the challenge. Nevertheless, the game does provide a reasonable challenge in all. Even when a given area is hard, the game manages to avoid being frustrating. Infinite lives are a big help and generous checkpoints every three screens means you rarely have much ground to cover again if you do fail. Which you probably will, as some challenges might confuse you at first until you have an idea of what object does what action.
Length is probably going to be the one thing to affect your choice of buying the game. The main game took me a little over two hours to complete and, despite an attempt at encouraging more playthroughs in search of hidden stars, lacks the kind of replayability other simplistic games might offer. There is a harder set of levels to tackle as well, although obvious that requires a hunger for the challenges that they present.
In the end, I like NightSky. I'm probably not going to play it as long as other games in my library and it could probably use with a few pointers on some of its non-gameplay elements, but it has a very novel approach to the genre. I enjoyed figuring out how the rules of each given area worked and even more when I managed to get past a particularly challenging task. With all that said, I do think it might be worth checking out for that little "something different".
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