Developer: The Vanir Project
Publisher: Badland Games
Release Date: 16 January 2018
Price: $9.99 / £8.99
Reviewed by Clay Howard
Balanced gameplay can make or break a game. Finding a game that’s both fun and equally difficult can be a challenge. Nightmare Boy, a spooky, retro-themed, Metroidvania platformer developed by The Vanir Project, tries to find that sweet spot.
The game opens with our soon to be hero Billy asleep at home in his bed. Poor Billy awakes to find that his pillow has transformed into the evil villain Balder, and that he’s been cursed to look like the Prince of the Nightmare Realm.
It's up to him to undo the curse and wake himself, so he can escape this nightmare world. Along the way you’ll find other children, usually held captive by bosses, in need of rescue. The story isn't overly complex, but as the game progresses, it develops nicely.
One of the central gameplay mechanics and plot points revolve around a small race of creatures known as ‘Mongos’. You’ll find these inhabitants consistently strewn about each level, casually walking about or taking naps. They’re friendly folk... well mostly friendly anyway. They don’t hurt or attack Billy, but they can be killed by Billy.
Early on, you’re gifted with a companion who’ll join you on your quest. “Mongano the Guardian” is very helpful in killing bad guys, since he doesn't have a cool down and he literally sticks with you throughout the entire game. There’s a catch. If you kill any of his people, accidentally or not, he’ll give you a nice firm slice with his sword.
I found myself constantly killing these little guys by accident, which in turn cost me health. This trade off makes for a clever game mechanic, but, more often than not, I found it to be a bit of an annoyance. Little Mongos were almost always standing right next to an enemy, forcing me to have to wait for them to move or wait for my buddy to attack.
Who's the boss?
In typical Metroidvania style, you’ll spend time exploring, looking for the right path take. Along the way, you find blocked paths that require you to return later with items that allow you passage. Eventually, you’ll come across NPCs offering you mini-side quests adding to the overall variety of the game, as well as boss battles that are strewn liberally throughout the game.
Bosses are well done for the most part, featuring over-the-top design and battle mechanics. Nightmare Boy equips you with a map to help guide your way, but doesn't give you any sort of indication as to where your next objective lies. While a waypoint isn’t always a feature in this style of game, I would have welcomed the assistance.
Combat is simple and the controls handle well, except for the obligatory ice area, where the physics confused me quite a bit. After defeating bosses you’re given a powerup or upgrade, allowing you to reach new areas or deal out more powerful attacks. Fireballs, sword beams, and flaming skull shields all add a nice variety to the combat. Billy’s normal punch and kick attacks deal solid close-combat damage, with most powerups giving him the ability to shoot from afar.
To save your progress, you’ll have to collect gems you find scattered around the world or dropped by the enemies you’ve killed and trade them to the Grim Reaper. Each time you find a new save area, the price increases little by little. These areas are placed evenly around the map for the most part, but there were often times when the nearest save point was way too far from the boss. Late game bosses can deal out one hit kills that lead to 5-10 minute treks back to try again. I understand this is basically a trope for Metroidvanias, but it still frustrated me to no end. After a while, this becomes exhausting and it caused me to not want to continue.
The visuals are a huge part of the game, they remind me of 90’s computer game graphics. With that being said, you’ll either love them or you’ll hate them. Personally, I quite enjoyed them. Even with its retro art style, Nightmare Boy never skimps on the details. The giant moon in the sky, Billy's facial expressions, and any number of enemy animations, all look stunning.
It feels like the game designers were really allowed to have fun with the nightmare world. Sure, the game has its level tropes: lava, snow, graveyards and such, but the enemies in this game are just bonkers! Vile mining gnomes, evil teddy bears, zombies, giant rats, and nefarious pineapple looking things... I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Discovering new areas and weird bad guys really kept the game fresh and interesting.
The music didn’t take my breath away, but does serve the game well, especially when adding intensity to the boss battles. Most of the score consists of creepy and spooky tunes, featuring a traditional orchestra feel with some more retro styled chiptunes intertwined.
Nightmare Boy is a cool and aesthetically different take on the Metroidvania genre. Clever design choices really stand out and ensure that you’ll never know what’s coming next. The lack of fast travel does make for a strenuous time and as the difficulty ramped up, I found myself enjoying the game less and less. But with plenty of content and hidden areas to find, fans of the genre should check this one out. If you find yourself in a spooky mood, look no further than the bizarre world of Nightmare Boy.
Pros & Cons
+ Great art style
+ Unique companion and innocent killing mechanic
+ Clever enemy design
- Long treks from save points to bosses
- One hit kills from bosses
- No fast travel or game objectives on map