Even as someone who spends a few hundred hours a year in MMOs or ARPGs, I acknowledge that there’s a lot to be said for brevity. In a world where games are increasingly judged on size over quality, I have nightmares of a dystopian future when save files are passed from generation to generation like fucking heirlooms. So now and then it’s nice to play game that can be over and done with in the space of an afternoon, like Nocturnal from Sunnyside Games.
It’s a side-scrolling action-adventure game with more than a gentle dusting of Prince of Persia that won’t eat up much more than three or four hours of your week. What threatens early on to open up into a sprawling Metroidvania keeps things refreshingly tight, presenting a solid action game with a cool core mechanic and a handful of new ideas.
If there’s anything that feels undercooked though, it’s the narrative. Nocturnal tells the tale of Ardeshir, a soldier who has returned home to find the island he grew up on ravaged by a terrifying entity known as the Mist. With his family slain and his sister missing, Ardeshir must brave the horrors of the dark with only a huge flaming sword and infinite restarts to help him.
I joke, obviously, but the truth is if you want to learning anything about the world or the Mist or the Sacred Flame Ardeshir uses to imbue his sword, you’ll need to explore every nook and cranny. What story there is is told in tiny scraps of text split across twelve collectibles, which you’ll need to find and arrange. It’s more than a little annoying, especially as the mysterious old woman who keeps turning up would be an ideal exposition tool instead.
The fact that the devs even refer to it as a “love letter to the original Prince of Persia” should tell you everything you need to know here, though. Nocturnal is beautiful, fluid, and a joy to play, even if it does occasionally throw just a little too much at you.
As Ardeshir you must ignite your blade to carve a path through the darkness and defeat the tortured souls claimed by the Mist. The flame has a short timer which you can extend by spending Ash on a small upgrade tree. Once the light goes out, you’ll begin to take tick-damage until you expire or you cab reach another torch. Most are unlit, and the focus is on spreading the flame from point to point to create pools of luminescence that weaken your enemies.
The various contraptions such as lifts and doors are also powered by fire, necessitating speedy platforming between points. The jumping and dashing is precise, but when you start mixing it with sword swipes to light torches and activate ledges, it can become a little difficult to nail the timing. Likewise, there are times when you’re thrown into combat with multiple enemies and a rapidly dwindling flame, which feel frantic and desperate as you try to stay alive and reignite your blade.
A three-hit combo, i-frame dodge, and handful of special abilities make combat feel slick and rewarding, especially when you manage to fight your way out of a pile of enemies. The flames heal can heal you, but will be extinguished when they do so, forcing you to think carefully and adding an element of danger even to restoring your health.
About a third of the way in you’ll unlock a throwing knife for use in puzzles and combat, which will also ignite when it comes into contact with fire. This gives you more combat options – as does a powerful move that you unlock for the back half of the game. Nocturnal has cool ideas throughout, too, such as being able to set fire to dried vines and tapestries to create light and reveal puzzle solutions.
There’s a definite sense here that Nocturnal may have been envisioned as a Metroidvania once early in development. For example there are sometimes multiple routes, but it’s fifty-fifty if you pick the route that leads to a secret or the route that locks you into the critical path. Sadly, there’s rarely a way to tell which is which, either.
A small but well-thought-out skill tree allows you to improve your stats and abilities as you travel, and the core conceit of having to literally fight against the darkness trying to choke you is such a powerful and respectful homage to PoP that I couldn’t help but smile even when it became frantic. It’s never too stressful though, as regular checkpoints reduce the amount of retreading you’ll do even when it gets tough.
After only a few areas and a handful of boss fights, Nocturnal ends without much flourish, and left me wondering if it’s a secret proof of concept for a much grander sequel at some point down the line. For all that I appreciate the brevity, I kind of hope so, because Sunnyside have something very special here that could easily stand with the best if it had just a little more story and content.
Fire mechanic is great
Platforming is solid
Combat is tricky in the dark