[Ghosts Of Gaming Past] A Review Of ‘Nocturne’

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Written by Martin Paytok, @Paytockmaster

Developed by Terminal Reality, a studio you may be familiar with as the developer of the solid Ghostbusters: The Video Game (I‘m talking about the well-done movie adaptation, not that Sanctum of Slime piece of crap) and not quite as good The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, action-adventure survival horror game Nocturne was released on October 31, 1999.

Back in the days, the game’s reception was disparate. The reviews were mixed and it was far away from being a commercial success, but there are people who consider it to be kind of a cult classic. A rare forgotten masterpiece, which hasn’t lost any of its shine as the time passed. So is it any good today, after fourteen years? I’d say yes.

Nocturne is set during the 1920′s and 30′s with you taking control of The Stranger, an agent of a secret organization known as Spookhouse, which was established by president Theodore Roosevelt to fight any kind of hostile supernatural creatures. It can be very easily compared to the B.P.R.D. institution from the Hellboy comics series.

The ultimate quest of both is to protect the human race against any dark and evil powers and to investigate and eliminate supernatural threats. This means you’ll be confronted with various critters, starting with classical enemies like werewolves, vampires (Bram Stoker style, not the modern day garbage) or zombies, and ending with Al Capone’s stitched together Frankenmobs, H.P. Lovecraft‘s stories inspired bug-like things and even the Elder God.

There are over forty types of enemies with different weaknesses in this game and each one is tougher and more deadly than the last, so if you decide to give it a shot, you should be warned. Silver bullets are important in Nocturne. It’s easier to kill a vampire or werewolf with silver than it is with lead. I admit, it’s easier to kill them with fire, but Stranger’s Colts 1911 are too bad-ass to be left unused in the holsters under his coat. Smashing undead cows in the head with a shovel is fun too.

The main anti-hero is quite a hard man himself. It makes sense, seeing as he’s been inspired by 1930’s pulp magazine serials protagonist The Shadow. The Stranger is as mysterious as the demons he’s hunting are and it almost looks like he‘s just appeared out of nowhere with his fedora, goggles, trench coat and a pair of pistols, and decided to embark on a crusade against all inhuman creatures. Why does he hate monsters (even the ones among the fellow operatives) so much? Only one character in the game seems to know, but that sonuvabitch won’t tell anybody.

The Stranger is a really dark and interesting hero, but he’s not the only one in Spookehouse that’s worth mentioning. Scat Dazzle is an immortal jazz man and voodoo priest possessed by the mighty Loa of death named Baron Samedi, Hiram Mottra, a psychic who can’t really read thoughts but looks like a 19th century traveler so it’s OK, a boxer named Sammy “Haystack” Kayo who breaks ribs with his magical fists and Moloch, a demon rejected by Heaven and Hell. Every one of them deserves their own game.

Scientist, technician, medic, paranormal researcher, inventor, investigator and a field agent all in one person, the doctor Elsphet Holliday supplies The Stranger with weapons and devices, and she appears in a leading role of Nocturne’s Curse of the Blair Witch inspired spin-off Blair Witch Vol. 1: Rustin Parr. A major part of Spookhouse reappears in this title – old martial arts master Khen Rigzin, head of the organization colonel Hapscomb, his friend general Biggs, even The Stranger himself as a supporting character, but most importantly half-vampire Svetlana Lupescu.

Why most importantly? Simply because she’s another member of the crew who became a heroine of a different game, or more likely a game series, although she was renamed to Rayne, because Svetlana obviously wasn’t adequately cool. BloodRayne was initially meant to be Nocturne 2, but Terminal Reality did some major changes when their inner circle began to collapse and weren’t able to find a publisher because the franchise wasn’t sufficiently profitable. Anyway, there is no doubt that Rayne is Svetlana. You can also notice some references to Nocturne – a couple of similar enemies, the artifact Heart of Belial is actually the Yathfoe-Gyoule stone, and… one of the chapters takes place at the Gaustadt castle, which finally leads us back to reviewing the game from the heading. You can’t, however, deny the fascinating connection between all these franchises.

The story is divided into four chapters, but I’m going to stop here. Instead of one consistent story-line, there are four acts, or episodes whatever you want to call them), with separate narrations, connected to each other only chronologically and by involving Spookhouse operatives and playable in any order from the very beginning. All of them are great and distinct, which is fantastic for the elimination of stereotyped gameplay. It also helps the game build a functional pulp structure with noir elements.

Each act is set in another place in the world. The Stranger has to fight a bloodsucker count behind the walls of a German castle, he battles zombies and ancient gods in Texas and undead mobsters in Chicago. While the first two chapters are more or less horrific experiences with all the thrill and tension every horror game has to have, the third one takes things in a different direction. Then everything concludes in a fourth episode, which is focused on solving puzzles and encounters with enemies from the previous three acts as you are all trapped together in the House at the Edge of Hell.

The controls are similar to a bunch of another games from the 1990′s, like the Alone in the Dark or Resident Evil, only with a slightly simplified inventory. You’ve got a slot with weapons in one and with items on the other side of the screen and you move around open locations, explore both interiors and exteriors, solve riddles, shoot monsters (when equipped with pistols, you can even target two creatures at once) and talk to NPCs. The world of Nocturne feels lively and its dark style makes the horror elements work even after all these years. It keeps you thrilled and makes you shiver. Also, it won’t allow you to see much on the screenshots. The graphics aren’t bad though, the game’s engine is capable of cloth animations, dynamic lighting and real-time shadows.

Nocturne is brutal –- blood-covered limbs and viscera are everywhere and flames burn enemies into lumps of coal. To be even more explicit, the developers weren’t worried about using uncensored sexual themes. Poorly-dressed vampire brides are only the tip of the iceberg. In one passage, The Stranger is seduced by a succubus, not mentioning that a visit to a whorehouse awaits in Chicago.

Unfortunately, the comparisons to Resident Evil extend to some clumsy tank controls. Thankfully, you can assign partial handling of the Stranger’s movement and aiming to the mouse, but I strongly recommend going only with keyboard. It’s not perfect, but it could be worse. So is the fixed camera, which is a mixed bag, as is the case with many games of this era. Maybe it can offer a cinematic experience, but it also can easily confuse you with an unexpected change of angle.

Completely astonishing are the sound design, and especially the incredibly well done voice-over work. Lynn Mathis with his harsh and cynical tone is fantastic as The Stranger as well as the dub actors of supporting characters. What’s not quite as awesome are the in-game cut-scenes, which are unnatural, awkward and buggy. It’s a shame that Terminal Reality didn’t use live-action scenes like in the amazing, almost surrealistic trailers and the game’s opening.

The Final Word: Nocturne is almost a gem from the survival horror genre’s past. It’s one of the top games of its kind from the late 1990′s and it deserves a much larger audience that it was able to find. If you want to play a terrifying game, or if you like pulp stories and noir fiction, and you don’t mind the blatant copying of Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft or Alfred Hitchcock, then definitely try this game.

Nocturne is available on PC (reviewed).