Modern game design has seen a boom in games sporting a mixture of genres, drawing inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Some fusions combine well for a unique experience, like the shooter-puzzling combo underpinning Superhot or the roguelike and metroidvania blend of Dead Cells. Other aspects of this multi-disciplinary approach to design fall a bit flat, like the unnecessary inclusion of a crafting system in nearly every title released after Minecraft‘s success. One genre that has mostly stayed undiluted until now, however, is the rhythm game. Be it fast-stepping in Dance Dance Revolution or finding fresh challenges for the plastic guitar in Clone Hero, rhythm games are all about precision and score chasing with little in the way of story to tie one song to the next. Nocturne: Prelude takes a different approach, fusing rhythm gameplay with a traditional RPG adventure. The first part of a longer piece, this two-hour experience builds a captivating world of mystery and intrigue.
In the world of Nocturne: Prelude, death is not a big deal. Souls in this futuristic society are uploaded to a digital afterlife, a guaranteed paradise where loved ones live out eternity in peace. On their deathbed, protagonist Karma is comforted by this certainty, looking forward to seeing their brother again. After they pass away, however, the digital world they arrive in is not the utopia advertised. The city surrounding the entry point is deserted, buildings run down and broken. Monsters roam empty streets, corrupted code flickering at the edges of their claws. The one friendly presence Karma encounters, a young boy named Kimothy, is startled by Karma’s sudden appearance, as no other humans have been uploaded in over a thousand years. Determined to find their brother and get some answers, Karma delves further into the digital world, Kimothy trailing in their wake.
Shortly into the adventure, Karma gains the ability to fight back against the monsters, an affinity with the digital world expressed in the form of a rhythm game. Notes fall to the bottom of the screen in four columns, each lane corresponding to a different key. Time the button presses well and Karma will evade enemy attacks, with surviving until the end of a song granting victory. Nocturne: Prelude offers five difficulty settings, each of which offers a pretty decent challenge. Higher levels give Karma less health and more notes to strike, leaving a slim margin for error. With vague memories of being pretty good at Guitar Hero, I started out on the Hard difficulty setting, but I quickly had to switch down to Normal after the first few monsters ground me into dust. Thankfully the difficulty setting can be adjusted at any save point, and I enjoyed the challenge of improving my scores once I found a setting that did not murder me instantly.
Each type of monster has a unique note pattern, and the complexity of enemies increases smoothly over the course of the journey, introducing different types of notes and shifting columns at a steady clip. Between my initial rustiness and the sliding placement of columns in the late game, the lack of distinctive colors or patterns for each note lead to some confusion. Of the four lanes, the outer lanes have notes depicted in blue, and the inner ones are colored green. While I seemed to have no issue with the blue columns, I would constantly get the green ones mixed up, especially in a boss fight where the column placement shifts around. By the end of the game I had gotten the hang of the system, but a distinct color for each key would help greatly with reading the screen, even if it would be less aesthetically pleasing.
Out of battle, the player’s time is mainly spent learning about the world. Nocturne: Prelude finds a wonderful concord between the game’s two gameplay styles through Karma’s connection with the digital space, using their musical ability to calm the discord of a decaying reality. While the slow drip feed of world-building is beautiful and Kimothy’s playful nature is a perfect foil to Karma’s seriousness, the role-playing side of the game feels a little underutilized. Karma does not gain experience from battle (although health-boosting equipment can be found), the inventory system is essentially unused, and no puzzles are to be found in the adventure. Clever storytelling and fun rhythm combat make Nocturne: Prelude enjoyable as it is, but exploring more of the RPG side of the fusion could further strengthen the experience.
The viewpoint in Nocturne: Prelude is pulled out a bit further than as is typical for an RPG, making Karma appear small and vulnerable. Gorgeously detailed pixel artwork further sets the scene, the distorted nature of the world clear through an upward-flowing waterfall and hexagonally chipped edges of the earth. Music is used masterfully, ebbing and flowing with the mood of the game. Monster battles in the early grassy fields fight to a traditional RPG fanfare, whereas the creatures lurking in twisted catacombs lash out with a heavy industrial beat. Each song is catchy and moreish, perfect for the repetitive play needed to earn a high score.
I might not be a Guitar Hero savant anymore, but I enjoyed putting those rusty skills back into use with Nocturne: Prelude. The game layers atmosphere and mystery so beautifully through the course of the adventure and ends at just the right moment to leave the player wanting more. If Nocturne: Prelude is received well, developer Pracy Studios plans to launch a Kickstarter to continue the story. Those interested in following the project can find information on its official website.
Next week we will be playing Loop-Loop DX, an arcade shooter that shifts style and storyline with every screen. The game can be downloaded from Steam. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions will be happening in the Discord server.