Review by Meho Krljic
NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits
Developer Over the Top
Publisher Over the Top
Released 16 June, 2009
Available for Wii (WiiWare)
Time Played Six hours (but I am really slow)
Verdict: 4/5 Thumbs Up
“Being the goddess of night sucks when you’re up against an angry Sun. But it makes for lovely platform gaming.”
So, this is how it’s gonna be, eh? The world will go ahead mocking Wii for not having “proper” games and when proper games get lovingly made and released, the world will just proceed to ignore them. That’s not nice, world, that’s not nice at all.
Nintendo’s online service for distribution of original games, WiiWare is full of quirky stuff. There are some really high profile releases to be found there, such as the recently released telephone-port Final Fantasy: IV The After Years and then there’s an ocean of poisonous shovelware too. But, and this is important, there are some really imaginative, really original games to be found there, that justify the existence of WiiWare as a channel for developers who are rich in skills and ideas but poor in money and PR opportunities. And I don’t mean just World of Goo or Strong Bad games that also happen to be on other platforms, I mean stuff like LostWinds too – original, exclusive titles with a good grasp on what Wii as a platform is about, playing not only to the strengths of the hardware but also paying attention to the demographic handling the hardware.
And by ‘demographic’ in the above paragraph, I mean ‘the hardcore’. Because, it is not only the caffeine fuelled Mega Man-worshipping posse who are the ‘true’ hardcore clutching their WiiMotes and grinding their teeth in silent prayers for real games on WiiWare. It’s the people who enjoy clever game mechanics (without having to quit your job and abandon your wife in order to actually master the game) but also enjoy beauty, ambiance, measured storytelling, a bit of dreamlike fantasies in their games. This is the Zelda posse, the traditional Nintendo demographic, longing for games that are clever, challenging but also relaxed and beautiful, above all otherworldly, games that make you really dream with your eyes wide open because you are allowed to fantasise but are not punished for letting your attention wander and your emotions fly. LostWinds was a bit like this and dammit, NyxQuest is a lot like this too.
Cursed from birth
Let’s get something out of the way immediately. I will not go on addressing this game by its new title, NyxQuest. Because I hate when game developers make words by splicing existing words together and preserving the original capitalisation. That’s old and retarded at the same time (no offense to our brothers with special needs) and, yes, LostWinds did it too but I’ll be damned if I didn’t die a little inside every single time I typed that game title. LostWinds, LostWinds, LostWinds, see? Can you hear my soul wriggle in agony with every single repetition of this ‘word’? Wriggle like a fucking eel!!! (And hello to all the Whitehouse fans who have reached our website through the magic of googling, this one went out just for you!!!)
In this particular case I have an extra reason to feel rebellious. Namely, this game, when it was released was called Icarian: Kindred Spirits and that’s what is still says on my television screen every time I boot my Wii. For some reason or other – they will not disclose the full, undoubtedly horrible truth beneath it – the developer/ publisher Over the Top changed the title mere days after the launch, citing unspecified legal reasons but making a point that Nintendo’s own Kid Icarus is NOT the reason.
Now, people who have no spine probably went out and downloaded a patch that changed their game title to NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits (ugh… wriggle…) but not this proud and angry spine-owner over here. No. I will not submit to the horrors of double capitalisation just because a stupid trademark infringement took place somewhere in the universe and really, you can trademark words like Icarian?? Come on, I mean: 1) it’s not even a real word and 2) even if it was, it’s derived from the name Icarus and that one’s been around the block a fair bit so a corporation claiming exclusive use should, for the encore try and trademark words like ‘God’, ‘War’ and, hell, why not go crazy here, ‘of’ too. Let’s see those Sony bitches cough up some serious dough next time they try to infringe on other people’s property.
So, Icarian it is, on my TV and in this review. It’s pretty, it’s much more elegant and even if it’s not a proper word it doesn’t contain any double capitalisation.
Anyway, the curse referred to in the sub-heading is not just about the name. It’s the fact that the game has spent its time since launch until today largely under the radar. Despite being pretty good. And pretty. And good.
Why is that? Well, because the game is released in Europe but not in North America. And all the major gaming websites are – you guessed it, in North America.
I do not claim to be an expert on software sales but I find region-locking of downloadable games insulting. Sure, there must be some reasons for this (and I bet they have to do with copyright/ trademark bureaucracy all over again) but, really? Yes, with disc-based games region-locking is an attempt to squash piracy (which works for Microsoft to some extent and doesn’t work for Nintendo to any since beating
Nintendo’s region lock on DVD games is like a light warmup before taking some sweet, sweet candy from an evil, evil baby) but what the HELL are region locks doing in my downloadable games? It defies logic and basic human decency to not be able to purchase a game online just because you’re in a wrong country and seriously, Internet is all about negating distances and providing instant service so what the hell? When Tatsunoko vs. Capcom finally makes it to the west, I will be able to play it against people sitting in goddamn Ukraine and South Africa without leaving my sofa and yet, there are WiiWare games sitting on Nintendo’s servers that you can not buy if you’re in the wrong region.
Icarian is one of them. As I type these words, the game is still only available in Europe and the North American release is to be announced. Which means, most of the people reading this review will be unable to purchase and play it if they happen to think it might be worth their money and time. We do this for our European legions, though. Tap-Repeatedly is global!!
We also do this because we hope the game will eventually get a North American release and because not being released in the NTSC territories as yet essentially means it’s so far been ignored by all the major online gaming publications. This game deserves better.
Kid of War
Now, game reviewers will often write about a new game using the ancient, refined art of namechecking existing games and drawing comparisons between them. It’s not just because the writers are lazy (although, judging by this one here hitting the keys on my desk – they are), it’s because the audience is lazy. For all the imagination we claim we crave in our games, we are a terribly conservative lot and our industry is built on iterative development and imitation. We want to now how similar something new is to something familiar and this accounts not just for the gazillions of sequels and spinoffs out there but for the gaming journalism that essentially has to reference existing titles to be able to speak about new ones at all.
So. Icarian is somewhat similar to Kid Icarus. Ooooh, screw it, Icarian is actually God of War, only female God of War and in two dimensions and with a lot less fighting and a lot more flapping of those majestic icarian wings. Well… actually it’s not like God of War very much, but it does take place in (mythical) ancient Greece, the main character is a deity of sorts (the goddess of night if you must know) and, seriously, those wings, man, they work exactly like the set Kratos had ripped from Icarus’ back.
OK, for real now, yo, Icarian is a sidescrolling platform game taking place in a 2D mythical Greek landscape that makes great use of parallax scrolling, rigid body physics and some carefully placed 3D objects.
Its plot is a simple search and rescue affair. As everyone knows, Icarus was a crazy gangbanger who happened to fly so high on his wings made of feather and wax that he almost bumped into the sun itself, had the wax melted away by the excessive solar heat and fell down to the ground from great height, dying from impact. It’s one of the most potent metaphors (for drugs!!!) of our shared culture and also made for a great Iron Maiden song.
Now, for the purposes of writing this game’s plot, the developers imagined that Icarus is not dead, just injured really, really bad. As he lies broken on the ground, the Sun-God, Helios decides to finish the job and amps up the heat like crazy. Clearly, Helios is one bad mother and nothing like the nice Sun-Deity all other fiction (in games and otherwise) makes him look like. He is the villain in this game but you will never see him in person.
Instead, you will see Nyx, the goddess of night, a frail, elegant girl who happened to take a liking to Icarus while he was fluttering through her domain. Nyx feels that she and Icarus are kindred spirits (TM right there brothers and sisters!!!) and decides to descend to Earth from wherever it is she’s at and chillin’ during the day and try and reach Icarus before he dies from the heat (and what we must imagine are massive, massive fractures throughout his skeleton).
Now, the Earth is a hostile place when you are a goddess of the night and there is an angry Sun-God pissing excessive heat all over it. On her side, Nyx has only her touching determination to not let Icarus die, a pair of beautiful white wings on her back and some backhanded support from Zeus, Eolus and Hera.
Of course, if Zeus really wanted to deal with Helios acting like a brat he could probably do it in a more hands-on way (after all, we have all seen how he never hesitated to jump into the fray in that Sony game with that tattooed guy in the leading role that I will not name out of respect for trademarks) but then again, this is ancient Greece we are talking about – gods who are just as pesky, egotistical and sneaky as your average human. So, Nyx has to settle for some superpowers in lieu of a proper divine intervention that would ensure everyone’s happy and back home for dinner.
We are not complaining this time around because otherwise there wouldn’t be any game here and also, those are some awesome superpowers.
The art of design
Icarian is a platform game that is about getting from left to right. It’s not about collecting stuff (although there is some stuff to collect) and it’s not about combat (although you will be doing some combat). It’s about getting from left to right in an environment that is hostile to our frail protagonist (er… ess?) and solving mild environmental puzzles through the use of several special, oh screw it, superpowers at her disposal.
First off, the ground is deadly. Helios made sure that sands of Greece are so freaking hot that touching them even for a second will take some of Nyx’s health. So instead of just walking to Icarus, Nyx will have to jump and climb from one stone structure to the other, avoiding to touch sand. So far so platformy, but in a good way. As an aside, it’s interesting how games placed in ancient Greece tend to assume that Greek engineers never bothered with building proper buildings but went straight to the ruins instead. OK, you will be seeing some ‘proper’ buildings too but you will see a lot of ruins and create some more to boot.
Nyx can not really fly with her wings (because, goddess or not, she’s still a woman and it’s obvious to every thinking person that if people could fly, it would be us, men who would do it while women would be standing on the ground admiring our awesome aerial skills, making sweet love to us and cooking our dinners with a smile afterwards) but she has a multiple jump skill and can also glide for limited periods of time. Many platform games give you double jumps to the point where this is practically a game design requirement, but Nyx is a lot more vertical than that. You can do up to six consecutive (mid-air, that is) jumps and combined with gliding, this means you can reach some really high points in the scenery as well as travel great distances without touching the nasty burning sands.
A lot of the puzzles in the game are designed around this mechanic and it never really gets old. Nyx is an elegant little woman and learning how to make the best out of her multiple jumps and gliding is a pleasure in itself. Towards the end of the game, manoeuvring complex spaces and avoiding static and moving obstacles will be your second nature.
However, Gods mentioned above also bestow other useful powers (superpowers, that is) on Nyx. Zeus will give her the ability to move heavy objects with the power of waggle and catch fireballs in mid-air. Eolus will allow her to control the direction of wind and near the end of the game, Nyx will also get to smite her enemies by shooting thunderbolts at them. Oh, yes.
All this combined makes for some really lovely puzzles. Icarian is all about figuring out how to move forward through an environment that is actively and passively blocking your progress and it’s a mixture of good thinking and manual dexterity that will get you beyond most obstacles.
And there are many. On the animate side of the fence you get harpies, funny little satyrs and an assortment of… er… giant serpents made of black smoke. Now, the last ones might just be one animal, the mythical Hydra, the many headed serpentine beast, but the problem with this is that, as its name suggests, Hydra is all about three things: water, water and water. What the hell is it doing buried in burning hot sands and waiting for an unsuspecting goddess of night to pass?
Poetic license, brothers and sister, that’s what it’s doing!! You want realism? Go read Homer once again, nerd!! Or… er… don’t.
Anyway, you get really cool giant serpents spitting black smoke and fireballs at you at certain places in the game. This is coolTM.
On the inanimate side of the fence you get… a lot of stuff. Spikes, hot sands, fireballs, winds, gigantic stone pillars, some more spikes (but these ones move), sand-geysers, really scary gigantic eyes that scorch the world if they spot you sneaking past them, you get deadly black fogTM, unstable architecture and architecture that just crashes when you walk (or even glide) over it and in the end even the goddamn Sun gets in on the action and starts lobbing fireballs at Nyx.
The real issue here is how near-perfect the pacing of the game is. Over the Top managed to make a simple, almost sparse platformer that still feels fresh and exciting. This is a cheap game, make no mistake and it has none of the decadent excess of titles like Donkey Konga Jungle Beat or even Braid. And yet, Icarian feels perfectly natural in its careful design of levels and puzzles, all the way to the sparse but functional in-game economy so overcoming the obstacles always brings you pure gaming pleasure.
The simplicity of the game guarantees that you will never be stuck for more than a few minutes but on the other hand, careful variation of puzzle themes and set-pieces ensures that you are always enjoying something new in relation to what you’ve just passed.
Also, the controls are goodTM. This is a Wii game that actually makes great use of motion controls and makes you effortlessly get used to increasingly complex control schemes. Near the end of the game you will be running, jumping, gliding, flying around obstacles, moving large chunks of architecture on screen and shooting enemies all at the same time and it will feel natural and slick. Moving gigantic stone structures with the WiiMote and moving Nyx around them gives the player something akin to proper tactile pleasure because the physics working under the hood are solid. Yes, you will be killing poor Nyx once in a while by dropping a huge rock on the top of her head, but it’s not the game’s fault that your hands are not what they used to be back in the days.
Also, for a game that makes heavy use of waggleTM, you actually do not encounter many problems with pointing accuracy or your arms getting tired quickly, which means that the developers managed to reach near-perfection with their design.
The same goes for checkpointing which is beyond sensible and is almost perfect. You play Icarian because you enjoy progress and seeing new and interesting puzzles. You don’t play it because the goddamn chokepoint that made you die seventy times in a row MUST be defeated because now it’s personal and it’s a question of your manhood.
However, there is the proverbial other side of the medal to observe here. Icarian is a very easy gameTM. So easy that, for all of its smart and slick design it’s practically an exercise in entry-level platforming. This is not a bad thing in itself, but may be an issue with the hardcore of any kind. I mean, if yours truly managed to beat it in six hours, a proper person will have it done in three. The challenge here is never overwhelming but the more sturdy types among us will no doubt claim that there never is any challenge. Most puzzles can be figured out upon first look and the physical skills needed to then implement the solution are of a kind that almost any random person can achieve with some light training.
I repeat, this is not a bad thing in itself, but for the most of you reading this review it means that Icarian will be a brief, easy experience with simple puzzles and little replay value. To mitigate the issue a little bit, the developers have created some two dozen secrets – essentially just collectible objects placed around the gameworld that you have to go slightly out of your way to obtain. After the first playthrough I only had seven of those so of course there is some replay value here, but I repeat: Braid this is not. It’s friendly, it’s easy, it never insults your intelligence because its puzzles and set pieces are smart but it also never makes you work very hard.
The design of art
There is, of course a whole other set of reasons why you should give Icarian a chance. Namely, it’s beautiful. Again, you can criticise it here too: the landscape never really changes, it’s brown sands, scorching sun and brown buildings wall to wall. All the harpies, satyrs and, er, SandHydrasTM look the same. But all of it looks lovely. Yes, more variety would be welcome, but Icarian really wins you over with its art direction, its lovely simplified take on Greek architecture, its sense of verticality. Nyx herself is not extremely pretty but there is certain iconic power around her and dammit, have those 2D scrolling platformers of the eighties ever relied on the beauty of their lead character or on their agility?
Sound design is also sparse but extremely functional (you most definitely have all the necessary information to make decisions at all times) and the music is so good it enriches the experience by a considerable margin. Without it, Icarian would still be a competent platforming game with awesome use of motion controls, but with it Icarian is a thing of mythical beauty, a game that touches your spirit in ways that few games manage to.
So there you have it. Icarian, or NyxQuest as it will presumably be referred to when it hits American shores is a thing of quiet, measured beauty in its presentation as well as in its gameplay. Not the most challenging or the most outlandishly imaginative title out there, it still manages to be one of the most precious games on WiiWare through a virtue of being friendly, smart and very well controlled. If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a chance when it is available in the download service near youTM because it’s not just that we need games like this. Wii needs them too. Make sure big NTM becomes aware of it.