The difference between clever and cunning.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Nefarious Review

Not many games let you actually play the villain. Not just choose the selfish or cruel option on a conversation wheel, but step into the boots of the villain of the story. Any thug can bully the weak. Conquering the world with style and vision is not so trivial a task. Nefarious is a welcome entry into a lightly populated field, earning a place alongside such black-hearted classics as Dungeon Keeper and Overlord.

Nefarious is an affectionate parody of the classic hero/villain rivalries of gaming. Playing as Crow, latest in a long line of bird-themed air pirates, your quest is to travel to each of the lands of your world, defeat the resident hero, and kidnap the resident princess. Once you have enough of them to run your royalty powered doomsday device you can finally give the world the conquering it so richly deserves. 

Each level has a clear art direction and theme. Tsarist era Russia and dwarves go together well.
Least the story appear a bit regressive it quickly becomes clear that each princess is a character in their own right, not just a McGuffin. The narrative has a lot of fun with the classic trope, giving it due homage without becoming too predictable or dull. In some cases what Crow insists is a kidnapping looks more like a rescue. Other princess are formidable enough that Crow looks more like the one who needs to be saved. 

Villainy Victorious

Nefarious is also a much needed example of the Kickstarter model of development done right. This is an era when other high profile projects like Mighty No. 9 land with a resounding flop, and John Romero himself can’t get a project funded. Despite just barely hitting their funding goal of a modest 50k the team at Starblade delivered an excellent final product. It’s encouraging to see somebody pulling off a success and delivering what was promised, avoiding cardinal sins like bloat, feature creep, and the abyss of forum drama.

A good villain bestrides worlds like a Titan, planetarium models or otherwise.
Nefarious’ core gameplay is classic 2-D side-scrolling platforming. Crow runs and jumps his way through levels, disposing of enemies and obstacles with a swing of his oversized mechanical fist. More intriguingly Crow can launch bouncing grenades from a limited but automatically regenerating supply. 

Crow takes no damage from his own grenades, but when carefully timed their explosions send him hurtling through the air. Grenade jumping takes a while to get the hang of, but once you manage it makes movement an explosive joy. Speed runners and collectible hunters will find mastering the technique worth their time. 

Not every level is pure platforming.
Nefarious is also un-afraid to shake up its core mechanics. Once kidnapped each princesses changes Crow’s abilities for the duration of your escape. This can be as simple as a floaty jump or as complex as letting your grenades create short lived platforms. A few levels, such as a mellow undersea exploration sequence, change up gameplay entirely. 

Like a Boss

Boss fights with heroes cleverly reverse the traditional formula. Crow, after all, is a videogame boss himself. When he goes toe to toe with a hero it is inevitably from the cockpit of some sort of giant death machine. These fights are short but sweet, quick to learn and tremendous fun. For once you’re the one trying to to crush, smash, or vaporize a smaller, more nimble opponent while protecting your giant obvious weak point.

It's nice to be the one in the giant robot, for once.
The difficulty curve is sharp. While the opening level might lull you into a false sense of security, the platforming skills and reflexes demanded to progress quickly become demanding. The optional levels and alternate ending boss are just straight up Nintendo hard, though this is certainly appropriate given the source material. 

Fortunately you have unlimited lives. The checkpoint system is challenging but not sadistic. Deaths tank your rating for a level, but this is only relevant if you are going for the related achievement. Death also shaves off a modest percentage of your current cash, but this can be recovered simply by reaching that point again. Generally you can hurl Crow into the acid/lava as many times as necessary to memorize a sequence and finally get it right.

Late game levels can get quite demanding.
Much like the early platformers it pays homage to, Nefarious is not a lengthy game. Most first runs are unlikely to take more than 4-6 hours. Multiple endings, optional levels, and a host of challenge based achievements add a lot of value for the dedicated. The tight scope and design keeps the game from wearing out its welcome.

Devils and Details

While voice acting is quite sparse the character portraits that accompany dialog are crisp and full of personality. A few of the in game characters can look a bit crude or even fuzzy by comparison. Hitboxes are also slightly wonky, especially when Crow is lugging a princess over his shoulder. Crow himself has just a touch more momentum than I like in a platformer that asks for this level of precision.

Between mission interludes occur on Crow's command ship, the Sovereign.
These minor polish issues are likely a result of Nefarious’s modest indie budget. To be fair I only really noticed them because I was having so much fun with the game I gave it a second playthrough. More seriously some achievements were not awarding properly, and one strange bug left the Sovereign (Crow’s skyship and mission hub) almost un-populated on re-loading a saved game, interfering with progression and access to some of the optional missions. 

An excellent sound-track and surprisingly strong writing and characterization rounds out the experience. Some tracks are quite catchy (Give the train robbery level music a listen below), and each does a great job setting the atmosphere of the level. Characters are coherent and consistent. Crow himself is amusingly aware of the tropes that govern his world and how to navigate them to his advantage without it coming off as obnoxious.

If you have any appetite for platforming I highly recommend Nefarious. While the reverse boss battles alone likely could have carried the game, Nefarious works hard to deliver compelling gameplay within its tightly controlled scope. The game handles its source material with respect and affection while being unafraid to build its own memorable world and cast. 

Reasons to Play: Clever use of premise and reverse boss battles. Excellent sound track. Indie Kickstarter development done right.

Reasons to Pass: Slight polish issues. Sharp difficulty curve.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.