If you thought it was bad enough having to run through a world full of your own nightmares, spare a thought for young Billy. The star of Nightmare Boy, it is up to you to jump into his shoes and head off on a Metroidvania style adventure set in his very worst nightmares. But not only is that a tough enough ask in itself, Billy must also help ten other young kids escape from the same dark world – and their own terrible nightmares.
When Billy is magically transformed into a mysterious alter-ego, the adventures of Nightmare Boy really begin. It is here where you’ll find a huge emphasis on exploration, whilst being constantly filled in from a wide range of weird and wonderful characters – both good and bad – on all the details of the strange, rather disturbing, story that envelops the entire world.
Amid that journey of discovery, you’ll find that Billy is forced to go hand to hand, and range to range, against all manner of crazed enemies, taking them down the best that he can and scooping up precious gems and crystals in the process. It works well, at least the exploration side of things does, and it’s a bit of a treat to send Billy up, down and across the cleverly unfolding world that is before him.
It all comes together in your usual Metroidvania style explorative adventure, but the problems for me start to occur in regards the combat; something that is plentiful in its frequency. Even though the overall tale is a good one – although I’d like to see less chat and more adventure – the numerous fighting moments initially sour the entire experience.
You see, this is because the second you decide to get up close and personal with an enemy, swinging your fists and whatever else you can get your grubby mitts on, the whole thing turns into a bit of a farce. At the heart of it is the strange decision to cover any attacks with an entire visual smokescreen and full on screen shake. This in turn allows for little in the way of precision, leaving you never knowing whether it is you doing the attacking, or whether the bad guy in your way is delivering devastating blow after devastating blow. It’s strange, and in no way breeds confidence in the fighting mechanics which are in place, instead leaving you to either throw a punch, before retreating to safety, or just stand hammering the attack button in the hope that you are stronger than your foe. This makes for some super slow progress at the best of times, especially as you initially get to grips with the whole Nightmare Boy premise. It does get easier the more you progress, but some of those worst moments come about in the really dire times of need, normally when you find yourself stumbling upon another kid, caged up by a boss character, and left to try to figure out the best course of action in order to free him.
With multiple forms of attacks coming your way from these bosses, and you never really knowing whether your attacks are making an impact, progression is left to stutter, seeing Billy quickly thrown back to the last save point before heading back on in again, all as you hold out in the hope that you can learn a pattern or two and manage to defeat that which is in front of you.
It’s super frustrating and borders on the verge of inducing game quitting rage, especially seeing as the distance between save chances, and the bosses themselves are large and frequented by all manner of other smaller enemies. Death at the hands of a boss character just a few times is nearly enough to see you packing Nightmare Boy in for the night and heading off to play something a little more forgiving. Throw in the fact that saving the game itself is something which has to be hugely considered before you go ahead with it, as each time you save the game, the bigger an increase in gem payout is required, and you’ll very often be left between a rock and a hard place, never wanting to waste the crystals you’ve expertly gathered from previous enemy encounters. And you can be sure that the second you find yourself saving for real life reasons, you’ll stumble upon a point in time when that spending of gems comes back to bite you.
Should you manage to fight your way past the odd boss or ten though, and you’ll have ensured the safety of another child, who in turn will happily reward you with a new special power and the chance for easier progression. There are multiple powers to gather up and utilise, with your standard jump quickly upgraded to a double and then triple option. Wall holding is also a welcome bonus, whilst the chance to fire out different projectiles helps stop the pinnikity close quarters combat from ruining the show.
With the screen shake and tough boss encounters aside, everything else that occurs in Nightmare Boy is however super smooth and well designed. There is a slight issue with the jumping mechanics, and it never really allows for much confidence when Billy takes his feet off the ground – even after jumping upgrades have been put in place – but you’ll need to use it to the best of your ability as the huge open world has plenty of secrets and hidden alleyways to uncover. Multiple areas with their own unique designs and opponents are just begging to be explored and Billy will need to be set free in order to gather up those all important skill upgrades. Those only come about via progression though, and even though there are three difficulty levels, for anyone to really enjoy Nightmare Boy and not be left frustrated at every turn, the easy option is most definitely the way ahead. Don’t let that ‘easy’ mode fool you though as it’s still pretty tough – just you won’t be left dying every ten seconds.
The visuals are also more than decent – at least with the horrible retro filter switched off – and whilst they are never going to wow the crowds, the combination of ‘90s and cartoon style graphics are a good choice by the development team at The Vanir Project. The sound also compliments those visual choices beautifully and whether it is the soundtrack that you enjoy, or the well appointed sound effects you like to listen in on, matters little, as everything has a place and does a job.
Even that damn save system does what has been intended of it, and even though I personally hate the fact that the bolder, better, more skilful players will find that Nightmare Boy save points aren’t the be all and end all of life, for us mere gaming mortals, the fact that we are effectively being punished for saving multiple times somewhat rankles with me. By all means ensure that those points of note are more costly the further you get through the game, but when the same checkpoint costs spiral out of control just because the gamer is worried about what is ahead, then something needs to be done about it. We’re not all hardcore speedrun-loving gaming gods and I feel the entire checkpoint and save system could well be enough to put many a casual gamer off. Thankfully the gems which are used to pay for the saving privilege are plentiful in supply, and it won’t take you too long to start farming and gathering up a decent amount of spares, so at least that’s a small crumb of comfort. But in the very beginning, it’s a tough matter which immediately puts the player on the back foot.
It’s good to see that that system has not quite been enough to see me having my own nightmares over Nightmare Boy. I love the visuals, I adore the soundtrack and I feel the huge open world that is being delivered is ripe for exploration purposes. But the sheer ruthlessness of the bosses that have caged the poor children is just a bit too much to bear, as is the struggle back from the checkpoint after they have wiped you out for what seems like the millionth time.
By all means jump into the world of Billy and his nightmares, but you should be aware that the difficulty and horrible screen shake that is on offer may just be seeing you losing some sleep of your own.