Yeah, yeah, everybody makes their lists about scary, creepy, or flat-out weird games to play each October and we’re not about to buck the trend. But we’re going to assume you’re a retro gamer who’s read enough to know the big franchises everybody else writes about. Because if you’ve picked up a controller in the last fifteen years, you know about Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Dino Crisis. You’ve played Sweet Home‘s NES translation, you’ve watched an Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem long play on YouTube, and if some scarf-wearing hipster starts harping on Fatal Frame again, you will stuff his camera where the flash won’t illuminate. Where does one go from there? Well, we’ve got some ideas with which to season your braincase if you care to join us.
Nocturne – PC: Terminal Reality’s Nocturne was one of the most ambitious horror projects of the late 90s. They spent an absolutely insane amount of money and time working to perfect everything from the way light cast appropriate shadows to the way the clothing on a character’s back fluttered in the digital breeze. That’s how hardcore these guys were: they spent months developing and fine-tuning a cloth physics engine to ensure the main character’s trench coat behaved like a trench coat at a time when most designers would have just used a few extra polygons on the model, set some simple animations, and moved on to the next werewolf.
Unfortunately, Nocturne tried to set the bar too high in too many places, and we all know what happens when you try to be all things to all people. That it wound up failing to clear this massive hurdle is sad, but the end result is what similar products like Daikatana could have only wished to be: beautiful, playable, but tragically flawed. I’m a sucker for hard luck cases though–of course I fell in love with Nocturne.
It’s not hard, initially, to be completely swept away by the game’s graphics, which were jaw-dropping by 1999’s standards. Whether you’re traversing an ancient, weather-beaten castle in Germany, or trading shots with tommygun-wielding mobsters in a derelict area of downtown Chicago, Nocturne‘s environments are some of the most lovingly-rendered you’ll ever see in a horror game. Torches flicker on the walls of caves, your flashlight illuminates corners which swiftly return to shadow as your beam sweeps past, trees sway in the angry winds, and ugly gargoyles transform into engines of flying, screaming death right before your eyes. “Atmospheric” doesn’t begin to do this game justice–playing Nocturne is nothing less than taking up temporary residence in the darkest corners of countrysides we’d all just as soon not visit.
You play as The Stranger, a gravel-voiced and otherwise nameless agent of a secret government project called The Spookhouse. Founded by Teddy Roosevelt after a hunting trip in which he successfully hunted and killed a werewolf, The Spookhouse is The X-Files given the film noir treatment. Operatives are dispatched to deal with supernatural issues as varied as a plague of zombies in a small Texas mining town, a mob boss going all Frankenstein on his dead gangsters, a powerful vampire holding the German countryside hostage, and werewolves popping up in places they were thought wiped out. Spookhouse has several other operatives at their disposal, including Elspeth “Doc” Holliday, a scientist who invents new ways for the team to suppress and destroy their enemies; Svetlana Lupescu, a half-human, half-vampire who fights against her full-vampire brethren (and who was the inspiration for Rayne from Terminal Reality’s Bloodrayne series); Scat Dazzle, a New Orleans-born voodoo child who shares his body with a powerful Haitian Loa named Baron Samedi; and Moloch, an honest-to-Lucifer demon who took up with Spookhouse after his own kind tossed him out of Hell on his ass. Fox Mulder, eat your heart out.
The game also contains a good bit of humor mixed in with all the darkness. The Spookhouse is protected by a bored secretary, who has long since tired of asking for the password each time an operative shows up in her office. The Stranger and his partners often have disagreements about the best way to solve problems–Stranger’s your average “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” type, which puts him at odds with Doc Holliday who would prefer the opportunity to study live specimens, and he refuses to trust anyone who isn’t completely human which leads to some tense arguments when he’s paired with Svetlana to hunt vampires in Germany. Prior to the mission, Stranger’s given a gun that projects a powerful beam of light which Holliday has dubbed “The Sun of God”. Holliday reminds him Svetlana is half-vampire, and suggests he not use it when she’s around him, a notion met with a shrug and a remark that he’ll “take his chances.” OK, I got a chuckle out of it at least.
As mentioned before, Nocturne‘s reach far exceeded its grasp. The control is best-described as “wonky”, with the multiple Resident Evil-style camera angles confusing the player rather than adding that cinematic veritas the devs sought, and an engine that lends itself to jumping puzzles about as well as E. Honda. You’ll spent a lot more time dying in Nocturne than you will actually playing it until you acclimate to the controls, assuming you have the patience to do so in the first place. Sound effects are a mixed bag, with mostly excellent voice acting (especially from The Stranger, voiced by the late Lynn Mathis) compromised by guns that are too quiet and footsteps that are too loud. Additionally, while the voice acting is competent and the clothing animation gorgeous, the models themselves are stiff and feature no facial animation at all. This means no lip synch, even when two characters are standing right next to one another having a conversation. During the main action, you won’t notice nobody’s lips are moving when you gun down a werewolf, but during the cut scenes it’s painfully obvious Nocturne needed another pass through animation QC before going gold.
That said, Nocturne still stands as an amazing achievement for the time, and should be experienced by any self-respecting horror gamer at least once. The opening cinematic still gets my blood pumping to this day, and while we got some pseudo-sequels out of it via the Bloodrayne series, and one prequel thanks to an entry in the Blair Witch game trilogy, there’s a sense of tragedy hanging over this title. Almost as if it knew it could never be everything its developers wanted it to be, but would have been willing to give it another go in a sequel. With the shuttering of Terminal Reality in 2013, the death of Lynn Mathis in 2003, and 2K Games’ takeover of Gathering of Developers in 2004, Nocturne‘s time has come and gone. Unless you’re a retro gamer–in which case you can still enjoy this unpolished but respectable gem from a bygone era.