Developer: Storm In A Teacup
Platforms: Xbox One
Buried amongst numerous releases on a calm Friday morning, Nero quietly slipped onto the Xbox Marketplace storefront, and that is a crying shame. While I've been rather vocal over my displeasure in the way Microsoft has released games such as D4 in the past (quietly pushing smaller titles out there without warning or with absolutely no promotion prior to releasing them to the public), it's still good that the Xbox One has games like D4 and Nero for gamers to discover. It’s by the same token, however, that gamers may not know what they're getting into when stumbling across some of these hidden gems. Unfortunately, I'm seeing Nero fall into this camp. Nero is an exploration-based visual novel, and as such, do not simply assume that it's an Ori and the Blind Forest knock-off because of its stylish looking icons and similar looking screenshots. I promise that if you walk into this game understanding exactly what it is, you'll have an incredible time with it.
Nero takes players through four beautifully designed locations and tells the story of not only the areas that you explore, but the lives of our main adventurer, Nero, and his parents. The game is far from a technical marvel, as the frame rate can chug a bit at times as players look around the environment. That said, though, the development team at Storm in a Teacup absolutely nailed the combination of atmosphere and soundtrack in Nero. Outside of a narrator occasionally explaining a scene — typically after solving a puzzle or beginning a new area — there is absolutely no spoken dialogue between the characters. This places a greater emphasis and importance on the game’s atmosphere and mood-setting music as players read about the events that previously transpired in these areas.
While the game is fairly linear, there are still puzzles off the beaten path for players to find, along with picture fragments that, once completed, form mementos. The fact that these reward those who find them with a deeper understanding of the characters and their struggles is great, but it's hard to overlook the fact that for a narrative driven game, it's possible to miss out on parts of the story. I consider it a testament to the enjoyable and thought-provoking tale presented here that it actually bummed me out to know that I missed some puzzles and, potentially, more filler for the story that would have helped me understand the characters a little more.
While there aren't a ton of puzzles, each one presents their own unique challenges and brings with them the only real gameplay elements present in the game: the ability to throw balls of light at orange pillars to make them blue, and an option to tell a companion you meet during your travels where to stand. I didn't find any of the puzzles to be overwhelmingly complicated, and some of the more elaborate ones are solvable either based on timing, or by noticing a small item nearby that is basically the solution.
As I mentioned above, the levels are beautiful. A cave bursting with crystals and critters, such as caterpillars and butterflies, sets the tone for the story as it begins. The vibrant catacombs, filled with wonder and new life, give way to a dark and ominous forest next. After journeying through a hospital laced with sorrow, you finally arrive in a desert that sees many of the puzzles you solved previously scattered in ruins. Although these environments are varied and great for the purposes of the story, at times they can simply be too dark. After a short while playing, I found myself adjusting the gamma option in-game, as some of the less illuminated areas were extremely difficult to navigate through.
From the soundtrack to the environments, Nero is a finely crafted graphic novel that reminds players what it means to be a family. Through its exploration of this theme, Nero is easily one of the most emotionally touching games I've played in years. While it does have its flaws — namely some story elements tied to non-linear puzzles that are easy to miss and some technical hiccups that lead to some pretty choppy looking frames — I can safely say that Nero is one of the most heartwarming experiences that gamers will find anywhere.
- Extremely strong story
- Immersive atmosphere
- Mood-setting soundtrack
- Puzzles are just challenging enough
- Not entirely linear
- Frame rate can stutter when simply looking around
- Environments can get too dark to navigate