Review: Nocturnal – A Trail Well Blazed

The fallout from a lost flame is not a new idea to games. We’ve seen various epic depictions of what happens after a world loses that which burns brightest. How the world is after its fire goes out. Yet, we don’t often see those embers die. The post-apocalypse is all well and good, but what happens at the actual moment everything fizzles? When the fire flares out, what do its bearers immediately do? With Nocturnal, developer Sunnyside Games dares to repeatedly answer that question.

Nocturnal is an atmospheric 2D action-platformer. Contrary to its title, very little time is spent in the night, or embracing any element of it – quite the opposite. Taking place in the land of Nahran, Nocturnal pits protagonist Ardeshir against the sinister Mist that has overtaken his home island. Wielding the power of sacred flame, Ardeshir must make his way through the Mist and find his lost sister.

Okay maybe we spend some time in the night.

It’s a solid premise, and one that has potential for an interesting story—but we’ll get there. Even before delving into the tale at hand, Nocturnal manages to impress. It opens with a short, nicely animated cinematic that shows our weathered swordsman in action. A tone is set, and is well maintained from then on. Even more interesting are the accessibility options. Nocturnal doesn’t boast the most robust suite of accessibility tools, but the various subtitle options it does offer are a nice touch.

Nocturnal’s gameplay can be summarised in much the same way. Its unique ideas and general execution are a nice touch to spice things up. Ardeshir’s central mechanic is his use of flame on his sword, which runs on a short timer every time you light it. Throughout Nocturnal, you have to keep your flame lit for greater damage, the ability to heal, and general protection from areas thick with Mist. A steady stream of torches helps you there. It’s simple, well explained, and easy to learn. Flame also leads to fun moments of environmental interaction, as you burn leaves to reveal hidden paths or set the bodies of fallen comrades alight to grant them true rest.

Burn, baby, burn.

Movement generally feels good, and allows the various platforming set pieces to really excel. As I progressed through the story, I learned how to extend my jumps and unlocked a throwing knife, which can also be set alight. All of these mechanics are used in tandem with combat for some genuinely engaging sequences. Most importantly, it never feels too much. Nocturnal manages to have the player run, jump, fight, dash, strategically throw knives, and more, all in tight spaces, without ever feeling overwhelming. It’s quite the achievement.

With small bits of worldbuilding, music that hits both ominous and dramatic highs, and great sound design for the Mist demons, Nocturnal manages to truly paint a picture. While I was never too engrossed in its main narrative, the moment-to-moment gameplay kept me engaged. I enjoyed my time exploring Nahran, solving puzzles and finding collectibles. Exploration, however, is a little unclear at key points.

Contemplating the loot I’ve fumbled.

Nocturnal only has twelve achievements, and would theoretically make for an easy platinum trophy if it had one… and if its note-related trophies weren’t such an issue. Paths I thought I’d come back to later, since the other route before me felt more out of the way, were in fact the very side paths I thought I was chasing. Instead of being met with a collectible or upgrade, I usually ended up on the critical route by mistake, progressing without any way to return to the things I’d missed. This felt annoying. Despite being mostly linear and easy to follow, Nocturnal chafes against ambiguous design language. The critical path is always denoted by a fade to black following a fall, a lift rising to the ceiling, or simply the rightmost door. With all of these also being segues to side paths, however, it was sometimes hard to tell whether I was making my way to a collectible or the next big room. Given that Nocturnal’s major collectibles are twelve short lore drops that actively tell the game’s story, having them be a little too easy to miss feels like a narrative shortfall. With otherwise meticulous exploration, I still managed to miss three critical story collectibles by endgame, and any greater context they might have provided me.

Fortunately, the other collectibles work just fine. Namely, coins, or ashes as the game calls them. Dropped from broken jars and trounced enemies, ashes allow Ardeshir to upgrade his abilities at the shrines he finds. Given the low drop rate for ashes, I initially felt like I wasn’t actually collecting much on that front. Yet, the economy in Nocturnal works surprisingly well just playing the game naturally. By endgame, I was well spec’d out, and had even completed one of the three upgrade trees available. I’d also unlocked both special abilities. At no point did I ever feel overwhelmed by any of the foes Nocturnal threw at me.

Slice, dash, repeat.

While it doesn’t overwhelm, though, Nocturnal does underwhelm in one key area, right before balancing itself out again. Combat is hampered by one major issue: Ardeshir’s Mist-repelling flame sword feels flimsy. Between a basic animation and minimal input feedback, hits with the sword lack any sense of impact, which initially made me feel like I’d just stuck a lighter to a fly swatter instead of setting my holy sword ablaze. That said, the general frenetic energy and good resource management in fights manage to outshine the lackluster hits.

Combat is simple, with a three-hit combo being your bread and butter. We also get a throwing knife that actually does good damage, and a big flame wave strike that hits with the kind of oomph I was looking for. Enemies have good tells for their strikes, and there’s enough enemy variety to keep this quest through Nahran fresh. Boss fights were a particular highlight, with fun movesets to learn and challenges to overcome.

Pretty lights, deadly frights.

These bigger encounters also sport a good balance. There was one big dog fight near the end that vexed me. Right after a really cool sequence with essentially unlimited power, I was immediately disempowered and made to fight a beast that, initially, demanded far more precision than Nocturnal’s controls actually offer. Soon after, though, I got my fun powers back, and went up against a final boss that provided a fun, manageable gauntlet of everything I’d learned on my journey. In one word? Sweet.

That sweetness extends to performance. Throughout its roughly three hour runtime, Nocturnal had no bugs to speak of. That said, there are a couple of areas where it’s not immediately clear that you’re not supposed to let the Mist demon cinematically walk towards and extinguish the flames before it. Sometimes that’s fine! Other times, those are the only flames available to light the remaining braziers in the area. Letting the rather natural-feeling sequence play out will, in fact, soft-lock your progression until you reload the checkpoint. This is never a big issue, but one worth keeping an eye out for.

Can you see those pages I missed?

When the Mist finally clears, Nocturnal shines bright as a simple, fun time. Solid platforming, incredibly cool power fantasy sequences, and engaging combat make it easy to enjoy. The game’s short length works in its favour, as it manages to use its mechanics in interesting ways without ever stretching itself too thin. Ardeshir’s tale may not be anything to write home about, but the trail he blazes throughout is one I’m happy to have been a part of.

Sarim played Nocturnal on PlayStation 5 with a code provided by the publisher. Nocturnal is available on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam.

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