Underrated Review: Nocturne


published on 10/28/2019


Back in 1999, Nocturne was one of my most anticipated games. I was a big fan of Resident Evil and magazine previews made Nocturne look like it was going to be the next big thing in survival horror. Despite picking the game up a few months after release, I was never able to really get into it. Over the years, I tried playing it a few times, but it never seemed to click due to some technical issues and dated mechanics. But now, nearly 20 years after its initial release, I've finally finished the game.

Welcome to Spookhouse

Nocturne puts you in control of a character known as the "Stranger". He works for a government organization called Spookhouse that's responsible for hunting down monsters. It's sort of like Men In Black, but with traditional monsters like vampires and werewolves and set in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rather than having a linear narrative, the game allows you to select an act to play, much like old FPS games such as Doom and Blood. I played through each of the four acts in order, but the stories are mostly self-contained to where you could play through them in whatever order you so choose.

Act 1 has a short sequence where you can explore the Spookhouse headquarters in an attempt to familiarize the player with the setting and characters a bit. It's ultimately a very thin amount of Worldbuilding, but throughout the entire game I felt the developers, Terminal Reality, really tried to lay out the foundation for a franchise of horror-themed games. This isn't really much of a surprise, considering that's exactly what they were doing. A year after Nocturne was released, a trio Blair Witch Project games were released using the Nocturne game engine, the first of which was developed by Terminal Reality themselves and features a Nocturne character in a prominent role. Additionally, Terminal Reality started working on a sequel to Nocturne, though it was ultimately altered into the original BloodRayne game. Furthermore, the main character there, Rayne, is a dhampir that's awfully similar to another Nocturne character.

Despite being connected to multiple other games, the overall foundation of characters and lore falls a bit short of where I was hoping it would end up. By the end, it felt like they either ran out of time, budget, ideas, or some combination thereof. This ultimately left me a little unfulfilled by the time I completed the game, especially considering the final act was by far my least favorite (more on that later), but the game does still have a bit of charm with its unique setting and atmosphere.

Horror? Yes. Survival? Sort of?

As I mentioned before, previews for the game made it seem like this was going to be a hardcore survival horror game. Well, having finished the game, I'm not sure I'd consider it a survival horror game...at all. Sure, it has some elements of survival horror, but this felt like a horror-themed action game to me. The aforementioned act selection is a big deviation from survival horror games of the late '90s such as Resident Evil and Dino Crisis. Additionally, the game has oodles of ammo and health kits for you to plunder and it eliminates inventory management altogether as you have unlimited space to pack whatever you find along the way. The controls are also quite different by including the ability to jump and strafe, not to mention it has mouse and keyboard support since it was released exclusively on PC.

The gameplay does have some similarities to other survival horror games. The two things that stand out the most are fixed camera angles and tank controls. I've always enjoyed playing the old Resident Evil games with their fixed camera angles because they can really add to the tension and present more of a cinematic feel. While Nocturne tries to emulate this, it can struggle at times to find a reasonable angle for you to work with. For example, sometimes the angle is zoomed out so far you can barely see your character on the screen. It's not too bad overall, but it can feel a little sloppy and just never seems to have those really cool shots that make you dread walking down a hallway.

Normally I'm not a fan of tank controls, especially here in 2019, but I have to say they worked surprisingly well in Nocturne. I played with mouse and keyboard controls and since I could use the mouse to turn around quickly, I didn't really have any issues. The biggest problem with the controls relies in the jumping mechanics. You will need to complete quite a few platform jumping sections throughout the course of the game and jumping, especially after running, can be a slippery proposition. And if you couple this with the fact that you'll likely sustain fatal damage if you fall from even a not-so-high ledge, these sections can be quite frustrating.

Blast Away

Instead of rationing ammo and running away from enemies that aren't necessary to kill, Nocturne generally wants you to blast away. You'll get all sorts of weapons along the way, such as pistols, a shotgun, a flamethrower, etc. Certain weapons also have multiple ammo types, such as silver bullets for taking out werewolves. Since the game constantly supplies you with a generous portion of ammo, it was a nice change of pace to be able to take out all of the creepy denizens that try to impede your progress.

The gunplay is sort of like a hybrid between Resident Evil where you raise your weapon and then hit a separate button to fire, but you can move around a bit more here. It's not quite as fast and furious as third-person shooters from the era like Syphon Filter, but it's still quite satisfying. As you deal out damage, blood will fly out of enemies in a very over-the-top manner. You can also blow off limbs, explode heads, and generally leave a bloody mess in your wake. I mean, just look at this:

The game also has some nice touches like how you can leave bloody footprints or how your shovel will drip blood as you run around with it equipped. You can also pick up severed limbs and use them as weapons, though it wasn't a very effective way of dealing with enemies. Although there's a lot of combat in the game, the enemy variety was pretty good throughout and helped keep things fresh. There are some standard enemies like zombies and vampires that pop up in multiple acts, but other enemies are exclusive to certain stories.

The only disappointing thing about the combat is that it's just too easy. The game utilizes an auto-aming system that mostly works (and can be turned off), but the real issue is most of the time enemies just trudge towards you and let you mow them down. The game does throw a curve-ball later on with some ranged enemies that require a bit more maneuvering to handle, but by then you have a fully automatic weapon with a ton of range.

All About Atmosphere

Although the game is light on survival and has some fun, though simplistic combat, it does a great job of setting up its atmosphere. In the first hour or so, you'll be walking through a graveyard, fighting huge flying demon-things, and blasting away werewolves in a dark forest. Later on you'll be in a zombie-filled town, run into some Cthulhu-ian (!) baddies, and have to explore a fairly large castle filled with all sorts of traps.

Speaking of which, I guess now is the time for me to say that I absolutely HATED the final act. The first three were all very enjoyable with lots of enemies to kill, a few puzzles to solve, and everything moved at a nice, brisk pace. This all comes to a screeching halt for the fourth act. To avoid spoilers, I'm going to be intentionally vague here, but you'll be without (ranged) weapons for a while and you'll be exploring a huge area featuring certain instant-death trial-and-error rooms and no map. Oh, and you'll be jumping. A lot. This was actually the only time I felt like I might be playing a survival horror game, but it just felt jarring compared to the rest of the game and I couldn't wait for it to end.

No More Spooking

As you may have gleaned from my review, I walked away with a fairly mixed reaction to Nocturne. It has some nice elements, but never seemed to reach the heights of some of its peers. It's disappointing that it failed to garner much interest back in the '90s as the story / characters were interesting enough and the horror-themed shooter gameplay is right up my alley.

I was hesitant to label this an "Underrated Game" review, but it certainly doesn't warrant my "Bad Game" title. I decided to call it "Underrated" since the game is still pretty fun / unique and isn't talked about much these days. I played the game on Windows 10 and after installing the official patches, the game ran surprisingly well. There was a really annoying delay in pulling up the menu and there are some minor graphical glitches, but overall it's still extremely playable.

The only challenge you might have is actually acquiring it. The developer and publisher are both defunct and there isn't a digital release available. The game also had some technical issues upon its initial release and may hinder the likelihood of a digital release in the future (pure speculation on my part though). Luckily, if you are interested in it, you can snag a loose copy for about $5.00 on eBay.

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