N.E.R.O.: Nothing Ever Remains Obscure is, in every sense of the word, obscure. The game has received minimal press attention and the marketing for the project appears to be slim-to-none. But some beautiful artwork and the promise of a “story-driven” experience caught my attention, so I decided to take a look. What I ended up getting from N.E.R.O. was dramatically different than anything I anticipated. While it suffers a bit as an actual video game, it stands tall on a gorgeous atmosphere, a surprising story, and some real heart.
As the game begins, it becomes instantly clear that visuals are a high priority here. It’s not even that the actual graphics are strong, because they aren’t always, but rather the lighting and art design capture your attention. Little is explained upon beginning — a strange character on a boat is sailing towards a village. The water shimmers, the moon is high, and there are floating, luminescent jellyfish everywhere. It’s a stunning picture.
And this continues throughout the entire 4-hour experience. As you traverse through caves, across caverns, and through many more strange locales, it’s difficult to ignore the gorgeous areas around you. Giant glowing caterpillars and shining crystals light your way. I often found myself stopping to gaze up at the stars. The entire experience oozes beauty and atmosphere. I could’ve spent another ten hours soaking in the world.
The story is fascinating as well. The game takes place in first person, and you play as a strange character in a white cloak wandering through cave tunnels. Throughout the world, sentences float in the air telling the story of a band of brigands living in the caves and their leader, David. However, the story doesn’t quite make sense at first and, as you move through the experience, the story evolves into something else entirely. In this way, N.E.R.O. becomes a visual novel built around taking in this story. As a visual novel, N.E.R.O. is a success.
[SPOILERS] When N.E.R.O.’s story changes from the strange and fantastical story of brigands to the story it is truly telling, it is a haunting and effective transition. The first time you’re wandering through a forest and stumble into an empty hospital room, it’s jarring. Once you learn that the story is built around the five stages of grief and who this story is REALLY about, satisfaction sinks in and the experience is a profound one for a video game. I implore more video games to explore stories to this extent. Storm in a Teacup has developed an artful and cathartic tale to share in the interactive medium. [END SPOILERS]
As mentioned, N.E.R.O. is a successful visual novel. But the game has the challenge of also being an interactive video game, and the project isn’t quite as successful here. Movement is slow and, in the early part of the game when the story isn’t as developed, the momentum of the game drags. There is a run button, but even that is slow. I’m reminded of the complaints regarding the similar Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Invisible walls jut out far and often hinder progress. The very dark areas add to the atmosphere, but also make it easy to get lost or disoriented.
N.E.R.O. also offers some puzzle elements. Outside of a few main puzzles, it is possible to get through the game without touching most of them. This is probably a good thing, as the puzzles generally struggle between a lack of challenge and blocky controls. There are some puzzles that offer more to gamers looking to unlock additional secrets, but they are few and far between. One of the best puzzles is the final puzzle but, by that point, so much focus had been put on the story that working through a puzzle ended up feeling tedious and annoying.
Finally, the animations are downright bad at times. There is a second character in the game that you can direct to solve some of the puzzles. But anytime this character moves into an in-game cutscene, he moves like a blocky lego character. It’s a shame that some of the animations are reminiscent of the PlayStation 2 era when the visuals and lighting are an absolute delight. Some more development time would’ve helped make this a more consistent product, through and through.
So N.E.R.O. is a better visual novel than it is a video game. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Many games this generation have successfully explored the story-driven “walking simulator” genre, such as Gone Home, Firewatch, or the closely-related Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. However, the puzzle elements in N.E.R.O. simply aren’t effective enough to support the main story, and feel like an obligation the developers needed to implement.
If you, dear reader, take anything away from this review, I hope that it’s this: N.E.R.O. has an excellent story to tell, and does so in a visually stunning world. If the gameplay and puzzle elements keep you away from this title, at least keep Storm in a Teacup on your radar. This game strikes me as the one before “the big one.” N.E.R.O.: Nothing Ever Remains Obscure is the good game where the developers learn how to make the great one. If the team can figure out the balance between story, good design, and engaging gameplay, I have little doubt that their next project can be the must-buy they deserve.
A PS4 review code for N.E.R.O.: Nothing Ever Remains Obscure was provided by Soedesco for the purpose of this review