Nightingale Downs Review
Reviewed on PC
In this busy world, there is something to be said for brevity. When there is so much to be done with so little time to do it in, we can be thankful for the more concise forms of entertainment in the world. Ernest Hemingway's six-word short story showed how you can fit a great deal into very little. Nightingale Downs is certainly brief, with only one to two hours worth of game to play. But it is not something that would belong in the category of a great thing in a small package. If anything, it is a very small thing in a big, empty package.
The premise to Nightingale Downs is simple enough. You take control of one of a clan of deer in a peaceful forest gearing up for winter. One day, your character is called in to a meeting with the chieftain, Grummu, to discuss the rumours of a new threat to the forest: humans. There have been sightings of a human camp on the outskirts of the forest and this spells trouble. For the good of the clan and for all the animals that make lives there, you are tasked with finding out if the rumours are true and to drive off the human tribe, if possible. Your journey will take you through the forest, to encounters with the locals and the problems that ail them, leading to the human camp itself for a final showdown.
Mechanically, Nightingale Downs follows the traditional JRPG that will be familiar to anyone who has played the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series. Your first action is to give your character whatever name you fancy before being sent out into the world and progressing through quests provided by characters you bump into along the way which help you towards your ultimate goal of bringing down the human encampment. On top of this comes that old standard of JRPGs - the random encounter. These encounters are heralded by the usual sudden flash of light and ear drum penetrating blast of metallic noise introducing a random enemy for you to engage in turn-based combat. Defeat each enemy and you will earn XP and Karma - the game’s currency system - both of which will help you gain training points in order to boost your stats and improve your character. You may also find various items that will either replenish your energy, boost your stats or damage later enemies. Eventually, you will track down your biggest and most dangerous enemy, and drive them back to where they came from, saving the peace of the forest forever more.
This all sounds very grand and exciting and maybe even a little bit funny. But, it turns out, none of that is true. There are only three regions to traverse and the whole game fits onto about twelve map screens, alongside the character and game menus you will be navigating to improve abilities and check your inventory. This small scale means that quests and their respective goals are often on adjoining screens, if not the same screen. Landmarks will appear on the map out of nowhere to add flavour for the active quest and then disappear once they are done with. And these quests are also rather limited in scope. Typically, these take the form of fetch quests. If you're lucky, you might even get to fight something before claiming the required item. There is a degree of variety with some of the other quests but little to genuinely excite. Mostly, you'll be fighting things or offering logistics services in order to bridge the gap between each stage of the forest. Difficulty scales up purely by adding more things to collect or fight, or by sending you further to find what you need. The most unique quest on offer is a game of a element-orientated rock-paper-scissors against a moose in exchange for magic seeds, the rules of which have a tendency to break with rational thought (Wood feeds Fire so Wood wins?!).
There is simply no depth to anything. Quests feel hollow when you only need to walk to the next screen to complete it. There is no real room to explore and the game is horrendously bland and linear as a result. Even the simple act of crossing a screen requires you to take a specific path. Flowers and even darker patches of grass will bar your way. Fights are painfully repetitive. You only ever have access to three abilities, plus a few combat items. The enemies you face don’t feel challenging and the difficulty curve seems perfectly flat, with the odd random jump when you fight quest bosses (with the strange exception of a mega-sparrow that randomly came along and hit like a freight train). There is very little variety in the range of attacks you will face, and combat quickly becomes a mindless exercise in jabbing at the enter key and hoping you miss less often than the bad guy. There’s not much call for tactics, besides keeping an eye on your Blood (health) and Spirit (mana) bars and changing your chosen ability accordingly. Resources for replenishing these energy levels do seem to be on the low side, offering the opportunity for an interesting challenge of resource management. But the knowledge that you are never too far from a trader that fully heals you for a few Karma points absolutely cuts out the risk in the game and lets you mash your way through combat towards the final, unfulfilling battle. In the end, it feels more a war of attrition than a meaningful challenge.
Maybe this would have been fine if the game had created anything worth fighting for, or even worth fighting against. But the game makes it all too apparent that you are merely moving a sprite around a map that is occasionally populated by other sprites. They are, in fairness, rather pretty sprites on rather pretty maps. The game is clearly aiming for the Stardew Valley aesthetic, and characters sprites follow the cutesy pixelated style, continuing with the influence of early JRPGs. But where Stardew Valley and Undertale used the cuteness and colours of the 16-bit images to visualise the charm inherent in the story and characters, Nightingale Downs relies on the nostalgic look for its appeal, and that is a facade that is quickly and easily torn down. There is no characterisation. No-one hangs around long enough to build any attachment, with the only recurring character being Wrenni, an avian trader who will provide healing or training points in exchange for Karma. The game’s minimal dialogue does little beyond basic description and the game falls into the trap of telling without showing. It is suggested that one particular NPC is a cheeky prankster. But this fails to come across, and all we really learn of the character is that they have lost a lamp and would like it back. Little is ever explained about your own character, either. This seems a shame as learning just why a deer is capable of draining the life force of its enemies in order to replenish itself just might have made this game interesting. As it is, it just becomes another weird and random aspect to a game that seems more thrown together than built.
Similarly, the enemies in the game seem completely arbitrary. The story tells us humans are threatening peace in the woods, and at one point in the early stages of the game a landmark appears that suggest they could already have infiltrated deep into the forest. But, for the most part, you will find yourself facing up against other animals and even the trees themselves. The game doesn’t make it clear why, for example, a wild rabbit has suddenly decided to attack a fully grown deer, or quite how there are so many alpha wolves within such a small area. But these will be regular encounters on your travels. It is only once you get to the human camp that enemies begin to seem in any way influenced by the main threat in the story, but even then you will still mostly fight animals in the form of trained goats and feral cats, weird and painful noises included. There’s no consistency or central theme to tie the encounters you face together. There’s no sense of design, no pacing, no story development. You just wander through the woods, grinding through waves of birds and bears until you find a chicken in a human camp who not only knows what dynamite is but knows how it works.
Technical issues were, at least, fairly infrequent, but there were two massive glitches that cropped up. Acquiring the seeds from the moose mentioned earlier before defeating an evil tree in the middle section of the second region led to my having to replay a large chunk as the quest would not acknowledge I already had the seeds I needed to cross into the next region. Some time after this, as I was returning back to the human camp, a map failed to load, trapping me in darkness with no escape other than reloading. These are big problems, and the developer does appear to be working on fixes. But, with such a small game, you would hope to find little technically wrong with the game. This is sadly not the case. An iffy interface and game-breaking bugs represent quite obvious issues with the game but, more subtly, the game also fails to create a consistent visual style, with the main character having a different look in each aspect of the game and with introductory narration scenes between pixelated maps looking like cheesy greeting cards. Nothing about Nightingale Downs offers any definition of what the game has set out to be and what it is trying to achieve.
All in all, the worst crime that Nightingale Downs is guilty of is being dull. The game functions well enough and looks pleasant, but offers nothing apart from the most basic elements of worthwhile gameplay. The monotonous combat against arbitrary enemies inspires little beyond boredom and without any real characterisation of either friend or foe you just cannot get invested in what you are told to go out and do. There are no surprises, no mysteries, no threats and no reasons to care. An utterly banal and unimaginative jumble with no personality or charm to speak of.