Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Nightingale: First Impressions

I began writing this post only because Nightingale was offline this morning for the inevitable emergency update following yesterday's seemingly successful launch. I say "seemingly" because it certainly seemed successful to me; from what I've read, though, not everyone enjoyed such a happy introduction to the game.

I published yesterday's post just before seven in the evening. To my considerable surprise, ten minutes later I was playing the game. I was able to make a character, log in and complete the lengthy tutorial with no bugs, glitches, lag spikes  or interruptions of any kind. It played for almost exactly two hours and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

This morning, once I'd gotten a few practical concerns out of the way, I logged in again and played for half an hour or so until the server came down for an emergency patch. It took about an hour, as promised, then I was back to play some more.

All of which does suggest I've been having a pretty good time. I have, but let's not run away with the idea the game is perfect, not even in these very early stages, when all new games tend to show themselves at their best. I've had to revise several parts of this post, some more than once, not only because of the inevitable learning curve, which means I'm discovering new things all the time, but because I'm beginning to realize Nightingale is a quite a bit buggier than I originally thought. 

Things keep changing and I'm not at all sure they're always supposed to. But more of that later.

First, as always, comes Character Creation. Well, always except on those ill-judged occasions when some jaded developer decides it would be clever to start off in media res, setting players up as fully-geared, powered-up, endgame characters before pulling the rug and stripping them of all their possessions and abilities an hour or two into the game. Then it's to back where they should have started in the first place, sans gear, sans skills, sans everything. I hate that trope.

Luckily nothing of the kind happens in Nightingale. Character creation veers sharply towards the other extreme, almost a game in itself. Making a character involves a great deal of reading and a lot of fiddling with sliders. 

I didn't time it but I think it took me at least half an hour to make my character who, inevitably, ended up looking pretty much like all my other characters. I made the mistake in Palworld of deliberately going for something different and I've been regretting it ever since.

There are a few parameters you can set that directly affect gameplay. You can choose your difficulty levels and how ready for adventure your character is going to be. You can also change these on the fly in the game itself though so, counter-intuitively, those important, gameplay-affecting decisions feel less crucial than what your character looks like, something that currently can't be changed later. 

There are also some annoyingly abstruse choices to contend with, like having to pick your parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents as well as your age and exact date of birth. You're offered no explanation of why or whether any of that might be relevant to gameplay and there's no gloss to explain what the very specific options you're offered might mean.

Even though I had no idea why I was doing it, I tried to make those choices as mindfully as I could. Whether any of them will ever matter - or be referred to ever again - I guess we can only wait to see.

More meaningfully, there are some well-documented and properly explained difficulty choices. I opted for what appears to be the standard difficulty and preparedness (Medium) so as to play the game as close as possible to the nominal default setting, something I always like to do, at least until circumstances dictate otherwise.

There were so many possibilities that even thirty minutes spent fiddling with sliders felt like not nearly long enough. Trying out the full range of colors in the make-up settings alone could fill a full session. As has been observed before, though, no matter how much time and effort you're prepared to invest, characters in Nightingale do look a bit... odd.

There's a florid, Victorian aspect to the whole thing, hinting at too many hours spent in over-heated rooms while wearing too many layers of uncomfortable clothing. If I had to use a single word to describe the overall feel of Nightingale's Character Creation process, that word would be "florid". I suspect it might be something of a Marmite situation for some but I've decided I like it. 

What I don't like so much is the absence of idle animations and facial expressions. I noticed something felt off even in the Stress Test. This time, I took a moment to watch my character just stand there, doing nothing, staring fixedly ahead. I wanted to see if there was a cycle of idle animations, like there has been in just about every similar game I've ever played. 

As far as I can tell, there is none. When I'm not pulling her strings, my character remains rooted in place, immobile and expressionless. It's disconcerting, not to say disturbing.

Since I seem to have moved rather too quickly on to the subject of things I'm not all that happy with, let's get the big one out of the way. The controls and the UI are clunky as hell. The UI looks nice enough, although that Victorian letterpress look isn't a particular favorite of mine - and if it was I'd be quite annoyed it's only used for some things, while everything else uses a much more futuristic font. The clash is quite jarring. 

It all works perfectly well. There's nothing actually wrong with it... it just feels awkward.

Swapping weapons and tools is finicky at best and occasionally buggy. In most modern games I'm used either to the game itself selecting the correct item contextually, on use, or at worst with a roll of the mouse-wheel. Last night I had to press a number key to get my character to wield the item I wanted. I could see the individual icons on the hotbar, so it was at least straightforward to pick the right one and press the right key but it felt very old-fashioned.

This morning, however, all that had changed. I was now able to change tools by rolling the mouse-wheel, which was great, but all the icons on the hot bar had turned into shovels so I couldn't tell which was which until I selected it and saw on screen what my character was holding.

As of this afternoon, post-patch although that may be coincidental, the mouse-wheel selection is working and the correct icons are back. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

Then there are the menus. Boy, there are a lot of menus.

Some of them are radial. I'm not a huge fan. I can tolerate radials for less-used functions but I don't like them for anything I have to do very often. Nightingale seems to love its radials, especially for crafting. It's a survival game so I'm going to be doing a lot of crafting and seeing a lot of radial menus. Can't say I'm delighted about that. The radials, not the crafting. I'm fine with the crafting.

Fortunately the developers haven't decided to use radial menus for everything. It just feels like it, sometimes. The other mechanic the developers love is a drag-and-drop card system; it's very pretty but also quite clunky to use. 

The cards are kind of a signature note for the game so, fortunately, the interfaces for them do look a lot more polished than the radials, which is just as well. Honestly, some of those radial menu look like they're still using place-holder graphics.

Still, that's what Early Access is for, right? It's just a fancy name for "Beta You Pay For". Everything's temporary. I'm sure all the systems and mechanics will get plenty of tweaks in the year or two Nightingale spends in EA before it officially launches, most likely to complete indifference from all sides, if the fortunes of almost every other EA game to date are any kind of guide.

So far, though, those are about all the complaints I have. It's not much: some clunky mechanics that will almost certainly get a polish later and a few dubious design choices that don't happen to match my preferences.

On a much more positive note, for the five and a half hours I've played, I've found the gameplay compelling, the writing more than competent, the lore and the world-building intriguing and the voice acting and graphics both excellent.

The graphics you can judge for yourselves from the screenshots, which for once look exactly like what you'll see in game. The lighting effects are spectacular, the level of textural detail is impressive but it's the colors that really make the game pop.

I quite often juice those up a bit for the blog. In too many games, screenshots come out looking a little muted compared to the in-game visuals. I didn't need to do any juicing for these. Nightingale is as rich in color in capture as it is in play.

Praising the voice acting is really praising a single person. The only speaking role I've encountered so far is Puck, played with a whole fruitcake in his mouth by Marc Warren. By that I don't mean he mumbles like Marlon Brando. I mean he's plummy as hell. And it works. It sounds like a Shakespearean actor slumming, which I imagine was the note the director gave him.

The best I can say, to show how much I liked Warren's delivery, is that I let him get to the end of every single sentence just so I could listen to him roll the words around his mouth like a rich oloroso. Normally I read the text so much faster than the actor delivers it, I can't bear to wait for them to catch up. I flip ahead and cut them off mid-sentence. Not here. Listening to Marc orate is like listening to a good radio play.

There are obviously similarities between Nightingale and The Secret World but none more so than this. The last game I can remember playing, where I chose to sit and listen to every spoken word, purely for the pleasure of hearing the delivery, was TSW. That was also quite possibly the last game I played where I didn't quibble with the line readings. This, at least on my brief exposure so far, is going to be the next.

So far, it's been just one actor, though. Let's not be counting those chickens or they might come home to roost. I'll reserve judgment until I hear someone other than Marc deliver a few lines.

So, the game looks and sounds good. Great. But how does it play?

Judging by the time I've racked up so far, very well. The survival gameplay loop works its usual magic. There's little in gaming as addictive as working your way up from nothing to become landed gentry and I was building my first shack before the game even told me I should. Building seems very good but I'll save a post on that for when I've had a lot more experience with it.

The first two hours were taken up with a basic tutorial, stage-managed by Puck with a trickster's sleight of hand. There are three zones, or Byways of the Realms as the lore has it, each giving you a brief introduction to what's in store later. After you make it through all three, Puck asks you to pick one and that's where you begin the game proper. There's a title card and everything!

The three biomes are Forest, Desert and Swamp. Obviously I picked Forest but the others both had their attractions and I'm sure they'll be coming around again later. If you stick to the instructions Puck gives you, you'll zip through all three in no time. Well, in two hours, but that would be a mistake.

I regret not throwing off Puck's harness sooner. It was only in the third Byway, the swamp, that I chose to ignore his endless series of instructions and go exploring. There were a couple of wooden towers with hot air balloons tethered to the top and I couldn't resist going to see what they were for. 

Loot is the answer. Each of the towers had several chests, filled with all kinds of goodies, as well as a bunch of crafting materials, just lying around, waiting to be taken. I ended up with so much in my bags I could barely move. I had to deconstruct some of the mats for essences, used as a currency across the Realms, just so I could walk to the portal. 

Of the items I took, several have already come in useful, especially the umbrella. Getting wet is a thing that happens in Nightingale but not if you have an umbrella.

After the strict tutorial finishes, you find yourself in the place where the Stress test began, something that either gives a lie to the assertion that the test began at the point where a regular player would have been playing for ten hours or suggests there have been some major changes since then. Or that the devs expect people to explore each of the three maps a lot more fully than I did...

Thankfully, one thing that has changed are all those boars. I was able to get myself sorted out and set up without having constantly to defend myself from predatory porkers. It wasn't all tr-la-la in fairyland, though. I built my base so close to an ancient artifact I got attacked by zombies in my own front yard. I also had to deal with a few wolves down on the beach, which is apparently where they like to hang out in the fae lands.

Fighting them off was easy enough although I did die once, due to weight of numbers more than anything. Combat in Nightingale, at least at these low levels, is fast, frenetic and fun. At the default difficulty, winning is easy enough, while losing doesn't come with any too onerous penalties. 

The combat animations, like all the animations really, when there even are any, aren't much to look at. Fighting style is similar to New World or any number of similar games but a lot less slick. Really, everything about Nightingale feels a lot less slick than most of its competitors, although that's not necessarily a negative. I quite like a few rough edges, particularly at this stage. Better than knowing everything's been worked over so rigorously it's never going to change.

Towards the end of my third session, during which I spent altogether too much time building a house, I picked up a follower. Her name is Dora. My character's name is Flora. I didn't plan it that way but I wish I had. Probably just as well I'm playing on my own.

Dora is very useful. She doesn't say much, or indeed anything, but she helps with the mining and the fighting and most importantly she rezzes me when I die. 

Together we took on the first "dungeon" in the storyline and beat it. It was a close call. Dora must have picked me up off the floor at least half a dozen times. I picked her up once. It was chaotic but it was good fun, especially when I figured out that if the boss was made of metal he'd be the perfect target for a mining pick.

If the fights stay like that I'll be happy but if they get harder it's good to know you can tune the difficulty on the fly. That battle opened the way to the next Byway, or at least it will when I've crafted the card for it, but I've only seen about five percent of the map I'm on, so I don't think I'll be leaving this one just yet. I think I might just have a bit of a wander around. See what I can find. 

It's nice to be playing a game with a bit more structure than Palworld and yet not too much more. A sandbox with a few signposts here and there. Given the chance, I'd rather be playing Once Human, which seems to me to be the best of these kind of games I've tried so far, but until it comes back, Nightingale will do very nicely

I'm going to leave it at that for now, mostly because I'm itching to get back in and play. I realize that's a stronger recommendation than anything else I've said here. 

As I mentioned in a post  the other day, I've played a lot of Survival and/or crafting games in recent times. I was wondering whether Nightingale would suffer as a result. It hasn't. If anything, I feel refreshed and revitalized by my first few hours in the game, ready to give the genre another few dozen hours of my life. 

Let's see if I still feel that way after a few more sessions.


  1. I jumped on this bandwagon, too. But I'm splitting my time between too many games and only manages a couple of hours, but so far I like it, mostly because I like the vibe. Like you, I let Puck say all his lines and relished them.

    Now I wish I hadn't rushed through those first 3 mini-realms though.

    I have some screen tearing but otherwise it seems to run OK for me on my fairly old GPU. (2070 RTX I think).

    1. I'm wondering if you can go back to those starting realms. It seems a lot of effort for something most people will never see, if not. Then again, I'm also wondering if the way the whole thing works is to use the same three basic zone layouts and biomes but then overlay them with new detail depending on what card you use. I actually have no idea how the central conceit of the game functions, which seems a bit worrying. After my similar experience with Palworld, I'm questioning whether I should go do some research on that before I get much further.

  2. I'm really enjoying Nightengale, despite not liking it much during early tests. I DO agree with Bel about the speed of building; compared to Palworld where I could make a nice, comfy house with little effort, I have only managed to create a stone shack for housing the crafting tables. But I like that putting items INSIDE a structure grants bonuses, and it tells you as much, which to me shows that someone in Inflexion is focusing on QoL features.

    I also choose the forest home biome, and the next biome Puck sends you to is also forest but has a different layout. I now wonder if there's a handful of similar maps for each biome, or if they are somehow generating maps on the fly. Might be why traveling between Realms takes a while?

    1. I'm not entirely sure how the maps work but I think there's an element of procedural generation. That would explain why you get a warning when you leave a map that you might not be able to return to the same one.

      On housing, I haven't done a lot with it yet but it seems far more acurate in placement than Palworld, where it was a nightmare to get anything to fit together, and the look of the structural pieces themselves is far more sophisticated than Palworld's, which barely make it out of Lego territory.

      On the whole, though, I'm finding it a lot more addictive than most survival games - and I find all of them pretty addictive!


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