Review: NightSky (3DS eShop)

A perfect circle

Three years ago, Nicalis announced a game called NightSky for release on WiiWare. Needless to say that never happened, but the project was far from dead. Last year our excitement was renewed by the news that NightSky would instead be released for the 3DS eShop, and now, at long last, it's finally here.

The question everyone should be asking themselves is this: was it worth the wait?

We can answer, without hesitation, yes. NightSky is an absolutely brilliant experience. Every screen is lovingly crafted and each puzzle serves the dual purpose of pulling you forward and preparing you for the ones still to come, with one of the most well-managed learning curves we've ever seen in a physics-based puzzler.

The story is decidedly slight and open to endless interpretation — particularly after the game is complete — which is in keeping with the main theme of the game: elegant simplicity. You control a black sphere — at least, you usually do, but to say any more than that would be spoiling — and it's up to you to maneuver it forward, from screen to screen, area to area, level to level, in search of...what? Toward what? That much is unclear...and yet NightSky still pulls you along, through tricky and treacherous hazards, through perfectly layered puzzle types, through a dreamscape that doesn't so much change as it does evolve.

Typically, you control the sphere with either the circle pad or the D-pad, left and right controlling its rotation but — depending upon the context — not always its direction. The B button can sometimes be used to brake, the Y button can sometimes be used to speed up, and the A button can sometimes trigger background events. These controls can change from area to area, and often do, making regular experimentation mandatory. An area may look simple at first glance, as your eyes trace the path the sphere must take and your mind works out how to get it there, but then your fingers touch the controls and you realise they no longer work in the same way, or do things that are quite different from what you'd expect. NightSky keeps you on your toes, and your strategy can — and often does — change from room to room.

It's a simple approach but it's perfectly refined, and like indie darlings Braid, Limbo, or even World of Goo, it's an experience defined by its atmosphere. The gorgeous silhouettes of far off structures and suggestions of civilization provide a feeling of passively profound scope, with the simple dipping of a tree's bough or an emerging head of a curious animal infusing what could have been an emotionless, geometric puzzler with a sense of life, of weight, and of importance.

Many times we found ourselves rolling back onto screens we've just solved, just so we could appreciate the simplistic beauty of the scenery. The 3D is put here to subtle but effective use, coddling the world beyond the action in a gentle, mystical fog that really feels like it could stretch back for miles.

The soundtrack likewise manages to be both unobtrusive and stunning, with simple melodies almost lost behind the quietness of the game itself. Even with the volume turned all the way up, it's easy to lose track of the music. That's good, because it lets the tactile experience dominate, and when your awareness of the music does return, it's typically because you've managed to solve a puzzle that held you so rapt you could no longer hear it. It's there, in the background, but it does not find you...you find it. And it's absolutely lovely.

The game itself is broken into 10 main levels, each of which consists of a large number of smaller areas, which themselves are typically composed of three screens. Puzzles can span entire areas, encouraging you to consider the consequences of even the smallest actions. A stone disturbed on the first screen can obstruct your progress on the third. Other times you will be made to double back in order to take a previously unnoticed path between screens. There's always something you can miss — and missing it is part of the fun. You respawn quickly and at any time can reset the area with a touch of the X button.

You'll become familiar with tricky puzzles the same way you would a rich and complicated non player character...but once you figure these out, you won't be meeting them again. NightSky does not repeat its puzzles, which helps it to avoid ever wearing out its welcome, and always keeps you looking forward to what it will throw at you next.

There are two difficulty settings, the harder one removing on-screen instructions and even further limiting the capabilities of your sphere, often redefining the experience entirely by taking away your ability to brake. This forces you to make fluid, continuous decisions without stopping for further consideration. It feels like an almost entirely different game in itself, and ensures at least two distinct play-throughs for those who allow themselves to get caught in NightSky's spell.

Additionally, there are a number of stars hidden throughout the game. Collecting them will open up an optional 11th level, and locating them will require you to find even more tricky solutions to the already fiendish puzzles. There's arguably also a 12th level in the form of one of the most beautiful credits sequences we're ever likely to see, and though it lacks for challenge it absolutely bursts with atmosphere.

NightSky is a great game, but it's also a great experience. It's an oddly gripping series of simple tasks and creative obstacles, one which boils gaming down to its purest form and raises intriguing questions about the nature of reality and imagination. It's a game that keeps you guessing, and which keeps you moving. It's been several years in the making, but every minute of that has been put to good use. Don't let this one roll by.

Conclusion

Nintendo fans have been waiting a long time for NightSky, and they won't be disappointed. The finished product is gorgeous, flawlessly designed and bracingly atmospheric, with perfect controls, clever puzzles, and an endlessly evolving play style that will never see you solving the same puzzle the same way twice. Hidden stars, a locked world and an advanced difficulty lend the experience significant replayability, but even if it offered only a single playthrough, it's not an experience that could soon be forgotten. At last, the 3DS eShop has its masterpiece.

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