Despite the console only being less than year old, we Switch owners aren't exactly short of top notch Metroidvania games to call upon. Axiom Verge and and Steamworld Dig 2 spring instantly to mind - probably using hard-won jump-boots. All of which means that when an interesting-but-flawed take on the genre such as Nightmare Boy comes along, it can be a little difficult to sell it. We've already been spoiled.
Nightmare Boy doesn't do itself any favours with a slow, confusing start. Our young protagonist Billy finds himself catapulted into a nightmare world when his pillow is possessed by a malevolent force. Once there he assumes the likeness of a local dark prince and sets about trying to escape. That's what I managed to glean from the opening story sections at any rate. To be honest, it was hard not to glaze over given the clunky and needlessly drawn-out writing.
Some measure of leeway needs to be given to developer The Vanir Project here, as English is clearly not its first language. Whether this is a case of a poor translation job or just poor writing translated adequately, we're not sure. Frankly, it's beside the point. All that really matters is that Nightmare Boy fails to engage with its narrative, and there's far too much semi-coherent babbling to cycle through.
Which is a shame, because Nightmare Boy's world is extremely imaginative. Its characters have a grotesque carnival-meets-Alice in Wonderland feel to them. While it isn't exactly easy on the eye - there's a real overabundance of clashing colours and busy backgrounds here - it certainly stands out from the me-too cute mascot crowd.
We can't say we're huge fans of the visible scan line effect that's slapped on top either, which seems to be an affectation too far. Given that the graphics are hyper-detailed rather than classic pixel art, we're not sure what the intention was here. Like its presentation, Nightmare Boy's gameplay is a real mixed bag of intriguing ideas, unusual elements and poor execution. The nightmare world it takes place in is lavishly laid out, with hub screens that are several screens tall and wide, twisting tunnel sections, vertigo-inducing drops, simple physics puzzles and towering boss creatures.
There are novel flourishes aplenty. For example, throughout the early part of the game you'll notice cute little native creatures ambling around in the background, and will be amused/horrified when you realise that you can kill them. Your actions here will come back to haunt you (or maybe not) when you encounter a representative who confronts you with your wanton carelessness.
The controls are pretty standard platforming fare, with a steadily unlocking roster of moves and abilities that you gain as you meet characters and free imprisoned kids (yep, it's pretty dark). There's a certain floatiness to the jumping controls that works okay in general navigation, but fails pretty hard when the going gets tough with some extremely challenging platforming sections. An early encounter with some moving platforms and a spike pit springs to mind, necessitating countless restarts.
This isn't helped by an old school save system that requires you to get to a specific room and spend some in-game currency to record your progress. Nor is the situation helped by those aforementioned busy visuals, which can actively get in the way of you figuring out what's going on. Combat, which is divided between a melee attack and a limited projectile, sees you taking an abundance of knocks that you often don't even see coming.
Also hampering things is the fact that Nightmare Boy doesn't run too smoothly in handheld mode, with some noticable slowdown when things get a bit busy. We would love to tell you that it runs better in docked mode, but there's a bug in our launch version that prevents the game from working on our TV. All of which is pretty indicative of our overall feelings about Nightmare Boy. It's a Metroidvania game with real ambition and a fair number of intriguing ideas. Unfortunately, its execution ranges from half-baked to borderline broken.
We reckon The Vanir Project has something interesting here, amid its stream of ideas. But those ideas badly need sifting and editing, then tightening and polishing into solid gameplay mechanics. As it stands, there's scant room for a middle-of-the-road Metroidvania on the Switch eShop.
Nightmare Boy throws a whole heap of platform-adventure ideas at the wall, but only a few of them manage to stick. It's a Metroidvania with a distinctive style all of its own, but there are some glaring issues with its narrative, controls, pacing and performance. If you're after something completely different in the platformer category and have a high frustration threshold, however, there's a certain amount of quirky fun to be had here.