NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits Review
Warning: This review contains detailed narrative spoilers but only moderate mechanical spoilers.
NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits (formerly known as Icarian: Kindred Spirits) is a 2.5D platformer that, appropriately enough, tells the story of Nyx (Greek goddess of the night) as she quests to save Icarus and the pantheon of gods from the fury of Helios (Greek personification of the sun). For whatever reason, one day Helios gets pissed and decides to vent his anger by ravaging the Earth. By the start of the game, Helios has already succeeded in turning the planet into a mostly-lifeless and massive desert (albeit one tastefully dotted with ruins), but he ultimately seeks to completely annihilate the Earth by, I don’t know, engulfing it in purifying fire?
My summary of the story is vague not because I skipped over the game’s exposition, but rather because there was very little of it to begin with. I was mystified by how the story was barely there yet somehow quite baffling. Why are gods and goddesses powerless to intervene in Helios’ destruction? Why can those same seemingly impotent deities still interfere indirectly by bestowing powers upon Nyx? Why is Helios so angry anyways? Why does Nyx seek out the Oracle of Delphi? How does Nyx’s brief cradling of Icarus in the ending do anything to stop the advancement of Helios? Why did the game seem to opt for slight environmentalist / conservationist overtones in its final moments? Being left with more questions than answers is sometimes is a good thing, but in this case I think it reflects that the game’s story was poorly constructed. One of the closest analogues I can think of is Sky Island, a puzzle game where scarce scraps of story only served to befuddle and be detrimental to the overall experience.
Most of the development time seems to have gone into the action-puzzle-platforming gameplay and the gorgeous aesthetics, and those aspects managed to be good to the point where they prevented the weak story from totally crippling the game. Specifically, I felt NyxQuest was at its best when the eye-candy aesthetics mixed with soothing music to establish a peaceful and zen-inducing backdrop for the environments I was intended to traverse and overcome. NyxQuest has been favorably compared to both ICO and Braid for its aesthetics and progression of mechanics, and I can totally see where that sentiment is coming from. Regarding ICO, Nyx explores environments much larger than her, making her appear as little more a mere speck of sand amidst a vast and uncaring desert. It also helps that, similar to ICO, the lighting is absolutely fantastic. Big things like the progression of day to night and little things like the localized glow intensity of fire both received a lot of attention, and I think NyxQuest is a much more artful and beautiful game for it. When this great lighting is combined with wonderful hues of color and great particle systems for clouds and sand, it also makes the game’s aesthetics reminiscent of Braid‘s painterly style, and I think NyxQuest‘s ability to match the quality of the aesthetics of two beloved “art games” is certainly nothing to scoff at. Regarding the aspect of Braid-like progression of mechanics, NyxQuest has a simple platforming core that remains viable and integral throughout, but powers granted by deus ex machina alter and complement that core without making it something else entirely.
In its early stages, NyxQuest focused on puzzles and was fairly light on action. I loved exploring for hidden relics and having long stretches of peaceful play so much that I initially seriously contemplated writing this review from the POV of considering NyxQuest as an undermarketed indie gem. (I don’t know about you, but NyxQuest totally flew under my radar both when it first arrived on Wii in Autumn 2009 and on PC one year later. If it wasn’t for Steam’s Indie 2D Bundle in 2011, which I mostly got for World of Goo and BIT.TRIP RUNNER anyway, I might have completely missed experiencing this game.) Unfortunately, NyxQuest switched to longer and more frequent action sequences later, and I felt the overall experience suffered because of it. Most disappointingly, the zen was an early casualty of the transition. The gliding controls and the game’s clever take on double jump mechanics work well enough when the pace is leisurely, but when these are coupled with platforming sequences that demand a fair amount of precision and quick-thinking (such as when you are jumping over flaming pits and crumbling walkways as meteors plummet from the heavens), some roughness of control becomes apparent and may very well cause more than its fare share of injuries or deaths. I didn’t have much trouble with the cursor controls for activating powers, but I assume the precision of using a mouse contributed significantly. Sequences I breezed through on PC might be distinctly more difficult when one attempts to accomplish the same thing while wrestling with Wiimote motion controls.
There is also the matter of enemies, which, for such an action-heavy game, are pretty pathetic and unvaried. Generic baddies appear most commonly as harpies. The fact that they fly predetermined paths and only attack Nyx at absurdly short ranges means they aren’t really an issue as you long as don’t have to glide directly in their path. Even then, some quick work with wing-flaps or powers unlocked later in the game is all it takes to make the threat they pose completely negligible. Minotaurs appear as run-of-the-mill and fairly brainless bull-charging enemies, and the only reason they pose a threat is because they commonly appear in confined spaces where evasion is difficult or as part of suicidal charges that are incredibly inconvenient when one needs to run past the paths they block as fast as possible. Hyrdas first appear as part of a pretty decent boss battle, but then are quickly demoted to respawning nuisances a short time later. They remain challenging in both their boss and mini-boss incarnations for quite some time, but a late-game power almost entirely destroys any semblance of threat that they (or any other enemy) might hold.
Environmental hazards like projectile fireballs, violent wind, scorching sand, piercing spikes, crushing pillars, homing timebombs, and falling blocks provide more challenge than enemies, but after you’ve beaten each once, bypassing them in the future is trivial. Mixing and matching hazards and enemies in all sorts of convoluted combinations changes things up a bit, but the platforming gets rote quickly (though the jumping and gliding core always remains great!) and none of it seriously tests your mettle until the end when so many things are happening at once that it’s simply near impossible to be on top of everything all the time. I should, however, mention the fantastic Field of Argos level that features a beast that bombards you with a lethal shockwave if it happens to catch you while performing periodic searches. The distinction between getting caught out in the open or being safe and sound feels fair, yet the timing is still strict enough to instill a sense of latent dread. It provided a fresh spin on things you’ve been doing the entire game, and the developers should be commended for their efforts.
Speaking of the developers, they call themselves Over the Top Games, but ironically I think their first game wasn’t nearly ambitious enough. I could totally see NyxQuest standing amongst other 2.5D platforming greats like Klonoa and I wanted to like NyxQuest much more than I ultimately did, but a short campaign, an unengaging story, and ho-hum enemies combined to curtail the game’s potential and make it less stellar than it could have been. I’d still recommend a look if you’re a fan of platformers, if only for the brief but glorious chance to experience fantastic art and lighting. I myself usually prefer the crisp, clean look of 2D pixel art for side-scrolling platformers, but NyxQuest is a very rare specimen that exemplifies that 3D models can be just as beautiful, if not moreso.