There’s something amiss in sleepy London town tonight, as the evil Brotherhood of Hecate has been resurrected by a man named Adam Crowley, and the Black Death and the Great Fire of 1666 are but mere opening acts to the hellish plague Crowley is unleashing on the city, turning ordinary humans into deformed freaks and making hellish beasts walk the streets. It’s up to Father Ignatius and his daughter Nadia to put an end to the Brotherhood’s schemes by literally beating the myriad monsters to death…or re-death, or, whatever. Such is the premise for 1997’s Nightmare Creatures.
Now, as evil and depraved as the Brotherhood of Hecate may be, they are far from the most vile conspirators you’ll encounter in this game. Y’see, Nightmare Creatures is a 3D beat-’em-up; imagine if, say, Double Dragon went to Hell, which sounds like an awesome concept. Unfortunately, it has the curse of having been made fairly early in the era of full 3D environments, coupled with being ported to the N64, which sported perhaps the worst-suited controller possible for this type of game, meaning, instead of fighting the hellspawn and zombies, your biggest battle will be with the camera and the play control, and it’s a fight you’re not going to win.
As for the actual controls, A kicks, B uses your weapon, either Ignatius’s staff or Nadia’s sword, holding R allows you to cycle through your secondary items, and the C buttons are badly misappropriated for tasks, for example, Top C allows you to dodge left. Yes, TOP C dodges LEFT. You move with the Control Stick, but it suffers from Resident Evil tank controls at the worst possible time, and instead of being able to push back on the stick to turn behind you, it just makes you hop backwards like a confused bunny rabbit, and you have to manually turn all the way around left or right to face behind you, which is exactly as fun as it sounds when most every enemy you face has either a reach or speed advantage, if not both.
Now, the wonky controls would be bad enough, but the camera has its own part to play in this tragedy. Its default angle is directly behind you, angled low, ostensibly to make your character look imposing, but this kinda falls apart when there’s an enemy directly in front of you, and your character blocks them out entirely or botches your depth perception to the point you’ll have very little idea whether or not you’re in striking distance of the enemy, not that it much matters, because you’re going to get hit anyway, because your kicks don’t have any reach and your weapon strikes take long enough for the enemy, no matter how weak, to score some cheapo damage. While you have a block button, you have to be standing still for it to actually block, otherwise, it’s basically a “move slower” button, and enemy AI loves to be chickenshit bastards and back away from you until you put your guard down…then they smack you. Every. Time.
Now, that being said, you would think the safest strategy would be to back them against a wall, but the game’s clearly prepared to punch a hole in this plan, because if you attempt to make this logical move, the game counters by rotating the camera, well, somewhere, completely dicking with you and making it that much harder to figure out how to press an attack, leaving the enemy a grand opportunity to knock you back down in the process, and while you can’t be hurt while getting up, enemies have a knack for clobbering you the nanosecond you make it back to your feet.
Even without the enemies, be prepared for some other frustrations. You learn combos as the game goes along, but good luck triggering them reliably, as each move’s animation has to complete before anything else happens, so you’ll either frantically try punching the buttons only to do the first and last commands, or you’ll wait too long and just leave yourself open. You can jump, but it’s never clear what you can actually jump high enough to reach, as you’ll be oddly able to leap onto some spots and be stymied trying to hop a knee-high wall, and seeing as there’s water that will kill you instantly, this gets a bit dicey, not to mention that many passages have falling rocks or beams that don’t do much damage but knock you down almost for pure spite, moreso when there’s multiple traps along the same hallway, and we’re looking at a controller-smashing test of patience here.
Theoretically, at least, you’re stuck having to pick fights with the enemies by default because of an adrenaline meter that depletes over time; when it runs out, you begin to lose health, and the meter is replenished by fighting the monsters. However, you can turn the meter off, and suddenly, literally running past every enemy and just making a mad dash through the level becomes not just a viable strategy, but quite possibly the BEST strategy, or at least the one that will cause the least amount of frustration, and cost the least amount of health, which you’ll need for the boss battles sprinkled in every few levels, which will undoubtedly turn into a war of attrition as you pray you have enough extra lives to win a mindless, button-mashing, often futile game of Rochambo.
I suppose I’m being kinda hard on Nightmare Creatures, and of course, there’s a pretty good chance I’m just awful at the game, and aren’t getting to appreciate it properly through the haze of my frustration, but I can’t for the life of me imagine anyone actually being GOOD at this game. There are useful pickups to be found, like limited-use firearms and explosives which make short work of even the peskiest of enemies, but given how much emphasis was put on the combo system and melee combat, I assume they’re meant to be last-ditch tools and not a regular part of your offense. You can upgrade your primary weapon, if you take the time to search for them, but they just seem to make your whackin’ stick generically more powerful and don’t really help the reach or speed issues.
I can, though, see why people want Nightmare Creatures to be good or have convinced themselves it’s better than it is, because the concept, using an ever-expanding repertoire of sweet swordplay and flashy martial arts maneuvers to battle black magic hellspawn in Victorian London, is awesome on paper. The settings, crawling through the dank, dark underbelly of the city, through the vile sewers and cemeteries of the city upon the Thames, are excellent, and you almost expect to round a corner and find Jack the Ripper doing his dirty deeds, which definitely lends to the eerie feeling the designers were no doubt looking to drum up. Enemy designs are appropriately grotesque, but some of them, most notably the Pepys Monster, pop up so often they kinda lose some of their shock value; consider, say, Plutonia Experiment in The Final Doom‘s use of the biggest, baddest enemies in the game as basically EVERY enemy, and you’ll understand what I mean. Graphics and sound are about what you’d expect for this period in the N64’s run, so everything kinda looks angular and polygonal, but the game reeks of atmosphere well enough to where it shouldn’t matter.
The commenters who recommended this game also mentioned a sequel, though I don’t believe it made it to the N64 lineup, and quite frankly, I don’t exactly have a burning desire to track it down after playing the first game. Nightmare Creatures is a really intriguing concept marred to the point of nigh-unplayability through a combination of wretched controls, a camera that seems to be out to work against you, and enemy AI that all but ensures that playing “the right way” will drive you to ragequitting. As previously noted, we don’t hand out 1/2 star reviews to games unless they have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and Nightmare Creatures does do enough in terms of setting the right kind of tone to avoid the dreaded half-snowflake, but not much else. It might be worth a look if and only if you are a total mark for Lovecraftian horror or beat-’em-ups, but aside from that, you’d be well-advised to leave it on the other side of the Atlantic.
A pretty fresh idea, two selectable characters, does set the mood it’s trying to decently well.
Turn around! No, other way! FUCK! B, B, B, B, A, Z, what the hell, how did it hit me, I’m still on the ground! STOP BLOCKING! No, block NOW! Not now, arrrrgghhh…