I was trying to come with a simple description for Nocturne. Something that would quickly explain its moderately uncommon style and concept, and make immediately clear why I snapped this game up when it was released around Halloween 1999. After much deliberation, I think I’ve broken it down to two words. Two words that could sell you on this game immediately, or at least convince you to read the rest of the review:
Nocturne takes place in the early-1930s and follows the exploits of a secret government organization known as “Spookhouse.” The backstory is that while fighting with the Rough Riders, Teddy Roosevelt encounters and slays a werewolf. Armed with firsthand proof that the supernatural exists, and knowing those crafty Krauts have been chattering about mythical artifacts and power, Teds creates Spookhouse to investigate and destroy any otherworldly threats to America’s national security. You come in after Spookhouse has been in operation for 20-something years, and learned a fair amount about how the creatures that go bump in the night actually tick. Along the way they’ve enlisted some of the best scientists, military officers, and even some of the very monsters they make a habit of eradicating.
Enter your character, a gruff weapons specialist and agent-of-all-trades known only as “The Stranger.” He speaks with a voice of pure gravel and the spartan style of Clint Eastwood. He dresses in a grey trench and fedora like one of Eliot Ness’ men. There’s a running gag that he supposedly killed every werewolf in Germany. He wears an oversized pair of goggles that… well, make him look pretty ridiculous, actually, but can be activated to let him see in the dark. He also runs a bit like a girl. But when he whips twin pistols from his fluttering coat and starts flinging lead into the game’s deep shadows, he starts to look pretty damn cool.
How cool Stranger looks while blasting away various types of monsters is crucial, because it’s the majority of the game. Sure, you’ll have “investigations,” but these are really just excuses to travel around the world and shoot things. The investigating will take place in cutscenes, or consist of finding the key needed to unlock the next area and continue the shooting. That’s about it, but a terrifically moody engine keeps the tension high as you creep through yet dingier locales and prepare for monsters to leap out from every sheltered corner.
It’s hard to make out exact technical information because there’s so much cheating and trickery going on here on the visual side. It would appear that the characters are 3D models against 2D backgrounds, as in Alone in the Dark or Resident Evil. The difference is that much of the 2D background has been cut out and assigned depth to allow the models to move “behind” them. Shadows are also 3D, and are also affected by these cut-out areas, allowing for angular shadows dynamically cast.
The effect looks a little odd if you’re used to modern games with true 3D environments – you can tell what things should look like and see that they don’t quite match up. But the effect at the time was a very impressive evolution of past graphical tricks, and still looks totally convincing today. When you’re waving your flashlight around and watching the light play off of certain surfaces while creating shadowed angles on others, it’s an easy sell to believe each area is a fully-geometric space with deadly threats lurking nearby.
When those threats appear, Stranger is ready. Your default pistols come equipped with laser aiming and flashlights, allowing you to easily track where you’re aiming despite the third-person view. In addition, some level of auto-aiming kicks in as monsters get close, and Stranger keeps a bead on them as long as they remain in a limited cone of vision ahead of him. In these cases, the lasers also help you see where the monster Stranger is currently tracking is located.
Not only that, each of his hands tracks independently, effortlessly setting up John Woo moments as he blasts at creatures on both sides, or spins and shoots while surrounded. Mild strategy kicks in as you find weapons in your surroundings, or special ammo for the pistols, like silver bullets, that are more effective against certain enemy types. Spookhouse further kits you up between levels, with experimental weapons like the ultraviolet gun (take that, vampires!)
You’ll get a lot of time for your money, as the game has four chapters with multiple levels in each. You’ll fight werewolves in Germany, zombies in an small Texas town, mutants in Chicago, and demons in a French castle. You can even expect scene and scenery changes across the levels inside the chapters (such as from a train to an Old West town) that help to keep the variety up. Some puzzles make appearances too, elevating gameplay above simply finding keys and switches.
You’ll get a large group of mythological monsters to tackle too, from the obvious werewolves, vampires, and demons, to the slightly more esoteric Succubi, gargoyles, and… no, I won’t spoil the last one for you. Let’s just go with saying that Nocturne stores an awesome graphical effect up its sleeve that it throws at you when you least expect it. Monsters of all types also get bloody and chunky after combat, staining the walls with realistic splatters that somehow manage not to look like simple sprites. A limited fabric engine also allows for coats and cloth to flutter dynamically with movement or breezes.
It’s not all powdered awesome though. Some of the levels tend to drag on and make key or object hunts overly frustrating – a bit like Tomb Raider in that regard, where you spend far too much time searching the environment in confusion. The last “Estate” chapter feels a bit too much like a cut from Resident Evil. The combat also gets used so much that it turns a little stale when it, and not the gothic horror, becomes the focus of the game. The mafia chapter is a great example of this – it’s an interesting story, but the chapter pretty much just calls on you to Tommy-gun a warehouse full of mobster after mobster until the end. Yawn.
Otherwise, it’s a winner. It’s still frequently beautiful to this day, with a gunslinger that’s fun to play as and a plot made cool by its practical methods of dealing with the kinds of creatures you’re so used to fearing as bastions of the unknown. The game basically can’t be any more slick, effortlessly combining a skilled, stoic hero, creepy locales, classic monsters, stylish gunplay, wafting coats, long shadows, and even a slow motion scene or two. Think Buffy meets The Untouchables, with a hint of John Wayne westerns, and you’ve got an experience that’s hard to pass up.
I love exploring classic monster mythos from the perspective of a jaded scientific, practical point of view. Stranger acts like he’s seen and fought it all. You can believe he has.
The spirit and mood get a little distracted by its own bloodshed and gunplay at times. Never really get to investigate anything, unless you count shooting everything in sight as investigation.