Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Whiskey Reviews: NEStalgia (It's already a joke!)

Platform: PC
Release Date: 15 April 2014
Developer: Silk Games
Publisher: Silk Games
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £10.99

There's probably been a point for almost everyone who plays RPGs where they've wished they could share it with a friend, playing coop. Some games like Lord Of The Rings on PS2 have tried and failed to provide a compelling coop RPG but NEStalgia's developer took a fresh approach to the subject. Did it work? Take the jump and find out.

Silk Games likes to describe NEStalgia as "Dragon Warrior 3 meets World Of Warcraft" and while that's an adequate description it's not entirely accurate. NEStalgia is a NES style RPG (ala the early Dragon Quest games) with the twist hat you can play it multiplayer. The whole experience scales nicely to multiple players and the game is equally enjoyable on your own or with a dozen friends on the same server.
Unlike the typical approach to multiplayer RPGs the server size is up to the player; you can host small private games for friends or to play on your own or you can host a larger dedicated server and populate the world with dozens of players. This approach means that there's something for everyone; it doesn't matter if you have friends who are interested or not, NEStalgia has you covered.

General gameplay is lifted from old school RPGs like Dragon Quest almost to the letter but has seen the chisel of modern design take a chunk out of the flabby bits to make room for more contemporary contrivances.
For example; there's an MMO style skill tree where each class gets two trees and a set number of points to spend allocated as they level up, and a semi-kinda-sorta Pokemon style system where you have monsters join your party and train them up much like your main character. This is one of the major mechanics that makes the game playable solo, there's so many monsters all with unique stats, skills and fighting styles that you can customize your party to fit in with whatever character class you chose for your own character.
Another modern feature that has wormed its way in is the quest log, a superb little menu accessible at any time that provides a description and dialogue about your acquired quests so that you're never lost and even after a lengthy break you can just pop open the journal and figure out what to do next.

One outstanding design aspect is the simple, hassle free controls; every game has controls and they're usually fine but rarely stand out as anything special. NEStalgia takes the keyboard and mouse and translates them into a system normally played with a gamepad.
There's the standard WASD to move and either space or tab as an action button and that's it. The mouse can activate menus, target enemies, choose skills, etc with left click and it all comes together to make it a joy to play. You don't have to remember a dozen keys for the different UI functions or have to press numerical inputs or use a cursor to select choices in battle, you have the option of the mouse cursor.
Perhaps it sounds a bit silly but from a design standpoint this is a masterstroke that helps turn what could have been an average experience into one that's deeply enjoyable. You never have to stop and think, "which button opens my quest log, or which button do I click again?" and that really helps you stay focused on the events going off.

Classes are fairly diverse and well explained by the in-game menus and will influence the way you play and what equipment you can use but when playing solo a handful of these classes can feel like a difficulty select menu, for example the Ranger as opposed to the Soldier.
In addition to restricting what equipment you can use each class has unique stats and special moves, some of which are unlocked through the skill trees, and all fill a different role in combat to some degree which encourages experimentation with different monster companions that helps turn them from party padding to a fully fledged gameplay system that's a joy to mess around with.

The world is fairly interesting and the 8-bit art style allows for some beautiful visuals that are equal parts pixels and imagination, it's populated by NPCs that are far more interesting than your standard RPG villagers thanks to the expansive quest system allowing you to talk to and interact with the world's denizens in ways more engaging than inane banter.
One quest might have you killing bandits while another might have you talking to a witch's cat to be shrunk down to fight a mouse in the wall and right after that you'll be delivering a letter then in this new city you might end up working undercover for the guards and hurling insults at them from a sheet of paper in your inventory.
The quests are both standalone and in chains that tell small but engaging stories and introduce simple but interesting characters along the way. Meanwhile the objectives are so varied and have found the balance between seriousness and humour that's difficult to achieve in these kind of games, especially with so little text but Silk Games have absolutely crushed the opposition in this regard.

One sticking point however is the sound design; most of it is fairly inoffensive though basic but the music, after 40 hours, is grating to the point where I would probably try to choke anyone who hummed the overworld theme. It's not that the theme itself is bad, it's a fairly memorable short loop of cheery map music but it's pretty much always present and like any other ever-present sound it'll start to grate eventually.

Overall, NEStalgia is both old and new, it falls firmly into the faux-retro camp but isn't an excuse for a lazy art style like many other faux-retro titles. There's a compelling story and solid game systems propping it up that more than rivals anything Square Enix have put out for quality.
Between it fundamentally being an old game and a JRPG to boot it probably isn't an experience for everyone and as such it's not something I can wholeheartedly recommend but if you enjoy RPGs, either western or japanese style you'll be doing yourself a disservice by not giving NEStalgia a decent chance.
Also, you get to talk to a cat, an actual magical cat and not just a turd-cat.

Score: 8 out of 10 slimes enjoy puff puff.

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