[7 April 2008]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams is weird in a quaint sort of way. In its mood, narrative, and atmosphere, it smacks of a type of fantastic childhood story. It is something like Alice in Wonderland or the The Wizard of Oz.
Indeed, like Alice or Oz, the game features the story of children accidentally stumbling into another world (in this case the dreamworld of Nightopia), encountering and befriending its denizens, and also coming into conflict with the general oddness of this new and alien place.
On that level, and as a fan of such childhood fare, I really want to like NiGHTS, but its weirdness somehow only strikes me as weird rather than magical. Perhaps I am simply too old for such quaint storytelling. Maybe I no longer can relate to the magical?
If that is the case, as a reviewer, I am certainly able to live with the idea that the game’s charms simply elude me as someone who doesn’t fit into the target audience of a game like this. It is certainly the case that many games rated E are by no means (despite their title) intended for “Everyone.” Sometimes “Everyone” just represents gamers who come in a smaller form than a grizzled Gen X-er like me.
Judging it in that light, every time that I picked up my review copy of NiGHTS to take it for another spin, my two youngest daughters plopped down in front of the television to watch. Clearly, it held some interest for the littlest gamers in my household.
They were especially bewitched by one of the two protagonists that you play, a little girl named Helen. In particular, they loved her sassy attitude as she rustled her smart, little skirt and tossed back her hair during idles.
However, unlike other E-rated games that I have reviewed and brought home, neither one asked to actually play it.
Both girls are quite content to load up a Super Mario game on their own, or beg me to let them have a turn if I am taking up too much time with such a game. They only need Dad for the “hard parts.” Indeed, what seemed daunting to them was the gameplay itself. They were more than happy to watch NiGHTS, but neither expressed any interest in playing a game “that hard” when I offered the Wiimote to them.
NiGHTS largely exists as a platformer with a focus on traversing environments via flight. There are a couple of different control schemes that one can use to play. The player guides the game’s two young protagonists, Will and Helen, via the Wiimote and nunchuk in a traditional 3D manner. When Will and Helen “dualize” with the whimsical and roguish jester NiGHTS (the vast majority of the gameplay is in this high flying mode), though, the player can choose to guide this character with only the Wiimote pointed at the screen to guide her flight path or by adding the nunchuk to more directly steer NiGHTS—again in a manner more familiar to 3D gameplay.
The game itself suggests that while the latter method is the intended way to experience the game, the former is a much easier way to do so. After several frustrating flights attempting to guide NiGHTS in the more innovative “Wii” style, I quickly defaulted to the easier approach.
To be frank, though, even the easier style is challenging as NiGHTS’ responsiveness is often iffy and some of the tasks that NiGHTS is charged with require some real precision to pull off. I was rather glad that neither of my daughters took me up on my offer to try out the game, as I suspect that the relative difficulty of the controls may have left them in tears. Heck, I was nearly in tears trying out the first style of play.
The difficulty of the game is sporadic throughout with very easy levels where you just need to chase down a fleeing opponent and occasionally fly through some rings along the way to more grueling precision flights that require careful and accurate in-flight acrobatics and pathing to pull off correctly and advance Will and Helen’s stories.
Since NiGHTS is a linear affair where progression through the story requires the player to move through a strict progression of levels, there isn’t any real opportunity to take a break from an especially difficult part to work on something else. Technically, you can do so in a limited way by switching between the two stories that make up the game—one which focuses on Will and another which focuses on Helen—but each of these two stories is still presented through linear level progression for each character.
With the clear evidence that my daughters received that the levels were quite challenging at times (“Daddy said a bad word…again.”), the difficult aspects of some of these levels seemed to be the main reason for my daughters’ decision to watch rather than play NiGHTS.
This notion leads me to wonder who exactly NiGHTS is ultimately intended for and raises a question that I sometimes have concerning whether developers really consider what “Everyone” implies beyond being a content description of a game. Simply put, if the material is targeted towards and appeals to children, shouldn’t the gameplay likewise be targeted towards and appeal to children too?
This mixed approach between child-like content and more sophisticated gameplay is probably the greatest problem that NiGHTS presents. It isn’t just a game about weird things. Because of its uneven approach to matching the interest of its content with the interest of its experience as a game, it is a game that, weirdly, may not be clearly suited for any audience at all.