Friday, January 21, 2011

Rolling Around in the Night Sky

nightskyWhen was the last time you played a game starring a sphere? No princes, no monkeys. Just a plain little orb. I have to think back all the way to Marble Madness, though of course I could be forgetting something.

For some reason, Night Sky just so happens to star a sphere. Basing a game around a nondescript orb seems like an odd choice, but I’m glad indie developer Nifflas (Nicklas Nygren) did. Its blend of physics puzzles and roly-poly platforming makes for one of the more unique and relaxing games I’ve played in some time.

Night Sky purports to have a story (reportedly penned by Cave Story creator Pixel). I’m not sure I’m buying it. An opening sequence of stills introduce a boy (“You”) who finds a mystical sphere on a beach. He takes it home and begins having strange dreams. In those dreams, you will find the gameplay of Night Sky. The story is a rudimentary framing device that feels superfluous once you dig into the game itself. I realize I’m knocking on a mere 10 seconds of content here, but some games don’t take story on very well. They’re better off speaking for themselves.

And speak Night Sky does. Nifflas, building upon a few years of indie tradition, synthesized 2D platforming with Incredible Machine-like physics puzzles. You guide the aforementioned sphere from left to right, using environmental objects and/or the terrain itself to propel you to your goal. Like most modern platformers, Night Sky’s checkpointing is generous. Each of the game’s ten worlds is divided into small, focused challenges often only two or three screens long, meaning failure only sets you back a few seconds of action, not minutes.

Failure is inevitable, of course. Learning to properly roll your orb up a wall takes time. Some puzzles won’t reveal all of their elements right away and will surprise you with a curveball just before the finish line. Others show you everything at once, then charge you with figuring out how to proceed. I was most frustrated, however, by levels whose solution I clearly understood yet simply couldn’t execute. Part of that is user error, part of that is the peculiarities of the Night Sky’s physics.

nightsky 1Night Sky constantly rewards your success by frequently introducing new mechanics. At the press of a button, your marble can increase its speed dramatically or move with extreme precision. These abilities are shuffled around and occasionally locked or forced upon you to create specific challenges. Some levels let you invert gravity, which is the closest Night Sky has to a jump button. Rarely do the levels spell out what your restrictions are, but the control scheme is so simple and fluid that testing out your options takes but a second.

Nifflas wasn’t content just to give your orb a few abilities; the level designs themselves utilize the orb in vastly different ways. Occasionally, your movement keys will not command the sphere at all. Instead you’re given dominion over rotating platforms or pinball flippers (of course). My favorite my far are the various vehicle levels. Various Rube Goldberg-looking machines each house the sphere differently, and its rotations beget their movement. When simply rolling starts to feel boring, Night Sky dishes out cars, balloons, and Da Vince-esque flying machines. They don’t all control particularly well, but figuring out their quirks is part of the fun.

This broad spectrum of puzzle design is aided by Night Sky’s excellent pace. It doesn’t relentlessly throw difficult puzzle after difficult puzzle at you. Interspersed throughout each world are relatively easy levels created specifically to relax you after a particularly taxing sequence. Too often puzzlers ramp up the difficulty and never look back. Play turns to work real fast when a game doesn’t check in with the player once in a while to make sure they’re still having fun. Also, the wilder mechanics (be they vehicles or environmental triggers) are introduced slowly. Never was my mind blown to the point of not knowing how to proceed.

night sky Screenshot 6If you’re worried that I’m describing the easiest game on the planet, relax. Night Sky offers an alternative mode with trickier puzzles and less in-game clues. Despite it probably being a bit too easy, I would still recommend playing the normal playthrough first. It demonstrates what’s fun about the game without demanding absolute perfection right out of the gate. There are other games for that.

Night Sky’s presentation further supports its “chill out” aesthetic. While there may come a time when gaming becomes saturated with silhouetted visuals, we’re not there yet, so I have no problem praising the game’s art. The silhouetting creates a stark foreground that’s easy to focus on. The backdrops are stunning at times, sure, but I’m most thankful they don’t muddy any of the puzzle elements. Chris Schlarb’s beautiful soundtrack bubbles up intermittently with tones of jazz and ambient sound. If I’m really supposed to believe this game’s all some boy’s weird marble dreams, Schlarb’s otherworldly score helps me make that leap.

Too often indie games are categorized as demanding puzzlers or aimless, soothing distractions. Night Sky elegantly rolls along the fine line between the two.

You can purchase Night Sky from Nifflas’ website for $10. It is currently available for Windows, and a WiiWare version is in the works. A copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.