Explorative adventures or ‘walking simulators’ as they are unflatteringly referred to these days, are becoming more and more numerous the farther we get into this console generation. Already we’ve had the likes of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Kholat and Gone Home to name just a few, and now N.E.R.O, from Italian developer Storm in a Teacup, is the latest to join the ranks of its genre peers.
Walking in an Alien Wonderland
Arguably, these sorts of games are defined by the environments that you traipse about in and in this respect N.E.R.O is certainly rather unique. Instead of taking place in the now typical trope of an abandoned house, N.E.R.O instead elects to tell its first-person explorative beats in a dreamlike, almost alien looking world that takes in all manner of strange cavern systems, colourful deserts, and vibrant forests.
Broadly speaking, each of the four worlds–caverns, forest, hospital, and desert–conveys a particular aspect of the story, and while each is suitably atmospheric in their own right, N.E.R.O clearly fares better when dealing in the fantastical of its more natural settings rather than the mundane of the hospital location, all while a mysterious and towering shadowy figure follows you throughout.
Underpinning this myriad of unusually evocative worlds is the story. A narrative that touches upon notions of parenthood, tragedy, and loneliness, it can be difficult to comprehend at first, because the language employed by the narrator very often veers towards the obtuse and obscure. Beyond the tones of the narrator, N.E.R.O also seeks to impart its story to the player through a long series of colour correspondent floating passages of text that actually do a far better job of cluing you into the story than the voice-over is able to.
As far as the nuances of the story itself go, N.E.R.O invariably feels very much like a personal tale as it employs a combination of the abstract and the direct to unfurl its narrative, chronicling the high and lows of having children, losing them, and the aftermath that follows. Ostensibly, between the slow-paced exploration and the steadily told narrative, N.E.R.O proves itself to be very much a relaxing affair that acts as an effective palette cleanser for those looking for something a little less frantic after than the likes of Overwatch or DOOM.
A Puzzling Lack of Difficult Puzzles
Those of you who are expecting anything remotely approaching a challenge for your grey matter functions in N.E.R.O will be disappointed. With most conundrums (and I use that term extremely loosely) being able to be solved within seconds rather than minutes or hours, N.E.R.O’s puzzles feel more like pithy distractions from the plot rather than bespoken brain-ticklers designed to tax your mental acumen in any sort of meaningful fashion.
A big reason for this is that the puzzles themselves are fairly uniform in execution, being split largely between variations of having to shoot a glowing ball into a hole or pressure plate puzzles that require you to summon your shadowy companion to a particular location. Certainly, the only thing more disappointing than the difficulty of the puzzles on offer is the sheer lack of variety and imagination on display.
Worse still is the fact that once completed, there is no reason to return to N.E.R.O. Spread across each of the quartet of differently themed worlds are photograph fragments which can be collected, but other than that, there is nothing else to do away from the main narrative which, when taken in tandem with N.E.R.O’s three to four hour duration, makes the appeal of the whole effort desperately finite indeed.
The Price of Unity
Like many other games that leverage the Unity engine on PS4, N.E.R.O is a let-down, being visually compromised with both a sluggish frame rate and relatively poor image quality. In the case of the former, N.E.R.O struggles to adhere to a thirty frames per second cap with frequent drops and fluctuations occurring throughout that all add up to make it feel far less smooth and responsive than other efforts of a similar ilk.
In regards to image quality, N.E.R.O fares poorly here also with jaggies abound on just about every edge of the environment, and low-quality and delayed loading textures clashing with superior surface work seen elsewhere. In short then, N.E.R.O is a game that suffers from misalignment of its technical and artistic ambitions; the scrappy and poorly engineered technology that sits at its core fails to match the heady grandeur of its art direction.
Once the credits roll, it’s difficult to walk away from N.E.R.O without the palpable tug of lingering emotion, because, in spite of its myriad of technical failings, the game indelibly leaves its mark. As an actual ‘game,’ and acknowledging everything that designation encompasses however, N.E.R.O falls short with a real lack of challenge and longevity that both combine to constrict the potential of the affair and thus relegate N.E.R.O to the domain of the strictly average rather than the exceptional.