Hands On with Noct

Whatever that is, it's probably going to eat you.

For such a visually sparse game, so many elements of Noct’s design are luxurious in the extreme—the light bounce to the menu text, the intimate sound of hurried typing that accompanies the dialog, the eerie soundtrack, the way your view through a satellite monitor snaps shut when a monster devours you. The sound effect in this last moment is especially good, full of rich bass that sits in your stomach, startling without being unpleasant. This is a particularly wise choice, as the moment of death is a repeated inevitability: if there’s one thing that can definitely be said about Noct, it’s that you’re going to die. A lot.

Noct is a 2D survival game currently in Steam Early Access. It casts you as a tiny pixel person adrift in a gray and white post-apocalyptic wasteland. You view yourself from above via a hovering satellite camera whose edges twinkle with stats and acronyms that feel cold and official, as if all your vital information—health, ammo, coordinates—belong to someone else. The satellite’s operator guides you to certain waypoints from above, and this top-down view does wonders for Noct’s sense of scale. The world is made of the hulking carcasses of bunkers and burnt-out cars, swathes of deep black rivers, and the tangled canopies of trees that terrifyingly obscure your character from view. Your snowy footprints fade, the outside world vanishes when you go into buildings, and all of this highlights the lurking possibility of the game’s core tension, which is the fear of being attacked by monsters. Unimaginably giant monsters, to be exact. They are unnatural, glowing behemoths that resemble huge bugs, crocodiles with sideways jaws, and bulbous, primally unrecognizable beasts. When they’re close, your screen darkens, and a tremulous “Uh oh” rises from your character. You try to make a split-second choice in these moments: stand still? Run? Reload? You’re dead. Respawning finds you trudging out to loot your own corpse and setting out to follow the shifting waypoints once again.

As previously mentioned, these deaths never feel unpleasant from an aesthetic point of view, and this smart design keeps them from being cheap jump scares. But the more often you die, the less these artistic touches can bear the burden of staving off frustration. You learn to deal with the monsters through combat or evasion, but these encounters grow to feel unrewarding at best and unfair at worst. The first time I managed to melee a charging worm was triumphant, and darting behind a building to avoid a patrolling herd of mutant crocodiles felt clever, but Noct doesn’t yet build on these encounters to teach you anything about the world’s ecology and your place in it. Some monsters are small enough to get inside buildings, trapping you if you don’t check for exits, but others just appear through the walls, snatching you up without warning. It can be difficult to trudge back to a corpse swarmed by beasts, dying again and again in hopes of making incremental progress.

This progress is marked by waypoints in the form of glowing white boxes that are simply fetch quests across the map. You retrieve parts and valves that don’t feel meaningful to the game or its world. Since these quests never grow in complexity or stakes, they can feel stale, especially when progress itself is so slow. When the last of these quests ends, all waypoints disappear, and your watcher simply tells you to “survive;” I wandered the landscape, constantly checking my sprawling map, encountering more dead ends and invisible walls than the monitor promised until I was inevitably murdered by an unexpected beast. It was as equally hard to figure out how to fulfil this command to survive as it was to figure out why.

Noct’s developer, C3SK, had initially slated the game for a late October release before deciding to put it out in Early Access, with a full release planned for the first quarter of 2016. From what I experienced, the game feels concerningly bare-bones for a project that seems so late into its development. It falls into easy comparisons with games like Teleglitch and Darkwood, but where those games seem to grow richer on each loop through their hostile worlds, Noct’s loops never seem to widen or deepen. Monsters don’t drop loot, giving you little reason to kill them besides knowing they’re out of the picture, but even this does nothing against those sudden, unpreventable deaths. Your discussion with the satellite operator gets repetitive quickly, and their ultimate abandonment feels unfinished, setting you adrift rather than leaving you with a grand task. In its current state Noct feels like a series of relatively unrewarding straight lines, as empty and limited as the landscape you struggle to survive in.

Similarly, the controls feel muddy and confused. Gunfire is snappy and responsive, and the monsters’ movements and attacks are lushly animated, but throwing grenades or swapping weapons wasn’t always as seamless as a tense situation called for. The information the game gives you is vague, and pausing too long to consider it or fumble with controls leaves you open to attack. There’s a survival element present in fields that monitor your food, water, and health; letting these dip too low impedes your ability to sprint. You can find food and water rations out in the world, but, like the waypoints, they’re bright white boxes that don’t have the payoff of finding rations in Early Access survival staples like DayZ or The Long Dark. You feed boxes to your boxy person and keep looking for more boxes; there’s no end in sight, and as of yet none of it feels inherently rewarding.

An online multiplayer mode promises more lively interactions, as well as the ability to host a private server and team up with friends, but the scant available servers were empty when I attempted to find other players. The developers are active in the Steam forums and refreshingly invested in improving and finishing the game. Given the thought they put into the game’s visual and audio design and their responsiveness to commenters, Noct holds a lot of promise for improving as its Early Access period continues. Planned content promises more plot, areas, and survival elements, and C3SK clearly know where they want to go with the game. At present the atmosphere is deliciously tense, which, coupled with its unique and satisfying presentation, makes it worth a poke around. It’s more disturbing than scary, and as such it’s a mature entry into the survival horror genre, one that avoids cheap thrills in favor of genuinely harsh, nerve-wracking experiences. It starts to grow on you as you learn the ropes, with brief blips of real pleasure interspersed among its less satisfying moments. Whether or not those blips are worth the price in its current state remains to be seen, but it is definitely on the right road, provided that road is a long and busy one. 

Riley MacLeod spends a lot of time thinking about stealth games and the serial comma. You can follow him on Twitter at @rcmacleod.

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