NightCry began its life as “Project Scissors” via a Kickstarter campaign, whose success is mostly owed to the presence of development staff such as Hifumi Kono (Clocktower series), Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge), and Masahiro Ito (environment/monster designer for early Silent Hill titles).
Initially conceived by Hifumi-san as a sequel to the Clocktower series directly, he was unable to go ahead in that direction due to not owning the franchise rights. He therefore settled on a spiritual successor instead with what would eventually become NightCry. For those unaware of the Clocktower series, they’re summarised nicely as point and click horror games (at least the first two) with a focus on narrative, environmental exploration/puzzles using collected objects, and a monster chasing you as you progress. Supporting the atmosphere is music written by Nobuko Toda (Metal Gear Solid 4 and Halo 4) alongside Michiru Yamane (Castlevania).
Taking place aboard a cruise ship named the Oceanus in a modern day setting, we find a group of college students travelling alongside faculty staff, stranded in the middle of the ocean after they’re boarded by a group of island cultists, who are in control of a mysterious entity aptly dubbed Scissorwalker. With the player taking control of three different characters, they are each required to solve soft-puzzles which advance the plot through various investigations and interactions, all of which will ultimately lead down one of eight different endings. Throughout the player’s exploration of the environment, Scissorwalker occasionally appears to block progress, forcing the player to escape first before continuing the story.
As well as multiple ending paths, there are various death paths and horrors to discover through your playthrough, which you collect into a gallery that is viewable from the main menu, commemorating these moments. This brings me to one of my criticisms with the game; death conditions. Whilst the obvious ones are understandable, such as being caught by the Scissorwalker or using the same hiding spot multiple times, there are some instances that seem random at best, and end up feeling as if the player has been cheated. Without going into spoiler territory, I’ll only vaguely mention the most concerning one, which is when the player enters a particular room without their flashlight turned on (smartphone with a fully lit screen), they enter a dark room and close the door behind them, and the camera fades to black as a scream is heard. The room isn’t unique in any discernible fashion, and no warning is given for entering without the player’s smartphone illuminating their entrance.
It’s the sort of moments mentioned above that lead to an erratic and poor representation of a player’s safety within a horror game. In a sense, this is commendable as the player is left feeling a loss or lack of control over their safety within the game, meaning that death can approach them at any time and in various forms and circumstances (great for the survival horror genre), thus keeping them on their toes. On the other hand, this destroys the developer-player social contract that good games create, where a set of established rules are created and maintained consistently throughout their entire play experience. By creating instances of failure states with no prior signposting through either immediate design (audio and visual cues/warnings), or through use of standardised rules communicated effectively in the game’s introductory period, players are left feeling cheated through what can only be described as “cheap deaths”. Most of the deaths are unique, creative, and send a tangible spine-tingling sensation upon discovery, however there are a few instances such as the one I’ve mentioned that makes the player question just how rigid the game’s constraints are, regarding rules and boundaries of gameplay. This is never a good place for a game to be, because it can cause friction for the player, who is trying to grasp the game mechanics, and leaves them confused at best; frustrated at worst.
Part of this vagueness as I’ve described it however, can also add to the atmosphere of a survival horror game. Lack of definition and obtuse descriptions are part of what makes a horror experience so frightening. All of horror’s various tangents and styles can be traced to a wide foundation that encompasses a few things, but one of the most important is a lack of understanding; the unknown. We are afraid of what we don’t see or understand, and regarding horror, less is certainly more. Some death scenes lack a finality to them, or fade out to obscure the player’s vision of the death actually taking place, making them all the more sinister and frightening, leaving it to the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps (a great horror device that is sadly underutilised in our age of jump-scares and shock-factor tactics). The most frightening conclusions and deductions come from ourselves and our own imaginations, as these are obviously specific and tailored to us personally, thus making them the most effective. NightCry knows this all too well throughout, and thankfully takes the “less is more” approach mentioned, in lieu of what most modern horror games would opt for, which is giving the player an array of guns and placing difficulty in fear’s stead.
One other horror device NightCry makes use of is restriction or lack of control for the player. By this I mean this in a literal sense, as the point and click controls of the game are its crux. There are two modes of movement, depending on whether the player is exploring or escaping Scissorwalker: exploration mode and chase/escape mode. Exploring is taken from a sometimes static, sometimes on-rails camera system, similar to the Silent Hill series, and is a well-loved and coveted staple of the survival horror genre for both fans and developers. It occludes the player’s vision from certain viewing angles and provides a tense experience for those of us who feel safer from seeing what’s ahead or around a corner. Chase mode is then a camera placed behind the player’s character, as they run from Scissorwalker. The player can sprint in this mode, but will deplete their stamina meter very quickly, forcing them to stop for a moment to catch their breath, all the while Scissorwalker approaches closer and closer…
It’s the point and click nature of the game which is my biggest criticism however, as it’s impossible to fluidly navigate an environment without sometimes doubling back on yourself after a camera angle change, or having the mouse click register on a piece of background geometry versus the actual area that you intended to approach. This means that the most effective way of moving is to click within immediate areas of the player, as these are the largest areas to click on safely, and a perspective 3D camera naturally asserts these as larger masses on screen, making it easier to navigate but not wholly so. The chase sequences suffer this also, as the precision required from movement is made even more difficult by a completely dynamic and moving camera, as the area which you intend to reach is constantly shifting on screen, making it harder to click accurately for those less skilled. Incidentally, this adds to the fear-factor of the game, as the lack of control which was mentioned means that if the player panics, the movement of their character is erratic, which adds to their fear, which adds to their inaccurate and erratic inputs. Whether this restrictive movement system is used intentionally or not is up for debate, and may simply be the director of the project reliving the system used for the first two Clocktower games with nothing more to it. For all of its vices and faults, it does make things more difficult, which in turns makes them more frightening.
Characters are well-designed at least, and the fact I remember the names of Monica, Leonard, and Rooney without having to use Google to cover myself is indication of this. Monica and Rooney are the female protagonists of the game in Chapter 1 (introduction with Monica) and Chapter 3 (the ending with Rooney), whilst Leonard is the intermediary professor character played in between in Chapter 2 (the cultists’ island). Whilst the story is interesting and engaging, the voice acting and writing of characters’ dialogue is far from optimal. Strangely, in NightCry‘s pursuit of emulating early survival horror games’ styles, one of the inherited tropes alongside questionable control mechanics and fixed camera angles, has also been bad voice acting. Not all of the voice acting is terrible, and some dialogue owes its cringe-factor to the writing as opposed to the delivery by the voice actor. For the most part however, both its delivery and content are not what I would call stellar. Having said that, I find it adds to the charm of the game, and results in a very B-Movie style of delivery, which the horror genre is more than familiar with above all other genres. I found myself becoming invested in the main cast, however the supporting characters were forgettable and lacked any definition or identifiable designs.
The game’s design is supplemented with various flavour texts and investigative objects, which alludes to certain story details, and fleshes out the world and its context therein. Nothing ground-breaking, but continued discussions with characters or interactions with background objects can yield some effective atmosphere to help bring the player further into the world. You’ll find yourself clicking on everything around you anyway, as the game’s methods of progression are unclear and confusing at times. Interacting with an object once might give you a description of it. Interacting a second time will have your character say something about the object. A third interaction might finally let you pick it up. If you’re used to clicking on something once in these kinds of games, and walk away assuming you’ve interacted successfully with it, then you’re going to have a bad time. At its worst, an object requires a player to interact with it three times before an action is carried out. Which means you check once for the introduction text, twice for any possible further interaction or collection/use of the object, and a third time to verify if there’s a repetition of the second interaction’s statement, or whether there is a further outcome. This artificially pads the game’s length out, as everything requires three checks, and character dialogue jumps erratically in the same manner. It’s unclear why the player just can’t talk to a character and extract the needed dialogue from them, without having to talk to them three times or more in succession to further the story.
Because of the need to interact with things so aggressively, a lot of key items or events might be missed that bring about one of the eight endings (where only one is considered the true/good ending). The flags and conditions needed to reach certain endings are questionable, and things as simple as holding a certain piece of clothing will mean the difference between life and death. I found them arbitrary, and required looking up guides and walkthroughs to ensure I wasn’t setting up a failure flag early on in the game which would refuse me access to the route I desired in a later chapter. The steps are trivial, and seem so insignificant when playing, but play out scenes in widely different ways. For survival horror fans who enjoy narratives that are relentless in their measurements of player actions and inventory state, you’ll find NightCry to provide an organic and dynamic experience that rewards you for clever thinking, careful planning, thoroughness in exploration, and assessment of situations. Equally, you are punished for the slightest mistake, or difference in approach. In some cases, even interacting with the wrong object can lead to Scissorwalker appearing out of nowhere. This is frustrating because on the player’s part, there’s no way of telling how important an object might be later on, or what object might be lying within certain key areas of a location, so the safest way to be sure you aren’t missing anything, is the good old trick of interacting with everything and exploring every possible route. This approach is punished overall however, as Scissorwalker appearances and death states can occur as things like keeping your smartphone’s flashlight active when entering a random and seemingly insignificant room can have consequences.
Overall though, how is it? Grievances aside, is there something here worth playing? Yes. As much as I could criticise the game for its shortcomings, B-Movie dialogue and writing, alongside movement control issues and inconsistent/erratic/badly designed logical item puzzles with equally poor flag conditions for the branching paths and endings, the game was quite enjoyable. I was effectively scared when the game commanded it, and there was equal amounts of tension and uncertainty felt as a result of both intentional design, and unintentional from things such as inconsistent game logic in regards to the developer-player contract. Music played a key part in my experience, and the sound design alongside the soundtrack was very effective in setting a mood. I ended up buying the soundtrack after finishing the game, which I rarely do for games unless they’re worth listening to isolated from the game’s context.
The argument isn’t whether or not these labours of design were done purposefully, because the end result is the same regardless of intent; I had a horror experience. For that, I can recommend that anyone who considers themselves a fan of the old Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Clocktower, or other similar survival horror titles with an emphasis on items, light puzzles, and exploration, to give NightCry a look into. For a very modest price, you have a 5+ hour experience depending on how quickly you solve puzzles and rely on online guides to help you progress. Beyond the frustrations of “Why did I die for not having that item?”, bad voice acting, and the many repetitions of jerky and inaccurate movements getting you killed by Scissorwalker, there’s something here that’s worth playing in the same sense that other “B-Game” titles such as Deadly Premonition and Earth Defense Force could be considered “good” games. Horror fans that enjoy being chased will love what NightCry has to offer them, and the goal set out by Hifumi Kono of creating a spiritual successor to Clocktower, though limited in scope because of budget and time constraints, has most certainly achieved what it set out to do within a tightly controlled project.