It's hard not to be won over by Nosferatu's uncanny atmosphere, especially if you're a horror fan looking for something suitably spooky.
In some ways, Nosferatu: The Wrath of Malachi is the most satisfying horror game to hit the PC in some time. It features an old-fashioned Universal movie sensibility, monsters that make you leap out of your chair, and a creepy chateau that puts Dracula's castle to shame. In other ways, however, Nosferatu is amateurish and annoying. Developer Idol FX makes some rookie mistakes here with random monster spawning and an abbreviated plot heavily reliant on key quests that sometimes make you more furious than frightened.
Still, it's hard not to be won over by the uncanny atmosphere, especially if you're a horror fan looking for something suitably spooky this close to Halloween. Nosferatu is essentially a first-person shooter set in a massive gothic castle. You play as James Patterson, an Englishman traveling to Romania for the wedding of your sister Rebecca to the mysterious Count Malachi. The rest should be pretty obvious. James' future brother-in-law is actually a vampire, and he's sequestered the entire Patterson family in his cobwebby digs where they await an evil fate. Your job is to rescue them and, in the process, foil whatever nefarious plan the ancient bloodsucker is concocting.
The gameplay is just as straightforward as the plot, cribbed from a thousand novels and movies. If you've ever read a vampire story and played a shooter, there aren't any surprises here (although the ending is more downbeat than you might expect). Castle Malachi features a large courtyard that serves as a hub for explorations in the east, west, and main wings of the castle. You venture into the massive pile, kill monsters, find various sorts of keys (actual keys, sacred scrolls, and the like) to unlock sealed chambers, and save your relatives by guiding them to a sanctified chamber where they reward you with goodies from their suitcases. There are no puzzles to solve, no chasms to leap, and no characters to role-play. The only variation on the usual formula is a time limit of two hours to save everyone. Aside from this interesting tweak, this is an old-school shooter in almost every way.
Yet Nosferatu doesn't feel stripped down, like so many other cheapie shooters. While nobody will mistake Nosferatu for a big-budget effort from a major studio, you don't need big bucks to scare people. Idol FX has done a lot with very little here, building a spine-tingling setting with the use of a few nifty touches. Graphics are a few years behind the times, but the developers turn this into a plus with a grainy texture that makes the game look like a classic Universal monster movie from the 1930s. Dark castle rooms emphasize this characteristic, which makes even the most innocuous corridor appear somewhat ominous. Anyone who's watched those old films will immediately flash to memories of Bela Lugosi as Dracula or Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster. Additionally, the dialogue is often set up in a manner that is reminiscent of storyboards from silent movies, like the game's main inspiration, the 1922 German film Nosferatu.
The audio is even better. The musical score is tremendous and is the equal of anything that's accompanied classic fright flicks. It rises and swells and comes with enough variations to never get on your nerves. Even the pounding tempo that announces the imminent arrival of something that passed its "best-before" date in the 15th century comes in so many flavors that it never fails to creep you out. The music also features those high-pitched strings composers use to keep moviegoers on the edge of their seats. Add to that disembodied voices, appropriate weapon slashes and booms, and distinctive monster shrieks, and you have to fight the desire to cover your eyes at times.