It's difficult to invoke suspense and tension in a computer game, but games like Nocturne keep trying. Nocturne borrows heavily from Capcom's Resident Evil third-person action-adventure games, which in turn stole their creepy style from Infogrames' Alone in the Dark series. This formula calls for claustrophobic scenery, bizarre camera cuts, unexpected encounters, and a scarcity of ammunition, and on first impression, Nocturne follows this formula precisely. On first impression, Nocturne is also one of the best-looking games of the year. But the game reveals its true colors soon enough, and you'll quickly begin to find its flaws one by one, one after another, until you find yourself trying to play a game that isn't as scary as it tries to be, nor as visually attractive as it might have been.
Even so, Nocturne looks bleak and beautiful. Its weather-beaten worldwide settings of the early 20th century, from German castles to runaway trains to Chicago gangland, are realistic in appearance and cinematic in presentation. Nocturne's stoic hero, the gravelly-voiced no-nonsense secret agent known only as the Stranger, is detailed down to his ruffled necktie and trench coat. His many enemies span virtually every breed of monster you can imagine, including werewolves, vampires, zombies, and demons, and most every one of these is a fearsome reinterpretation of its classic horror archetype.
But it's Nocturne's absolutely stunning special effects that are especially impressive. Instead of the usual variety of eye-popping colored lights and full-screen pyrotechnics, Nocturne's effects emphasize the game's darkness. Each character casts a perfectly realistic shadow, which stretches and bends and divides depending on that character's location relative to any nearby light sources. The Stranger's gun-mounted laser targeting devices cut through dense fog, and while his flashlight isn't much help in dark places, what luminosity it provides looks incredibly real. You'll catch yourself gawking at Nocturne's graphics all the time.
However, Nocturne's visual quality has its price. The game runs poorly or not at all on machines that don't have over a hundred megs of RAM, and only the fastest home computers in existence will let the game run smoothly. And even if you're part of the elite that can run the game just right, you'll find that Nocturne might have looked much better in spite of its attention to detail, which you'll find was focused exclusively on particular elements of Nocturne's presentation. The realistic shadows and the Stranger's billowing trench coat may look great, but other elements of the game's appearance are plainly lacking; for instance, none of the characters' faces are animated. There's a lot of dialogue in Nocturne, but the characters just stand there like poker-faced ventriloquists the whole time. Besides, none of these characters is well animated in the first place; each moves in the same jerky computer-game-character manner you've seen countless times before, which betrays Nocturne's realism as mere facade. It's also difficult to tell when the Stranger's enemies are actually hitting him and just as difficult to tell whether his bullets are hitting home or missing their mark. And even though most of the scenery in Nocturne looks real, some of it looks either too flat or too clean and simple by comparison. Collectively, such graphical inconsistencies severely dampen Nocturne's presentation and atmosphere. Each time you begin to feel immersed in the game's unique yet familiar horror-movie environment, you are promptly pulled away because parts of the game look too real to let you suspend disbelief, but other parts don't look real enough to ever make you think it's anything more than just a game.
Unfortunately Nocturne's sound effects and musical score provide no consolation, as they are as discrepant as its graphics. While the scary symphonic soundtrack works well at times, its cues are too loud and abrasive to lend any real tension to most of Nocturne's supposedly terrifying moments. Whatever fear you're supposed to feel when you suspect evil lurking in nearby shadows is relieved both by the bad animation and by Nocturne's incessant Psycho-sounding screeching-string-instrument score. The game's sound effects aren't especially good either; the Stranger's footsteps are too loud, gunshots are too quiet, monsters sound typical, and the quality of the voice acting is entirely inconsistent. Nocturne's presentation is utterly mixed up. You may revel in its noir horror style, but you'll just as likely berate its attempt at being serious, depending on whether you can stand hearing the word "vamp-ear" all the time.
Then again, bloodsuckers are but a fraction of the game's obstacles. Nocturne's gameplay is structured within four main acts, which occur sequentially in time but can be played out of order. All the acts look and feel fairly different; the first and third are more action-oriented while the other two let you explore more freely and make you think a bit. Each presents a self-contained story that's original and interesting. However, Nocturne is really just an action game at its core, and the difference between acts is the difference between fighting constantly versus fighting most of the time.
The problem is, Nocturne isn't much of an action game. Controlling the Stranger is difficult no matter what kind of frame rate you're getting. He turns too quickly to let you aim effectively, but not quickly enough to let you dodge his foes. And because he automatically trains his guns on his targets, your role in a fight is merely to mash the fire button until his target dies. It's possible to aim manually, which is theoretically viable since your foes are much easier to kill if you hit their weak points, but precision targeting in Nocturne is impossible thanks to the poor control and the unpredictable camera angles. This means combat in Nocturne boils down to simply being prepared for whatever lies ahead, such as having stakes ready for vampires and silver bullets for werewolves. Anticipating conflict can be challenging, but there's no anticipation required if you just save your game all the time. And this is what you'll invariably end up doing since you'll die often because the control is so bad.
You'll probably play through Nocturne anyway. You can tell a lot of effort went into the game; its great look and style make it memorable, and its considerable length affords a substantial amount of gameplay. Its intriguing premise, its endearingly deadpan protagonist, and its cinematic presentation all help create and sustain the horror-movie atmosphere the designers intended. Unfortunately, this cinematic styling is what ultimately precludes Nocturne's success; the game's movie-like quick camera cuts make the game especially difficult to navigate, which makes Nocturne's incessant and clumsy action sequences even less enjoyable. As such, one might suspect that Nocturne's designers tried almost too hard to make everything look just right, because they succeeded in making what might have been a good movie at the expense of what might have been a great game.