The term “walking simulator” is one with a very heavy negative connotation in video game circles, likely because it’s a term usually whipped out as a criticism rather than a proper genre descriptor. This is most tellingly apparent in games like Stanley Parable, where the game does essentially fit the bill of a walking simulator, but it does interesting things with its set-up and has rather clever writing to keep the player engaged. It’s certainly not a doomed genre, but the concept behind a walking simulator is so simple that it has an incredibly low barrier of entry. The content of such a game really can be just walking around and taking in whatever the game’s creator has decided to put there. N.E.R.O., despite surprisingly getting a physical release, unfortunately is not a game that shows the potential of the genre it is in.
N.E.R.O., with its subtitle that really doesn’t seem to play into the game Nothing Ever Remains Obscure, puts you in the role of a tiny robed shadow person with blue lights who is very quickly joined by a tall robed shadow person with orange lights. Together, you two will explore a landscape that takes the form of a fanciful representation of a family’s struggle with loss and tragedy. If there is one thing the game does understand about its genre, it’s that you need to make the place you’re exploring interesting to look at, and the game does have a very lovely aesthetic. Most every plant glows with its own light, making the early parts of the game where it’s night visually interesting even if there’s not much you can do in these places. As you get later in the game though you find that fading away in favor of rather basic building designs as the game sheds its aesthetic bit, unfortunately making the areas gradually less interesting to explore as you go on. It’s also notable that despite having the bright caterpillars and glowing ferns, there aren’t that many interesting setpieces to find. In the area you see the glowing trees, you’ll be seeing those same glowing trees until you complete it, and what setpieces it does manage are usually unimpressive or bland. I will note there are some particularly good ones at least, but they are few and far between compared to their blander counterparts. Things can get a bit hard on the eyes as well with the shear level of bloom on the dark world’s many glowing features, which even a bit of a fiddle with the options menu didn’t fully solve. Really though, the game only looks absolutely gorgeous during its scarce cutscenes, where the graphics really get a kick up and create a world that would be an absolute joy to explore. It is a bit of a shame that the actual places you go to can’t match the fidelity of these scenes, but that might be asking too much of the team that created this game, so we’re left instead with only a brief glimpse at what the game is trying to do.
The story of the game is gradually revealed to you, but despite taking quite a lot of time to tell it, the game sort of spills its secrets out to you in the first fifteen minutes and takes an excruciatingly long time explaining the details of it throughout the rest of the game. You are being told the tale of a son and his two parents dealing with the slow approach of tragedy, and sadly, N.E.R.O. doesn’t say anything particularly interesting with this story. We’re thrown into it right away and acquainted pretty quickly with the family’s situation, but besides the basic level of recognizing something sad inherently, it doesn’t really do much to invest you in the tale. We never know the central characters beyond what they experience related to the tragedy, and when we do get glimpses at their personality, we only really see some basic archetypes. They fill the caring mother, devoted father, and pure son roles so cleanly that it’s more like reading an outline of a tragedy that was meant to have proper personalities inserted later to give it some real punch. You do see some dialogue from the characters at times on the quest (see, not hear, I’ll get to that), and they all talk with the plainest voices and say the exact things that are expected of them. Worst of all, since the game so quickly makes it obvious where it’s going with its story, its gradual reveal is excruciating. Almost every bit of info is phrased six different ways that you can only view in separated chunks as you explore. It really is a shame that they did have so much room to potentially give this sad story some depth and the gravitas its angling for but they instead try to think up multiple ways to say “the mom was really sad” before moving on. I will say, though, that the piddling about with the same topics does eventually draw out some rather clever descriptions and interesting phrasing. It really is a shame you can see a writing talent shine through, but then the story being told doesn’t really match up to that potential.
The story is told to you in two ways mostly. The first and most common way is by floating stationary text that you walk by and can read at your leisure. You can also potentially skip some if you take the games very few split paths, but they always converge shortly after. You can get the whole picture if you backtrack, but again, the repetition means you aren’t really going to miss anything, and perhaps its attempts at making some of these floating word collections optional meant that they felt they had to be redundant with certain information. The more interesting way the game delivers information though is through a narrator, and he does a pretty good job at reading it! He has an appropriately somber tone and some good delivery, and quite a lot of the better writing is given to him to read. I almost think trimming out the floating text and just giving the narrator a few more lines at the right spots would make N.E.R.O. more interesting, even if it couldn’t climb out of its unexceptional story just with that change.
Besides listening to and looking at the story, the game does put a little gameplay in its large environments. While you are walking, you can go off the beaten path a little to find pieces of pictures that you put together, but this little sidequest shows another issue with the world design. There are a surprising amount of invisible walls and ground slopes that are just a touch too steep to climb. I do appreciate on some level that the game tries to keep you from going down too many pointless paths, but the poor gatekeeping on meaningless areas sucks you out of any chance of immersion. Early on the game has a few little town areas with houses that are especially egregious with the invisible walls. Some even have stairs that are only able to be climbed if they’re places the game wants you to go. When the game does have open areas with a bit to explore, it doesn’t really put much interesting in them. Big empty forest areas, a little town with one collectible in it but a lot of samey buildings… perhaps the invisible walls are a blessing in that they help you avoid being disappointed more often.
To try and mix things up from just exploring though, the game does put in a few actual puzzles! The main way you’ll do things is by pushing switches until things work, with most the puzzles just requiring you to look at something until you’ve arranged it right. You do get a little glowing orb you can fire at far away switches, but it oddly has a bit of a lob. The game rarely factors this lob into its puzzles, so it mostly serves as an annoyance as you have to aim a little above every switch you want to hit. Almost none of the puzzles with the ball or switch pressing go beyond the basics, relying on timing or arranging things properly, although I did like this one type of puzzle where there are a bunch of lights in a row. You are only allowed to light up two at a time, and the lights will light up the other lights if they are in the same row, column, or diagonal line as the starting lights. Simple, but it at least made you think a bit besides “guess I got to press that switch first and then the other switch”. Your only other way to interact with puzzles is with your tall orange partner, who can be used to stand on switches to allow you to perform certain tasks, a mechanic the game uses maybe four or five times despite having quite a lot of puzzles.
I do appreciate the effort to put in puzzles to break up the walking, and I could accept some of them being rather basic, but a lot of them aren’t even important to progression. Some you will need to move forward, but quite a few of them are optional and your reward for completing them is the narrator saying some line about wherever the story is at the moment. If you remember, the story repeats itself a lot, and these puzzles solutions are no different. That really just comes back to the fact this game isn’t much of a rewarding experience at all. The story reveals itself too early and fumbles to try and keep it interesting without knowing how, and when it all wraps up at the end, it does so abruptly. The game spends so much time exploring this tragedy and yet it goes for a very generic wrap-up at the end that tries to squeak something out of making the entire game overbearing with its repeated description of of how loss effects this family. Perhaps the repetition is meant to hammer in how beleaguered they are by their situation, but there have been writers before who use this technique and do it concisely and more effectively. You can’t take your audience’s attention for granted. A player should be open going into a game, yes, but the game should try to keep your interest, and N.E.R.O. doesn’t really seem to know how to do that.
THE VERDICT: If I can say one nice thing about N.E.R.O., it’s that it’s pretty. It reminds me quite a lot of a game called CreaVures, an animal platforming game where the world is also dark but lit up by the beautiful lights on the flora and fauna that inhabit it. CreaVures isn’t exactly an amazing game, but it manages to pull off the aesthetic better than N.E.R.O. and does give the player something interesting to do throughout the whole game. N.E.R.O. eschews gameplay in favor of focusing on its story, and unfortunately, it seems like the creators didn’t really have a particularly unique story to tell. You can hand the outline to most writers and get back at least something on the same level, and you could probably even find a few games and movies out there that take the concept and do something far more interesting with it because it is such a basic story structure you should build from, not rely on. If you are banking all your player investment on the tale you tell, you have to make sure it’s got an interesting angle, interesting characters, or at least tries to keep itself obscure to have some sense of a mystery. I suppose the title was a hint that it would give away its direction early, but it also makes it feel like you aren’t really uncovering some secret either. Since the father’s name is Nero as well, I feel like it was just them trying to make a cute acronym rather than doing anything meaningful with the title. In fact, most of the game feels more like they’re trying to do what is expected of them with a walking simulator rather than doing anything particularly interesting or meaningful.
And so, I give N.E.R.O.: Nothing Ever Remains Obscure for the Playstation 4…
A TERRIBLE rating. It’s really hard to find anything that this game delivers on. The environments are nice looking at first glance, but they devolve over time and repeat things too often. The game strangely puts up floating text that tries to make the encroaching areas interesting on occasion, only for that text to say “more glowing caterpillars ahead!” or saying “up ahead lies something beyond human imagination” only to show you Just a Really Large Cave. That’s when the floating text and narrator can do something besides nail in the same bits of information repeatedly for a story that probably has three or so big story beats that are all telegraphed too far ahead to be interesting or moving. You can’t build your game on the back of telling a story and then utterly fail in that department, and while it might be able to move some people with its narrative, so would walking up to someone on the street and telling them a paragraph summary of it. It’s generically tragic, and with only the simplest of puzzles and decent visuals to back up a game with such a story, it really doesn’t deserve any attention for going the easy route.
Ultimately, if there is one thing that should remain obscure, it’s N.E.R.O. itself.