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Review: Neversong‘s Moody Nightmare World Doesn’t Strike the Right Chords

Screenshot: Neversong

Some games take their worth from what they do new for a genre. Games like Braid that pushed the mechanics and story limits of a platformer, or your Cuphead that offer a fresh style. There’s also the games measured by being the best at what they do. Things like each Rockstar release iterating and raising the bar set by its predecessor for open-world games. Neversong is not without charm, but neither does it meet the standards above. Instead, it treads familiar waters in art, gameplay and story, and lacks the polish to stand independent of the nostalgia for games that came before it.

Neversong is Atmos Games’ follow-up to developer Thomas Brush’s Pinstripe. A narrative-focused, action-adventure game, Neversong follows Peet, a young boy awakened from a coma to find his girlfriend Wren kidnapped, the adults vanished and his hometown overrun with creatures of the night. A loose remake of the 2010 Flash game Coma, the search for Wren unfolds in Peet’s hometown and outlying areas with hack and slash gameplay and a smattering of simple, but satisfying, puzzles as the town’s true nature is patched together.

Screenshot: Neversong

Gameplay wise, Neversong delivers what it needs to. The full game clocks in at around five-hours sopping wet, with mostly softball combat and puzzles, hitting all the beats expected of a Zelda-inspired title, including subtle nods like Peet’s “Hutts!” during attacks or the fairy-esque helper “Bird” fluttering at arm’s length. Exploration and second playthroughs are rewarded a little bit, but not much, with most nooks and crannies in service of the main gameplay. Small detours can be found on the way, but offer little more than collectible in-game cards or cosmetic upgrades. The unlocked abilities throughout can be fun to fiddle with, things like skateboards and baseball bats all fit well into the world as totems of youth.

While my playthrough was for the PC version of the game, Neversong initially launched Apple Arcade, three weeks prior to a Steam release. Given its Newgrounds/Flash game roots, it makes sense how at home the game feels on something like Apple Arcade, potentially benefiting from small, bite-sized play sessions in the end.

Screenshot: Neversong

Where the game stumbles though is in its overall aesthetic and narrative, which it leans into. Hard.  Neversong puts its story front and center, so much so that it’s hard to ignore the shared space it occupies with other “gothic babe in the woods” titles. Things like the similarly Zelda-influenced The Binding of Isaac and puzzle-platformer adventures like Little Nightmares or Playdead’s Inside and Limbo, with all the same trappings of a fragile protagonist in a world of corrupted adults. Neversong even seems to share aesthetics with these games, with character designs plucked from Edward Gorey and John Kenn, and backgrounds inspired by Eyvind Earle’s layered, storybook landscapes. It’s hard not to draw parallels between Neversong and those with similar flair, but the comparison ultimately doesn’t feel fair. It delivers its theme with a far heavier hand, using dialogue to tell rather than show, and it never quite finds the pacing to suck you in. Whatever message it hopes to send gets muddled in the delivery and shows the value keeping a little mum on your message can be for weighty subject matter.

Before Neversong even starts, players are warned to expect a dark story and to be mindful of the threat of depression. In practice however, the game seems to constantly undercut itself, treating its supporting cast entirely as comic relief, and then in the same breath undercutting its humor by giving its characters serious mental health issues that only remind you of the game’s wellness themes. A fedora-toting, neckbeard caricature with body dysmorphia can be played as a joke with the right handling, but when it’s built atop currents of “people should seek the help they need,” it falls flat on both accounts.

While Neversong’s humor can give tonal whiplash and make the moody setting seem like just window dressing, the jokes typically land well thanks to impressive voice performances. The dialogue and playfulness are reminiscent of another cited influence, Night in the Woods. Sharing similar themes of somber reflections on home and childhood, with equal portions of eeriness and whimsy, Neversong doesn’t quite execute it with the same precision, but still manages to offer the odd satisfying moments

Taking the lead on music, story, art and game design, Brush’s work shone through in the design of the game’s individual set pieces. Neversong’s late-aughts flash game roots in Coma come through in the art style, and it’s honestly a nice touch. It’s a kind of weird nostalgia I didn’t know I was looking for, and granted not everyone may share, when pixelart is the used “coin of the realm” to evoke that kind of emotion. The game’s piano-forward score also manages to stand out, even integrating in as its own little mechanic to unlock new abilities.

Some game-breaking bugs did occur once or twice, requiring restarts–things like freezing in a certain state or having dialogue locked. They were typically small issues that were hard to be too riled about, but given the game’s smaller scope and rarity of the issue, the problem was immediately solved by relaunching and nothing was ever lost thanks to the autosave feature.

Screenshot: Neversong

The indie action-adventure field is packed and its bar set high, requiring a little something more for a game to stand apart. Despite not being an outright bad or broken game, Neversong never quite reaches that mark. The game attempts to take on some major league issues without really rising to the moment, and never separates from the pack far enough for its story or gameplay to stand out.

 

Neversong is available today on Steam and Apple Arcade.

 

 

 

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