‘Now you’re thinking with portals’. That’s pretty much the motto that underlines the whole Nightingale experience. A labour of love coming from ex-BioWare boss Aaryn Flynn and his team at Inflexion Games, Nightingale needs to do something special in order to stand out from the pack. The last few years has seen the likes of Valheim, Sons of the Forest, Ark: Survival Evolved, and 7 Days to Die start to penetrate the mainstream. Like a late-game inventory, the genre is becoming cluttered. But I think Inflexion’s young upstart has that special something that’ll give it a fighting chance.
And it’s cards. Bear with me here, because I know how people feel about this mechanic in games. But the ‘realm cards’ at the heart of Nightingale really do seem like the game’s USP. “Think of realm cards as keys to unlock doors,” Inflexion’s gameplay production manager, Neil Thompson, explains. “There are an infinite number of realm cards, and each acts as a key that leads you to somewhere (or something) specific.”
Playing cards into a portal machine will allow you to (initially, at least) access one of three biomes. From there, you modify the world with sets of in either the Major or Minor arcana. “There are around 20-30 of each at the moment,” says Thompson, “and depending on which you play, we are able to alter the collectibles, points of interest, resources, enemies, and many other things in the world.“
To demonstrate this, our hands-off demo hosts summon a realm to explore. The players are going after a sun giant – a big, ugly fella that apparently drops nice resources when you placate or defeat him. As promised, I see first hand how Inflexion can control incredibly granular elements of the world, and allow you to filter this via the cards you play as you portal. “We’re coming up with new cards all the time,” says Thompson. “And we have plans to add more biomes over time, too.”
Cards can be ‘played’ in machines that humans have designed to interface with the realms, and the more you play, the more specific the world you wander into will be. Maybe you open a rift to somewhere that’s drenched in eternal daylight. Maybe you portal to somewhere cursed with an endless night; it’ll be more dangerous, but you can risk greater rewards. The deeper into the realms you go, and the more exotic resources you gather, the more comfortable you can make your existence.
Build a library, kit out your kitchen, erect a shed, seal your bedroom off from the cold with some nice wallpaper, the choice is yours. The customisation suite on offer in our preview seemed incredibly deep, and the options on offer are well-positioned to placate even the pickiest survival-crafting artisan. One rogue demo-er decided to build some pagoda-style pillars to help prop up another player’s old Tudor-style manor. Whatever floats your boat!
Human-built portals are limited in their power. They’re crude, and can only process a limited number of cards. But this means – from your very home, where you’ve placed a stake in the earth and made your base – you can access the iterative wonders Nightingale is promising. “We can create a ‘silk road’ sort-of thing between our party,” says Thompson, explaining how a band of four players could portal from house to house, and keep the paths to particularly fertile worlds alive. And that’s handy, given how complicated the ‘parametric crafting’ system in the game is.
But what does that actually mean? It means that you need to ask yourself: Is your crafting table sheltered? Is it nice and visible in the light of your campfire? Good, because that means you’ll be quicker at making things happen. You’ll need separate crafting benches for tannery, weapon-smithing, injecting magic into items – all that good stuff. It’s dense, and rich, but also intuitive (at least as much as it can be when there are this many systems Matryoshka doll’d into each other).
The only element that didn’t gel with me is the UI; big ol’ damage numbers, cluttered info at the bottom of the screen, and a proliferation of icons make for quite an intimidating experience (even for someone that’s au fait with the genre). But, per the studio, this is being overhauled at the moment and is one of the major focuses for the team as they accelerate towards the newly-announced February 2024 early access release date (seemingly a prerequisite of releasing any kind of survival-crafting game in this day in age).
Nightingale could so easily been just another copy/paste survival sim thumbed into the gaps of a genre still, really, finding its feet. But it’s more than that; the card system gives you intuitive, readable tools that turn you into a mini-developer in your own right, leveraging the tools Inflextion has created to author your own story and dictate the flavour of your adventure. It’s a unique idea, and one that speaks directly to the strengths of the genre.
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