Added to the lair: 3/31/21
Nightlong: Union City Conspiracy
The truth must prevail. Will you?
I love cyberpunk. I’m sure this is obvious if you’ve been a regular here for any length of time. From Neuromancer to Transmetropolitan to Blade Runner, these beautifully bleak visions of the future hold a special place in my heart. In the gaming space it’s a setting that’s certainly had its share of ups and downs - last year’s thoroughly bungled Cyberpunk 2077 somehow representing both at the same time. So where does Nightlong fall? Well, it’s definitely no Blade Runner (though that’s no great insult given it’s my favorite point-and-click of all time) or Rise of the Dragon but it’s well above say Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller or, worse yet, BloodNet; it’s closer to something like Ripper for me, so still on the better end of the spectrum.
You play as Joshua Reev, a private detective taking on a case full of intrigue and treachery. Some shady dealings are afoot in Union City and an associate from your past has tasked you with getting to the bottom of it. Cyberpunk is essentially futuristic film noir, so this is a fairly typical scenario and it makes the fact that Joshua speaks in a rather antiquated dime-store detective novel fashion not altogether inappropriate - or at least it would were it not for the fact that seemingly no one else in this universe took the same cue. There’s one other very minor side character that actually speaks in a similar fashion, but that’s it. It becomes a little distracting when you have all the characters speaking in a relatively dialect-neutral way and then your character starts talking and it sounds like something out of a Johnny Dollar radio show. I’ve read complaints by some that his voice acting is just outright bad, but I don’t agree with that - I just think it’s out of place in context. If everyone else had been on the same page I actually think it would have been a neat addition, but as it stands it ends up making your character seem like a bit of an odd anachronism.
On the graphical side of things the environments actually look quite nice, and there are a lot of them. There are a ton of little details and bits of animation to make them feel lived in and bring them to life, which I really appreciated. Your character model (sprite?) looks pretty rough and out of place on top of them unfortunately - it reminded me a bit of Blade Runner’s voxel-based characters dropped on top of pre-rendered backdrops. It creates a bit of a “bad green screen” impression but one that you’ll eventually get over. Cutscenes probably fare the worst out of it all, primarily because this is when we get a lot of closeups of character faces which look decidedly dated. Overall I’d characterize the presentation as good as the environments are largely front and center throughout and those hold up well.
I do have two issues on the environmental front, however:
First is that there are some extended sections of the game where you go to places that are decidedly non-cyberpunky. The first is a zoo and the second is a virtual environment in cyberspace that I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say Johnny Mnemonic this ain’t. It’s not that they look bad in and of themselves - in a different context they would be fine; it’s the fact that, like Joshua’s voice acting, they just feel really out of place and it took me out of the experience a bit. I suppose you could argue that it’s a benefit to help keep things from getting too stale or one-note but, honestly, atmosphere and tone are absolutely essential elements in cyberpunk and in the end I felt like these moments had a negative impact on that.
The second issue is that the environments have a very bad habit of being shown from a perspective so far away from your character that you’re practically a speck on the screen. This wouldn’t be a big problem were it not for the fact that the game regularly entails copious amounts of pixel hunting, which is my largest single complaint. When the camera is positioned in such a way that your character is half an inch tall on screen and you’re supposed to find a proportionally-sized power socket or slip of paper… you’re talking about something that’s a couple pixels wide. And the game does this way more frequently than it should. There were times where I would end up going around searching for something, relatively certain of what I was looking for, and even where to look for it, only to skip over it because I happened to move my cursor a couple pixels above or below what it was looking for. All I could do is roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders, muddle something under my breath, and then move on.
Gameplay consists primarily of item-based puzzle solving, which is typically logical albeit in a MacGyver kind of way. I often found myself thinking “Okay, I understand where you’re going with this, but the premise in how you’re getting there is a little far-fetched.” I didn’t hate the puzzles though. One thing that I did find a little annoying about them however was the fact that over the course of your adventure you acquire a lot of items, to the point that at times your (thankfully) unlimited inventory space will have 30+ gadgets, gizmos, and various junk in it. It just seemed really excessive. Some items are removed from your inventory after use, but not all, and by the end of the game you’ll have a huge scrolling list of stuff to sift through to find the item you need. I’ve certainly played my fair share of item-based puzzle games and it just seems like there was plenty of room to trim here.
The sound and music are both good. Something that quickly stood out to me was the fact that basically every screen has different but tonally-consistent background music, which I found rather interesting (and atypical). Much of it is on the more ambient side of things which is probably to be expected, but it’s still pleasing to hear. I probably won’t be humming any of these to myself but in this setting they fit perfectly.
The story is pretty good, but it has a bad habit of slipping into the background for lengths of time, then dumping a ton of exposition on you and then repeating that cycle again. You’ll get into a rhythm of puzzle > pixel hunt > puzzle > pixel hunt > puzzle > plot dump, often with very little actual plot development in the puzzle sections; it’s more “I have to figure out a way to get through [insert obstruction] with various items I’ve found in order to get to more plot”. It just makes it feel a little unbalanced at times. The actual plot beneath all that is decent though. And, in fairness, that’s certainly not a special criticism for this particular game - the same is true for large portions of the genre. I think the reason it stood out a bit more here is that there are multiple instances of literal exposition dumps that go on for several minutes at a time.
Nightlong is a fun point-and-click that unfortunately has become largely forgotten with time. It makes a few missteps with inconsistent voice direction and an overabundance of pixel hunting, but the nice environments, interesting plot, and quality production values certainly make up for it. Recommended!