The interactive/visual novel genre has seen a rise in popularity over the past few years. Independent developers such as The Fullbright Company and thechineseroom have embraced the genre in order to bring a unique experience to gamers. For its debut effort, NERO, developer Storm in a Teacup has also chosen it, in order to weave a tale unlike anything else currently on the Xbox One.
Bringing together two seemingly different stories, NERO is a story of grief and perseverance in the face of tragedy.
At the beginning of the journey, you hear about a band of travellers known as the Brigand, and it’s at their secret hiding place where your mysterious cloaked figure begins his journey. It is also in this location where he comes across an older cloaked friend who accompanies him. At this point, you begin to hear of a second tale, this one centring around a couple trying to cope with the disease that is slowly killing their son. Seemingly separate, the two eventually cross over in a way that makes complete sense.
I’m not going to spoil exactly what happens over the course of the three to four hour adventure, but as someone who has dealt with death over the past year, the story hits pretty hard at times. Its tale of trying to cope with unspeakable tragedy is something that is rarely seen in gaming. For the most part, Storm in a Teacup nail it, too, as it seems like it comes from a very real place for them. It accurately depicts the feeling of helplessness that accompanies any event like this. The writing can seem a little trite at times, but when dealing with such a heavy subject matter, it’s to be expected.
While its story is strong, NERO‘s gameplay is lacking, to say the least. As mentioned before, this title is best classified as a visual novel, which essentially means that deep gameplay was not a focus. As such, you spend a majority of your time walking around, searching for hidden photographs and solving the occasional puzzle.
A focus on exploration is not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that your character moves at a soul-crushingly slow speed is a major distraction. You can pick up the pace by running, but his run is about as fast as an old woman’s brisk walk. It got to the point that, despite wanting to seek out hidden artifacts, I got so sick of the slow speed that I just stopped bothering.
Outside of the endless walking, there are a handful of puzzles found in each of the levels. Unfortunately, though, apart from one or two near the conclusion of NERO, the vast majority of these riddles are way too simple. Most of them follow the same basic pattern of either hitting a switch to move an object or blasting something with the shock of energy you can unleash from your palm. Even that is annoying, as the flawed targeting reticule for the energy blast frequently lead to me botching simple shots.
The biggest issue facing this release, though, isn’t its overly simplistic gameplay, but rather how poorly it runs in general. For something so simple and straight-forward, I was aghast at how terrible the frame rate was. It’s not a hyperbole to say that this may just be the worst performing game available on any current gen console. The frame rate is constantly choppy, whether you are standing still, looking at text that appears in the sky, or simply doing nothing. It’s unacceptable that a title can run so poorly, and still manage to find a way out the door.
It’s a shame that NERO runs like warmed-over ass, because I genuinely liked its art style. Perhaps contributing to the stuttering frame rate, the game world is soaked in rich neon hues. From the design of you and your partner, to the colorful and vibrant forest you traverse, there are plenty of unique sights to come across. A particularly nice visual touch is the appearance of text in the sky that helps push the story forward. It’s a nice twist on the typical exposition dump that most adventure games seem to offer up in place of actual storytelling.
I wish I could say that I could recommend NERO to Xbox One owners. Its story is unlike anything else available on the console, and the heartbreak witnessed in it is emotionally wrenching. As a visual novel, it’s a triumph; however, as an actual game, it is nothing short of a massive failure. The gameplay is lacklustre at best, and the simplistic puzzles will provide little challenge for most gamers. To top things off, it’s one of the worst titles, from a technical perspective, that I have encountered in a long time. I’m all for a game bringing something new to the table, but you can’t just ignore the basics and expect everything to work out fine.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the title, which we were provided with.
As a visual novel and piece of fiction, NERO is an absolute treasure. As an actual game, though, it is almost a complete disaster, with slow, boring gameplay and technical hiccups abound.