The blurb on the box proclaims Noctropolis to be an 'adult graphic adventure' and the publisher's own classification rates it for mature people aged seventeen and over as it contains `suggestive themes', `animated violence' and `realistic violence'. All of which arouses curiosity about the game and raises expectations, if not sales. For more experienced adventurers it will, rightly, arouse suspicion and raise doubts about the game's playability.
'Adult' in the Noctropolis context refers to scenes of women in negligees; a shot of your partner topless; you being 'raped' by a succubus; and a distant view of a finger being cut off. Oh, and you get to make pointless wisecracks with a prostitute. Why does the word 'gratuitous' spring so readily to mind? It's all rather sad really, though I imagine that schoolboys may well snigger behind their hands at the sight of women portrayed in this way -- if they get hold of a copy that is. For the rest of us there is little that is 'adult' about this game and much that is juvenile.
Take your character, Peter Grey, for example. His whole life seems to revolve around reading Gothic-Horror comic books -- it's no wonder that his wife left him and he ends up in a comic fantasy of his own. Grey is a suitable name for this character because he has none -- character that is, nor does his alter-ego, Darksheer. Unlike the brooding, mysterious Gabriel Knight or the self-depreciating Tex Murphy, Peter Grey has no personality whatsoever and only the sketchiest of backgrounds.
To a certain extent this sense of his being charismatically challenged is attributable to the failure of the game to allow you to get close to him -- literally. Too often the soaring backdrops overpower your character so that he appears only in the middle distance or as a microscopic speck, never in close-up. This arms-length perspective effectively distances you, the player, from the story and the action. Even the video insert 'close-ups' of other characters rarely attain a size much larger than a postage stamp.
The story opens with you in your bookshop, the unpaid bills are mounting up, your wife has filed for divorce and to rub salt into your wounds she has sent you a photo of herself and your ex-best friend enjoying themselves on holiday. What's worse is that you can't afford to renew your subscription to your favourite comic, Darksheer. You pick up the last issue and learn that Darksheer himself is quitting Noctropolis and leaving the city vulnerable to marauding demons and weirdos, and breaking his partner, Stiletto's, heart in the process.
You then have this strange dream that you are about to be ravished by a woman in a negligee when, fortunately or unfortunately, the doorbell rings and the illusion dissolves. A parcel is delivered containing another comic and, depending on what you do here (a walkthrough is provided in the manual if you are really stuck) you are whisked away to the ever dark streets of Noctropolis. Here your task is to become the next Darksheer and to overthrow the evil that is stalking the city.
As you progress through the plot the thinnest veneer of mystical mumbo-jumbo is revealed in a desperate attempt to hold it all together, but ultimately it fails to satisfy. Even for a comic book experience the whole thing is too shallow. Not to mention full of holes. The demon Succubus casually strolls around the hallowed halls of the cathedral, sleeps with a bible under her pillow, attacks a priest and yet can be vanquished by a sprinkling of something holy? (The 'solution' is fairly obvious so I don't think I am giving too much away here.)
As an adventure game this one is strictly average. There are few other characters to interact with and limited amounts of information to gather. Mostly this revolves around talking to people in the hope of revealing the next location to visit. 'Good', I hear you say, 'all that talking is boring anyway so let's get on with the puzzles'. Well, I am afraid that even here you are going to be disappointed.
Noctropolis has, perhaps, the worst case of the all-purpose 'use' button that I have seen in any game. Enter a location and click on 'use' then click on an item in your inventory, if it's the correct object for that room then good old Darksheer will do the rest, even interacting with objects you may not have noticed. In some instances you don't even need an inkling of what the puzzle involves to 'solve' it, you need not even know that there is a puzzle. Avid adventurers will agree that this is very annoying and removes any sense of satisfaction at having, at least, moved on in a game through one's own efforts. This 'feature' negates the possibility of there being any complexity to the problems as they are presented and further alienates the player from a feeling of involvement with the game.
About the most frustrating 'puzzle' in the entire game is the arcade-type dodge-the-searchlight-beams in the observatory. Not only does your character saunter casually across the floor when the utmost stealth and urgency is called for, but the game ends if you just get too close to a beam! What made this particularly annoying was the fact that you can't quickly restore your game but must first watch your incarceration, or resort to clicking through it in impatience, then wait for the introductory scene to load before you can access your saved games.
On a more positive note, the interface is very easy to use. Simply click the right mouse button to access the 'pyramid' which pops up on the screen. From here the usual commands are available (select by left clicking) such as look, move, get, etc., with the notable exception of 'give'. It is possible to give an item to someone, but only if the game allows for it during a conversation, otherwise the ubiquitous 'use' comes into play again.
Once you have gained the confidence of another character, usually through talking, an 'info box' appears where you can select faces or icons to learn more about a particular person, place or thing. Some of the conversations you will have in Noctropolis may be difficult to follow because of accents, mumbling or maniacal laughter, etc., so it's useful to turn on the videotext feature, found under setup on the pyramid, so that you can read the words as they are spoken.
I particularly liked some of the comic book perspective's of the background graphics but as I mentioned earlier they tended to overwhelm the characters and contributed to that not-really-there, super-imposition look that adds nothing to the cause of 'realism' that so many of the latest games are striving for. The music was largely unobtrusive, at least it didn't make me turn it off as many games do.
Noctropolis may provide a brief diversion for two or three days at most for an experienced adventurer and I would like to recommend it to those just starting out, but I am loath to put them off by having them think all adventure games are like this. Still, fans of the Gothic-Horror comic book genre may appreciate it much more than I did, though somehow I doubt it. Have a look at Under A Killing Moon instead.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1995.
All rights reserved.
386/33 (486/33 recommended), 4MB RAM, DOS 5.0