Preview - Noctropolis (DOS, 1994)

Noctropolis . . . the city of night! Home to that noble hero Darksheer and his faithful assistant Stiletto. They fight the evil that thrives on darkness. Greenthumb, Tophat, the Succubus . . . how can any of these petty villains stand against the power that Darksheer wields . . . the power of liquidark and shadeskin?

And yet, a cold new wind blows through the city. The forces of chaos have been united into a malevolent committee, led by a mysterious cloaked figure named Flux. Their one purpose: to wipe out their hated enemy Darksheer and take control of the city! Can our hero survive their vicious attack?

In Electronic Arts' Noctropolis, the player takes the part of Peter Grey, a fan of the Darksheer comic book, which has just been cancelled. While he sits moping in his bookstore, looking over the last issue, there is a knock at the door. A strange messenger brings word that Peter has won the Darksheer sweepstakes, and the winner gets to be the new Darksheer! Within minutes, Peter is whisked into the bizarre cityscape of Noctropolis.

While this might seem to be a fantasy come true, Peter is also saddled with a great responsibility. He must not only overcome his own disbelief in this situation, but he must somehow convince the suddenly very real characters from his favorite comic book that he is to be the new Darksheer. The original hero has retired, convinced that there were no more battles to be fought; that was the storyline in the final issue. But what wasn't in the comic was the rise of the crimelord Flux. Now, all of Darksheer's compatriots have gone into hiding, jaded by the disappearance of their hero. In fact, Father Desmond has been trapped in his own cathedral by a gargoyle minion of the Succubus, a sex-crazed demon who kills with a kiss. Stiletto has retreated into her apartment . . . and into the bottle.

After overcoming both his own and his associates' doubts, as well as several physical obstacles, Peter/Darksheer must enter the most difficult part of his adventure. He must actually defeat a combination of villains that even the original Darksheer had only fought one at a time. Who knows the power of the new wild card, Flux? And when they get through with Peter, will they make their way back across the rift to the "real" world?

It's safe to say there has never been another computer adventure game quite like Noctropolis. It's hard to even figure out exactly what genre we're dealing with. It has elements of science fiction, superheros and horror. In fact, Noctropolis reflects some of the mold breaking going on in some of the better comic books being written today. Like those comics, the game is not intended for children. This is not primarily because of pornographic or overly violent content, but because of the subtlety of some of the main ideas. The story has more to do with human insecurities and fears than superhuman heroics and a great battle between good and evil. There is also the question of where the line is drawn between fantasy and reality. Peter Grey's sudden transference to Noctropolis recalls the voyage of Thomas Covenant in Stephen Donaldson's Unbeliever novels, another series definitely intended for mature readers.

Beyond just the funky subject matter, Noctropolis has outstanding graphics. Live actors and digital video are combined with a skyline that might have come straight from the recent Batman movies. Like that Gotham cityscape, Noctropolis always towers menacingly over its citizens. It gives "larger-than-life" a very literal interpretation. Even the map used for travelling from place to place has an odd exploded perspective, as though you were looking at it through a fish-eye lens.

At its best, the combination of digital video and SVGA graphics is seamless. The live actors do not just seem tacked onto their background, but actually an integral part of their environment.

Of course, the best game concepts and designs can be ruined by an overly complex and obscure interface. This will definitely not be a problem with Noctropolis. A right mouse click at any point in the game brings up a triangle with all your possible commands clearly marked. Just pick your action and what you want to do it to. Thankfully, more and more game companies are realizing that ease of operation is critical to the enjoyment of a product. If only we could get the word to those VCR makers out there . . .

These elements are enhanced by a moody G-MIDI score composed by Ron Saltmarsh. It provides that extra push of menace for when you're just not uneasy enough. Noctropolis has the potential to spark a whole new style of computer adventure, one that would strongly appeal to the adult market that cut its teeth on Space Invaders and Pong so many years ago.