In a world of suffering, a hero will emerge. Hmm' that doesn't exactly rhyme. Given that the story of Nightcaster is told in a series of rhyming poems, I doubt that'd be a good descriptor of this unusual title. In a world beset by evil, a strange figure known only as the Nightcaster threatens to spread darkness throughout the land. With no one to oppose him, it appears that this evil figure may win' or maybe not.
Your character, Arran, while playing hide-and-seek with his young friends Madelyn and Lochlan, comes across a strange magical cave deep in the forest. Awaking an ancient magical artifact known only as the Orb, Arran listens mystified, as the Orb tells him of the might of the Nightcaster, and how only a powerful mage could hope to defeat him. Arran can become that mage, but only at the cost of many years of his life. Hesitant, Arran accepts, and so begins his quest against evil.
That's where you start. After a few years of intensive magical training that has left your character the same age as that day he found the cave while the world grew older around him, Arran is armed with the spells necessary to go out and reclaim the world. You've got four spells to choose from initially, one for each of the four elements, Water, Fire, Dark, and Light. They've got varying effects, from the freezing bolt of the water spell Glacial Might, to the crack of light that strikes an enemy with the Scarring Light spell of the light element. A set amount of mana determines how many spells you can cast at a time, and you've even got a simple staff if you need to give an enemy a sharp cuff upside the head.
To advance the RPG elements of this game, the story of Nightcaster is told in two ways. First, between each level there's a short bit of rhymed poetry, which gives you a vague impression as to the progression of evil throughout the lands, and various strange prophecies about Arran's arrival. I've never heard so much bad rhyming in a game before, as this stuff is so amateurish as to sound more appropriate for a children's game rather than a teen RPG/action title. More specific to the storyline at hand, an animated novel of sorts shows you what happens after a level is finished, whether that be Arran trying to find his lost friends, Madelyn and Lochlan, or the Orb relating to him the story of the Buried City, and the ancient tragedy that destroyed it so utterly.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Your first adventure in Nightcaster will take you through a short education on how the game works. A series of scrolls tell you specific information about the game world, while you can pick up books for new spells, and mana balls to increase the amount of energy you'll be able to cast spells with. You've got a pitifully small health meter, which can not only be easily depleted by the enemy, but which can only be replenished with health motes dropped when you kill a certain amount of creatures. I found, in particular, that the health motes were dropped far too sparsely, leading to an abundance of deadly encounters.
As a game centered on sorcery, you'll find that most of this game involves spellcasting. With an array of powerful spells at your disposal, you'll be relying on them to destroy your enemies throughout each and every level. To begin with, you'll only have four spells available to you, one in each of the different Elemental Schools. There are four different spells for every school, and three levels of power for each spell, meaning that you'll have twelve different options in each school. A good part of this system is the varying nature of each spell. The fire school gives you a powerful fireball, a fire glyph, and other destructive spells. At the basic level of the Water school, you've got a freezing bolt that not only stops enemies in their tracks, but it also seeks them like a guided missile.
While you're playing, you control your character with the left analog stick, and the Orb with the right analog stick. Most of the time, you can stay in a 3rd person view, controlling your character as he moves around, casting spells as you like. The white button allows you to look around, observing the oft-unnoticed sky and surroundings. If you use the right analog stick, you can separate the Orb from Arrans staff, and enter into an overhead view. You can then use the Orb to target your spells on the surrounding countryside, releasing the spell wherever you've currently got the Orb pointed. Fairly useful, as the glyph spells all create a large pillar of magical energy wherever you've got the Orb. This means that you can cast a glyph from around a corner, eliminating your enemy without having to risk damage.
The enemies themselves are aligned towards one of the four elements (color-coded for your convenience), and you'll find it easiest to dispatch them by using the opposing elements spell. However, target them with the similar spell, and they're nearly impossible to kill. Along the way, you'll find Runes, one for each element, that do special things once activated, like using your mana to heal any damage you've taken.
Truthfully, the graphics in this game are so-so, no better. At best, Nightcaster offers a wide range of color throughout the game, and a lot of scenery to stare at. The trees and local flora are usually very colorful; gigantic mushrooms dressed in all manner of pastel colors dominate many scenes. Each level has its own graphical feel, from the forest of the third level, to the dark gothic feel of the Buried City. Each character has a slightly deformed anime look to them, and each building appears to be a strangely warped version of its real-world analogue, all to reinforce the animated look to the game. These graphics definitely aren't the kind that could be reproduced on a Dreamcast or lesser console, but I can't say I was impressed, given the impressive graphics of other Xbox games like Halo or Project Gotham Racing.
During the introduction screen for any given level or loading wait, you'll hear the same droning, whining theme playing over and over again. I'd venture to say that it was one of the most annoying pieces of game music I've ever heard, and I was thankful that there is little in the way of music throughout the game to drive me similarly insane. The only other thing that stands out are the sound effects accompanying your individual spells. Arran speaks a different magical word for each spell, and they're all recorded well enough not to sound like some refugee from a Dungeons & Dragons video game.
Reviewing this title took a lot of effort, because this game is at once addictive, and yet annoying to me. None of the spells in this game serve any purpose other than to damage people, meaning that you'll find the RPG elements of this game sorely lacking. The elemental combat system is intriguing, but just doesn't make up for this games many faults. For one thing, even with the spells of opposing element, you'll still need to hit an enemy quite a few times to kill it, meaning that combat is an extended game of moving back and forth, hitting the same enemies many, many, many times before they're all dead. On top of that, the opponents pursue you vigorously, and won't stop chasing you' until you hit the edge of their boundary, at which point they'll run back to their starting point to wait for you again. Easily exploitable, this flaw makes many of the combats unchallenging. I couldn't see playing this one as more than a rental.
A part of me wants to believe that the crew at VR-1 Entertainment came up with Nightcaster by colliding into each other at the water cooler. Designer A says: "Hey, you got your Gauntlet-style hack-'n'-slash game in my Ze/do-wannabe RPG!" Designer B retorts with the opposite and--voilci!--a turkey is born. But wait, NC could have been a decent game. It takes twitch-style arcade gameplay, where you run around shooting monsters with attacks, and fuses it to RPG mainstays like narrative, character development and non-player character interaction. It's too bad that somewhere along the way, the game lost focus. As it is now, NC is too shallow to be an RPG and too complicated to be a quick-fix good time. You're not just hauling and kicking ass every which way with your magic wand; no, you also have to think about which spells are most effective against which type of creature, and pick them by cycling through your list of spells--all in real time. Sure, this ain't so bad when you're up against a few ice slimes you can torch with fireballs. But take on a mixed cluster of baddies, each with a different weakness, and you're screwed. Rounding out NCs package of crap Is a tedious back story you don't have to read, pathetic bystanders you don't need to speak with, a 3D world you don't have to explore, and a ton of squandered potential for what could have been a decent action-RPG. Another disappointing adventure on the Xbox.
Totally unremarkable and highly repetitive in both gameplay and level design, NC's strongest attraction--its hack-and-slash action--amounts to nothing more than constant uneventful cycles of attack and retreat. Having to choose the right magic attack (fire, ice, dark, light) to optimize damage against a monster with the opposite disposition also disappointingly fails to shatter the monotony, since what you fight just ends up being a different color-coded version of the same banal set of creatures. And with a cheesy skip-through story, all NC's got is its OK spell animations. Other than that, say nighty night to Nightcaster.
The developers of Nightcaster probably hope you'll be so busy admiring the great-looking visuals that you won't notice the unbelievably bland and repetitive gameplay. Here's a common setup: Find a group of enemies, quickly attack with whatever spell you can, then turn tail and run so you have time to choose the right spell to repeatedly cast on the remaining color-coded enemies. That's fun for, what, five minutes? Not even its RPG-style story can save NC from mediocrity. You stop caring around the 20th time you hear about something terrible happening while you weren't around. It tries to be arcadey and deep, but it doesn't do either very well.