Equal Parts Charming and Horrifying
Each and every one of us has experienced true guilt at some point in our life. Shame because of what we did or didn't do, whether it was our fault or not. Some of you may be able to call to mind a moment in which innocence was lost, in which you saw that your actions had consequences. Neversong is a journey of that singular feeling, that moment of realization, in carefully crafted pieces. It's an adventure unlike any I've gone on before, showcasing the worst elements of the human experience alongside the best ones in pursuit of proving we are more than our baggage.
Neversong, originally titled Once Upon a Coma, sprouted from a Kickstarter by Pinstripe developer Thomas Brush as a sequel to his flash-game Coma. The story eventually developed into something else entirely and grew into new characters, settings, and mechanics inspired by a wide array of games; elements of Undertale, Night in the Woods, Inside, Hollow Knight, and The Legend of Zelda click together surprisingly well in this authentic journey into the monster we call Guilt. Anyone interested in playing this game need not worry about playing the first game to understand it - Neversong does a wonderful job establishing this mysterious and outright scary world in just minutes. This review will be completely spoiler-free, and I advise anyone who wants to play to avoid spoilers elsewhere as well.
Neil Gaiman meets Early-era Tim Burton Atmosphere
12-year-old Peet wakes up alone in a gloomy, dusty room. The walls are laden with pulsating membranes, soft piano music echoes down the corridors, and a shadowy figure smiles in the distance. Neversong launches the player headfirst into the world, giving them just a taste of the supernatural peril they'll come to fear hours later before tossing them into a decidedly normal suburban town. Peet finds himself in his girlfriend, Wren's, decrepit and abandoned house. A single playable grand piano sits in the living room next to an empty grey fireplace. The player steps outside and encounters a whimsical suburban town similar to Night in the Woods, only even more charming. The air of the empty town strikes me with an atmosphere similar to Neil Gaiman's Coraline and Neverwhere.
I cannot stress how beautiful, heartwarming, and relaxing the art of Neversong is. The minimal detail on the character's faces only serves to add to their personalities. Things as simple as menus and the dialogue UI are a pleasure to look at and navigate, and even the sound effects are welcome to the ear. The colors strike me as bright and vivid but restrained as if a colorful Alice In Wonderland-like world has been suddenly drenched in sepia tones. The creatures encountered along the way are, for the most part, quite cute. Every now and then a true monster will rear its ugly head, and at these times the range of the artist's abilities becomes obvious - Thomas Brush has created a world that is so charming it's absolutely terrifying. Brush cites artist Eyvind Earle as his main inspiration, but the best praise I can give Neversong is that it is heavily reminiscent of Tim Burton's masterpiece James and the Giant Peach in artwork, music, and general vibes.
An Intriguing Plot Hook
Upon speaking to the charismatic and snot-nosed bratty kids in the neighborhood, Peet discovers that a monster came and abducted Wren. Instead of protecting her, Peet fell into a coma and has just awakened. The adults of Red Wind have gone out to search for and rescue Wren, leaving the village full of only children for an indeterminate amount of time. Joined by a sarcastic fairy companion named Bird, clearly inspired by Tatl from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Peet ventures out into six disturbing yet welcoming worlds to find the truth about what happened to Wren. The Booty Bum gang clearly weren't fans of Peet and Wren, and their sarcastic and derogatory remarks make for some great entertainment amidst the awfulness.
The story is framed by a narrator perusing through an old storybook, wickedly laughing as he recounts the events of Neversong in an almost-rhyme with a constantly changing meter that only adds to the creepiness. As the story unfolds, more details about past events will come forward, connecting dots in a clever and thoughtful way. The player feels as if they are learning more about how the world works every step of the way. Nothing is as it seems, no one can be fully trusted and the strange mastermind Dr. Smile seems to be three steps ahead of Peet at all times. This isn't a game for short bursts of play over a week - you'll want to get to the ending as soon as possible.
Hollow Knight Combat with Even Weirder Bosses
The single-button combat is simple at its core, and that's why it doesn't get old. Peet's only armament is a baseball bat, later gaining nails to fight off the increasingly disturbing monsters in Red Wind. Peet has a forward, up and down slash technique that propels him in the corresponding direction, very similar to Hollow Knight (who also happens to use nails as weapons). Basic monsters are usually not too difficult to beat, and every enemy you slay yields a heart, making it quite difficult to actually die. Each area houses a boss which yields a new item to take on the new dungeon. This method of unlocking items paired with the environmental dungeon puzzles calls to mind a 2D version of the 3D Legend of Zelda games. I got lost two times during Neversong and the game didn't make it clear how to progress - this is likely a plus for many.
Each boss fight is unique and relies just as much on platforming as actually fighting, which is a mark of great game design. The combat itself is nothing innovative or groundbreaking, but the bosses are another matter entirely. Each one must be defeated using the item Peet acquired for their dungeon, and upon defeat, Peet will obtain a new song. In another callback to 3D Zelda games, playing that new song on the piano will unlock a new item. The final boss fight was quite a large difficulty spike, but as there's a save point right before it that wasn't unwelcome. The ending brings some closure to this excellently-crafted story while leaving a few things to the player's imagination.
Neversong is an adventure that will resonate with anyone who has experienced true, unadulterated guilt. This is not the guilt of breaking a jar your mother loved or forgetting to feed a friend's cat for a day; this is the guilt of destroying something, someone, that is precious. The loss of innocence, the terror of creeping into adulthood, the end of who you were as who you will become begins to manifest - these universal themes pervade Neversong in a haunting choir. Songs of death, life, and all the things in between can be found here. If you know true guilt, you are not alone. This must-play title sits alongside other indie greats such as Inside and Undertale and is recommended for anyone who wants to look Guilt in the eyes, stand tall, and defy it.
TechRaptor reviewed Neversong on PC with a code provided by the developer. The game is available on Steam and Apple Arcade and will release later this year for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
- Gorgeous Art and Music
- Likeable, Interesting Characters
- Ludicrous, Burton-esque World
- Fascinating Story
- Sometimes Unclear How to Progress