Nero is a game with a lot of heart—and even more problems.
As the debut of Rome-based indie studio Storm in a Teacup, Nero boasts an enticingly mysterious premise and a charming visual style, with neon-bright, bioluminescent colors that evoke the Pandoran jungles of James Cameron’s Avatar. Unfortunately, it also features so many abysmal technical failings that I’m amazed it made it through Microsoft’s certification process.
I’m hardly a stickler for framerates, but Nero is, from start to finish, so jittery that I found myself unable to play it for more than a couple of hours at a time without getting motion sickness. It’s seriously inexcusable. Turning the camera or walking around—even at the abysmally slow pace the game allows—feels more like a PowerPoint slideshow than a video game. All the strong art direction in the world is meaningless if I can’t experience that world smoothly. (Plus, that’s to say nothing of the time the game straight-up froze, crashed to the dashboard, and wiped an hour-and-a-half’s worth of progress, despite numerous autosaves in the interim.)
Even if everything ran perfectly, though, I’m not entirely convinced Nero would be an enjoyable experience. Broadly speaking, the game probably falls best into the recent trend of indie games that emphasize exploration and storytelling about traditional gameplay systems: Gone Home, Dear Esther, pretty much anything that someone on the Internet has pejoratively referred to as a “walking simulator.” Everything you do is in service of learning more about the story—here split into floating text encountered in the world and narration from a friendly-sounding British man. While there are puzzles to be solved—some mandatory, some optional—they’re mostly straightforward and always act as simple gates to the story, either by allowing you to progress or providing you with a bit of additional narration. What makes the game a real disappointment, though, is that its single-minded focus is in pursuit of a story that’s just not that compelling and well written.
Sure, it’s got all the hallmarks of the Acclaimed Indie Game, with a child in peril, the love of a family struggling to overcome all, and serious tragedy that’s papered over with twee platitudes, but Nero’s writing just isn’t strong enough to support the emotion it’s asking for. Everything feels aggressively generic, probably thanks to the fact that most everything is delivered from the godlike perspective of the narrator, who has a tendency to slip into labored metaphors every chance he gets. A woman’s suffering is a star in the darkness. Or it’s a glass of water that can’t hold any more salt. Or it’s an impossible-to-repair statue. Dramatic turns of phrase are not strong storytelling, and when you pile them on one after the other, they lose their impact and feel annoyingly redundant.
While some of the floating text takes the form of ostensibly more personal dialogue, it’s so focused on disguising and spinning out a mystery—badly—that there aren’t any real characters, just vague suggestions. Compare this to something like Gone Home, where every new piece of the story is tied to a person you grow to care about, and the emotional punches feel earned because they’re specific. Nero seems to think that telling you that death sucks and love is complicated over and over is more than enough. Those are themes, not a story, and it’s the confusion between those two that leaves Nero feeling more like a first draft than a finished work.
A few interesting puzzles can’t save Nero from being an overwritten, mawkish plod that runs so poorly on the Xbox One it’s tough to play without feeling sick.
Storm in a Teacup
Storm in a Teacup
E – Everyone
|Nero is available on Xbox One. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Product was provided by Storm in a Teacup for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|