For some, butterflies are symbolic of change and resurrection. Jellyfish in dreams may represent healing of painful memories, and discovering the light within yourself. N.E.R.O. is a more emotional journey than a standard video game experience. Instead of road signs and highway markers, figurative symbols and deeper meanings guide you along the way. A never ending montage of beautiful and haunting scenes weaves a fantastic, but not perfect, experience.
N.E.R.O. is a game more focused solely on storytelling, versus incorporating traditional reflex based tropes (others in this ilk: Beyond Eyes, Layers of Fear). Slower pacing, vivid atmosphere, and other aesthetic elements combining to provoke an emotional response from players. Indeed, through soothing narratives and surreal landscapes, it succeeds in weaving a somber tale that resonates. One moment will feel wondrous and outlandish, and the next filled with dread and loss. This seesaw between extremes feels like the bouncing of ocean waves, and is constant throughout the story.
She was the most beautiful hypocrite … this line is read by the narrator in the opening moments. It piqued my interest. What exactly did it mean? How do you open up by referring to a major character in this way? In truth, all of the game’s narration is excellent, voiced with both charm and grace. Tugging at my curiosity, it compelled me to uncover more. There are a few mentions of brigands, who built a village on this mysterious island. Bio-luminescent creatures that light up the island; so there was no need for lamps or torches. Intermixed with this, there is a third conversation unfolding between a young boy and his parents. Each element is in fact related to each other, and discovering how was very well handled. Dialog and quotes are often displayed in bright text around your paths. There are often multiple paths or open area segments, traveling through all of them offer more light to story’s mysteries.
Once you walk past the opening village, you are deep in a dark jungle area. Magnificent glowing caterpillars poised on overhead branches light your way. Along with sparkling mushrooms, and other glowing plants, shimmer along a path for you to follow. There is an ethereal sense about this place. Orchestral scores will rise and surge at key moments to drive the sense of heavenly bliss as you explore. Art design is top notch, and everything about this game is beautiful to see and hear. The kind of outlandish imaginative scenery that stimulates the imagination. Stop and observe carefully at the enormous jellyfish pulsating in the skies, butterflies hovering near passageways, and other cues, and it will soon be clear that each element has a more significant, albeit dream-like, deeper meaning.
Each new area is preceded by a puzzle scenario, which must be solved first. Some require a simple mouse click to manipulate. You later acquire the ability to charge a ball of light and toss it at panels to activate them. This ball has limited range, and travels at an arc, requiring some creativity to land the right toss on objects that may be partly blocked by another. Further into the story, you come across a companion that you can control in limited fashion. By placing an icon on the ground your companion will stand there activating a switch, freeing you to manipulate other devices. All of the game’s puzzles are a mixture of these three elements. For the most part, puzzles are not difficult. There were only two that really stumped me. Some puzzles do not unlock door or new area but they form part of the game’s ending scenes (if solved) or unlock rooms with picture fragments in them. Each act has its own picture, whose fragments are hidden throughout the level. Finding them all is optional, these pictures add a small amount of detail to the story unfolding.
Players who explore every corner will come away with more story enriching clues. However, even though I was often wasting time sightseeing instead of solving the next puzzle; N.E.R.O. is still a very brief game. I was able to complete the main story in about an hour, satisfied that I had captured most of the important thematic elements within. I did not unlock every achievement, but I would estimate 2-3 hours to do so. In part because walking is so slow, it artificially adds to the game length (even with my finger jammed on the shift key for sprinting). That said, I was still motivated enough to do my own research on the meanings behind the symbols within N.E.R.O., but understandably not everyone will feel the same.
How much important is game length in hours, will vary from player to player. After playing this game, I felt that each moment was constructed with care, to provoke numerous ebbs in emotions, with each inevitable realization. Wonder and curiosity can suddenly turn into hopelessness as the subject matter can plunge into the morose before you have a moment to catch your breath. By the second act I had a strong suspicion of what the outcome would be, I still could not look away. With such an impressive soundtrack, each masterful and sweeping score driving me onward, needing to see what happens next. What little of N.E.R.O. there is, it’s beautiful and meaningful. As a father with kids (including one who’s had a number of health issues), it was easy to relate to each character and the desperate feelings pouring from each. Still I am not blind to the fact there could have been much more, one who’s minute moments are spread between long stretches of meaningless strolls. Sometimes there is only so much you can do with a story, so you make the best of it. The end result is a game with short, but evocative segments; simple but meaningful pieces that elegantly hold up a melancholy narrative.