A strange and distant land
I don’t know why I kept playing NERO. That’s not a statement meant to express disdain. I literally don’t know what — but something — drew me to keep trekking through this sad, enamoring world. Its gravitas has a gravity about it, a magnetic pull that’s equal parts splendor and sorrow.
NERO is very much an experience piece in all senses. It’s the projected portrayal of what a little boy goes through in his mind to help deal with real-world problems. And with regard to the player: you just have to experience it. A written description will never adequately explain what it’s like to be dropped into the game’s world for five minutes, ten minutes, three hours — however long you’d like really.
NERO (Xbox One [reviewed], PC, Wii U, 3DS)
Developers: Storm in a Teacup
Publisher: [email protected]
Released: May 15, 2015 (Xbox One), TBA (PC, Wii U, 3DS)
But to spend a little more time in NERO‘s world is a wondrous thing. The omnipresent phosphorescent set-dressing strikes a dissonant chord against the subject material, but works in an odd mutuality. When hope seems like it’s sure to slip away forever, the aesthetic inspires in an underlying way. Hey, maybe things will turn out all right after all.
As this is a foray through a child’s mind who’s going through uncertain realities, nothing about NERO is metaphorically black and white. The journey is paced however you see fit. Meandering about is enticing, as everything about it begs for exploration. Backtracking is likely to occur often, as you realize you’ve been staring at the lustrous sky for too long and forgot to pay attention to your surroundings. Every time this happens, you’ll fall a little more in love with NERO.
Wandering off the beaten path has its benefits beyond taking in more scenery. NERO is a first-person puzzle-solving game, but it can be very light on the latter if you so choose. The majority of the puzzles are tucked away in areas that aren’t even necessary to venture to. Those who opt to complete these brain-teasers will be awarded with an extra slice of narrative.
Honestly, those who take the quick and narrow path through NERO are robbing themselves — not just of a few puzzles, but of the core experience. It’s a game where you slowly figure out that aimless wandering is the aim. It’s something that requires some marinating, soaking in the world to fully appreciate it. Approaching NERO with a destination in mind is a mindset that will result in disappointment.
Likewise, those who appreciate clearly drawn lines will similarly feel frustration. NERO is intentionally ambiguous at all times about its narrative, but its tone is always striking. Different thematic accents constantly punctuate different scenes; the ones that don’t happen to arch over the course of the entire journey. For all the discussion it’s sure to raise regarding plot, it’s undoubtedly a story of love and loss, grief and guilt, companionship and family, and coping when the world is so goddamn unfair.
All that being said, NERO isn’t perfect. Detractors will knock it for a short run-time, flat textures, frame rate stutters, and lack of puzzle variety. However, isolating those issues is akin to missing the forest for the trees. There’s something greater at play here, and letting yourself become immersed in NERO will likely render those shortcomings moot.
Even after finishing, it’s difficult to pin NERO down to a concept or feeling that’s easy to explain. It’s a game that prioritizes emotion above all else, and it does so wonderfully. But as the boy at the heart of this tale learns, emotions are tough to understand, and thus NERO is tough to understand. You’ll just know that you felt something, and that sensation alone is worth the journey.