I'm watching Nightingale art director Neil Thompson shoot a giant in the face. The hands-off guided demo of Inflexion's upcoming open-world survival adventure has kicked things up a notch, and chaos is just about to ensue. Joined by two other team members, Thompson explains that the giant is one of several different Apex Creatures you may encounter. These beasts are far tougher and more powerful than most, and you'll be in for quite a fight if you dare antagonize them, which I'm about to see first-hand. If you want to appease these mighty beings, you can give them an offering, but they may not always like it. After handing the giant a spyglass he's not too keen on, Thompson promptly fires a shot right between the eyes and awakens his wrath.
A medallion hangs around the giant's neck that fires out deadly red laser-like beams right at Thompson, who's then sent hurtling high up into the air. Fortunately, this is where having an umbrella in Nightingale comes in handy, allowing you to gracefully and, more importantly, safely float back down to the ground. Of course, there's still the angry giant to contend with, but what really grabs my attention throughout the demo is the curious setting made up of different realms, and all of the gear that befits the alternate Victorian world the team at Inflexion has created. As someone who's always had a penchant for history and a keen interest in the Victorian era, there's a definite draw to Nightingale, and I take the opportunity to ask Thompson why the team opted to create a PvE survival crafting experience set in this time period.
"We've done a lot of work with sort of high fantasy at BioWare with Dragon Age, and sci-fi with Mass Effect. And we kind of wanted to move away from those things," Thompson says. "Both Aaryn [Flynn] and I are really, really inspired by a book called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, and it's set in Napoleonic times with this idea of magic as an academic pursuit: what happens when you pierce the veil between the worlds and the consequences of that?"
"And so when we started putting realms and portals and magic together, we started thinking, well, we don't want to be in the Napoleonic period, we don't want to be sci-fi," Thompson continues. "We're both really very interested in the Victorian period, it's a very rich period, rich for the amounts of exploration and technological innovation that was going on. And it just seemed a perfect match for us. You know, we could send our realm walkers out, they can be kitted up with relatively modern equipment in terms of guns and so forth. But still not so prepared as you might be in a sci-fi environment where you've got armor and all the rest of it. And it all kind of came together from there."
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Set in the year 1889, the world has been hit by a cosmic miasma that has descended on the earth. Nightingale is the name of the last human city remaining, as Thompson explains, and after being cast asunder, you set out to try and survive and travel across different realms to find your way back as a Realmwalker. The adventure will explore the relationship between humanity and the Fae – mysterious creatures with magical abilities that inhabit the realms. The demo begins with a little insight into the character creation, with various options to customize the appearance of your Realmwalker – right down to choosing the style and color of your eyelashes. You can also select from different difficulty settings, the hardest 'Extreme' option only kitting you out in your underwear from the get go.
The opening of the adventure is there to really tutorialize the crafting and survival aspects of Nightingale, making simplistic structures such as a tent made out of sticks, for example, and managing your stamina, hope, and health bars. Hope is particularly important to maintain, since your stamina won't recover if it drops too low. As you progress crafting will gradually get more advanced, with the goal of building up your very own estate.
Nightingale is home to a unique Realm Card system, which has you pick a biome card, major card, and minor cards that will then generate a realm that best matches your selection. Thompson explains that this offers up a lot of variety, with each Realm having a different power rating that requires better gear the higher it is. You're able to craft anywhere in a realm, and if you take a particular fancy to one, you can set it as your home realm to place down your estate. We get to see how building works, and it looks easy to get to grips with, with various build styles and structures to choose from and place down on a grid to create your ideal homestead.
Crafting is also another big part of the experience when it comes to your weapons and gear. You can make crude tools to begin with, but as you go on, you'll be able to put together your own weapons and enchant them with spells on a workbench. All of the gear I see looks suitably in-line with the time period, giving everything a Victorian, fantasy edge I can't help but find appealing.
I also see first-hand how diverse the biomes of realms can be, and how vast and open they are as Thompson and the team show off some different examples, from a lush green forested area, to one with swampland. The former is home to a mottled looking creature that appears to be made of wood, while another I see looks like a yellow elephant with rounded tusks. All of the creatures in Nightingale are passive, for the most part, but will respond if you attack just like the mighty giant did towards the end of the demo session. The Fae designs are eye-grabbing and imaginative, and lean into the fantasy of the setting, bringing it all to life.
"For the creature designs, what we wanted to try and avoid was kind of sci-fi-esque creatures," Thompson tells me. "So Nightingale's really steeped in Northern European folklore and the Brothers Grimm, those are kind of my inspirations for it. We've tried to do a hint of that within the creature design. Things like the Harpy were actually inspired from the Del Toro movie, Mimic, where it's an insect in the subway, basically, but it kind of looks like it's a man when it stands there. And it's just a really interesting idea. So the Harpies, if you see them, they kind of have a human face, and when they stand there with their wings closed they kind of look like an old woman. But of course, when it opens up its all teeth and claws. Just playing with those kinds of ideas and giving the creatures a character all of their own was important and basically just makes it more interesting and rich."
"I'm very much inspired by creating an experience where players feel like they can provide their own narrative effectively"
There's a lot of mystery surrounding the setting and its creatures too. Nightingale is first and foremost a sandbox experience where players can write their own stories, and the decision to go in this direction was a "very conscious" one, as Thompson explains, but there is also lore to be found and narrative threads to discover.
"I'm very much inspired by creating an experience where players feel like they can provide their own narrative effectively," Thompson says. "And so we give a premise of the world, and then it's up to you to tell your own stories within it. That's the sandbox element of Nightingale. There are narrative threads in it, there are NPCs that you can meet, there's a very deep lore surrounding the game that you can learn more about as you go."
"But that shouldn't detract and it certainly isn't a fixed narrative throughline that you pursue. If you choose to play the game without ever engaging with an NPC, you could do that – other than Puck [who acts as your guide], of course. But you can just play the systems in a sandbox nature. It's important to us to give that weight of lore so that players feel like there's a well thought out world and universe that surrounds them. And if they want to go deeper than that, they certainly can."
With Nightingale set to launch in Early Access, the team has already been using a lot of player feedback to incorporate features such as a third-person perspective and an arachnophobia mode that removes the legs from spiders and gives them tiny wings instead. There's a lot of interesting concepts at play in Nightingale, and as the team continues to iterate on the experience, I'm already looking forward to discovering just how it shapes up for myself.
Nightingale is set to release on PC in Early Access on February 22, 2024. See what else is ahead with our roundup of new games for 2023 and beyond.