I've begun playing NAIRI: Tower of Shirin on Nintendo Switch and, despite all the AAA titles recently released, this is the game that I'm anxious to return to. Others have more bells/whistles/production values, but NAIRI is a charming, beautiful title that is engrossing and fun to get lost in and, as such, is somewhat of a rarity these days.
Developer Home Bear Studio, a small independent Dutch company, has crafted a gem to judge by the opening portion of the game. A kind of storybook hand-drawn art style (including endearing facial expressions), spare melodic score, effective ambient sounds, compelling characters, amusing banter and classic point-and-click adventure gameplay combine for an addictive experience.
The game begins with a young girl named Nairi being whisked away from her privileged upbringing by family friends after her parents have been abducted by the Royal Guard. That act sets in motion events that force her to confront an unfamiliar world of gangs set in the poor district of her city of Shirin. She will then have to team with a former gang member to unravel the mystery of the city's tower.
I'm reminded of the story of Aladdin, but that might have more to do with the setting. Shirin is an oasis city whose desert location, architecture of domes and minaret-like towers, and names like Nur, Asim, Omar, Riyad and Zakat all reflect a Middle Eastern influence. This element of the design helps to establish an exotic feel for this fantasy populated by human and animal characters.
Character design itself is truly alluring whether Nairi or the cat bandits or duck gang members she comes into contact with in the beginning. All benefit from a children's book art style in every frame, but especially pronounced in beautiful storyboard-like cut scenes. They look adorable, but can appear tough or vulnerable when the story calls for it. Expressions are emotive in an impressive, almost exaggerated cartoon style.
Each character's lines of dialog (which are text only) are well written and likewise help establish their distinct personalities. The exchanges and/or banter help to set each apart from the others, while demonstrating their attachment to one another. Humor is a big part of the exchanges, as gang members trade barbs and city residents offer sarcasm. My favorite example so far: "You might not be a duck, but at least you're a gangster bird!"
Without spoken dialog, other sounds become more prominent. It's a good thing, then, that the score, sound effects and ambient noises are so well executed. Music can range from a kind of music box sound suggestive of childhood, to simple melodic arrangements that include string instruments like guitar or harp and possibly wind instruments like clarinets. All are perfect accompaniment for every scene.
Sound effects include opening a metal gate, the clash of metal in sword or knife fights, the pressing of buttons, etc. Ambient noises include strong desert winds, soft city breezes rustling leaves in the trees, birds like doves or crows, and crickets at night. All are well-implemented and help establish scenes and action. The one drawback for me is the tapping of a keyboard whenever dialog appears on screen, which is often.
If the well-designed game world establishes an interesting setting and compelling characters, the controls themselves offer classic point-and-click gameplay that is well-executed. Playing on the Switch allows added options of motion control or touchscreen functionality. All are viable alternatives though I did find some to be better than others.
Joy-Con motion controls proved to be the most floaty and therefore imprecise of the control options. The hand symbol cursor had a little too much movement when using motion controls, compared with a more steady adjustment using the analog sticks despite sometimes overshooting a target. Touchscreen likely offered the most control, but sacrificed being able to clearly see the object being moved and its placement. Still, all options are serviceable and don't interfere with gameplay.
The principal element of gameplay to begin with is hidden objects exploration. This is aided by detailed screens of the areas being explored, and a change in the icon to a magnifying glass or pointing finger when hovering over a noteworthy item. Nairi will collect special items such as knives, keys, crowbars, glue, screws, etc. These can be used, combined or given to further the story/action.
Many of these items can be found in the environment though some and others (like candy or lock picks) can be purchased from a street vendor. Helpfully, coins can be found in the streets of Shirin so lucky collectors can use them in turn to purchase necessities. That said, I found it odd that I could steal from one vendor's coin bag beside him to buy lollipops from his inventory.
Whether collecting loose change or other found objects, or purchasing items from a vendor, certain objects will come in handy when characters ask or demand something from you. At times, these fetch quests offer no obvious quid pro quo, but finding and crafting something cool for one character, or getting snacks for thugs, might prompt them to move on, opening a new path and/or area for Nairi to explore.
Puzzles also are supposed to play a prominent role in the game. One early puzzle included clues in a note attached to a wall, though for some reason I didn't follow through and wasted time looking for other options to progress. Once I returned to it, studied the note and surrounding walls for interactive objects, I figured out the process to follow and was able to progress. I enjoyed it and it wasn't difficult, though I made it harder on myself.
To judge by the beginning of the game, NAIRI: Tower of Shirin recreates the charm of a well-crafted children's story for all ages. It promises to enthrall with its beautifully rendered hand-drawn world and characters, their well-conceived personalities and relationships, humorous and thoughtful dialog, a score and sound effects that perfectly accompany the impressive visuals, and an interactive setting that complements its traditional point-and-click gameplay.
NAIRI: Tower of Shirin is available beginning today for $9.99 on Nintendo Switch and Steam. (Note: My impressions are based on a Nintendo Switch review code of NAIRI: Tower of Shirin.)
Prospect & the Ballad of Cee
The sci-fi Western film Prospect is also described as a coming of age movie. However, filmmakers Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl turn that approach on its head. The central character, a girl named Cee, in many ways has skipped childhood. What that means for her and others is at the root of this indie film, the first feature film distributed by Gunpowder & Sky's sci-fi label DUST.
The movie in general is an impressive accomplishment. Wearing its inspirations on its sleeve (original Star Wars trilogy, Alien and Blade Runner) and inspired in part by its limited budget, the film conjures a galactic frontier that is hardscrabble, shoestring and, above all, risky. Equipment is old, spacesuits are bare bones, nerves are frayed and trigger fingers itchy.
We view this inhospitable world through the eyes of a teenage girl, played with steely reserve by Sophie Thatcher, who has been forced to grow up fast as she and her father explore the fringes of the galaxy for rare resources. The central story of what happens to the pair on a toxic moon and beset by dangers all around them is a vehicle for Cee's growth despite being resourceful beyond her years.
In fact, I initially found her character to be problematic. She comes across as being cold and detached when the opposite would be expected, whether experiencing trauma or inflicting it. But there are moments, sometimes subtle, that reveal why. Indeed, the challenges she is faced with on this moon demonstrate how life on this razor's edge demands a certain quality, and sacrifice.
The potential spoils attract all manner of people despite the risks, all desperate, tough, brutal and selfish. The characters share these traits but on a spectrum. Her father, Damon (Jay Duplass), is seemingly single-minded in his greed and self-indulgence. Ezra (Pedro Pascal) is a swaggering bandit that crosses their path. Throw in peculiar settlers like Oruf (Andre Royo) or wary mercs like Inumon (Sheila Vand) and the stage is set.
What's especially interesting is that Cee becomes a resource, in some cases the resource, as the story plays out. The rare gems they all seek might be the vehicle for the action in general, but her place is always central to how every scenario unfolds. And in each predicament she is forced to act in ways that are uncharacteristic for someone her age, but not necessarily for a teen in this world.
To Thatcher's credit, and the filmmakers (who also penned the script), we do see glimpses of the girl she used to be and, in some ways, still is. There is an innocence that can be gleaned from things she says or her behavior at times that suggests a childhood lost -- and potentially found. Cee's interaction with Ezra chips at her facade enough to reveal the girl inside.
And in this way her character grows but in complicated ways. Yes Cee is stronger, more confident and assertive as she faces her challenges, but she also lets her guard down at times and gets in touch with the inner child that in many ways she'd been forced to abandon. It's a deft portrayal -- and narrative -- that can manage such an evolution.
In some ways, then, I have come to the conclusion that Cee is more badass than Aliens' Ripley. What she is forced to do by circumstance, at such a tender age, demonstrates the brutal demands of this celestial Wild West. All of which would not be possible without the world crafted by the filmmakers and inhabited so well by the ensemble cast. Prospect in this regard is an indie film that rises above its ambitions.
I've tried to avoid spoilers so viewers can experience the story without having it ruined. It deserves to be seen without any preconceived notions about the genres represented or the tropes one might expect to find. That I focused on Cee's journey surprised even me as the narrative (and world) is much richer than just that arc, but in retrospect this blog could not have been about anything else.
Prospect released last Friday at Regal theaters nationwide. My impressions are based on an advance screener of the movie. For more on the film, please see the following blog (includes SPOILERS):
L.A. Comic Con 2018: Prospect Panel Q&A: A discussion with select cast and crew on the production of this new independent sci-fi Western.
(SEE "ABOUT" PAGE FOR LINKS TO SPECIFIC BLOGS.)