I hate the term “walking simulator.”
It implies that thinking about a game and caring about the thoughts and feelings of the characters are less vital to the gaming experience than shooting things. I’m as fine with a game that is a little bit of gameplay with a lot of story as I am with a game that is a little bit of story and a lot of gameplay. (After all, “Thank you, Mario, but our princess is in another castle,” is not the most emotionally effective storytelling in the world, yet it belongs to the most popular game of all time).
But just as gameplay-heavy games like Mario or Doom wouldn’t work if the controls were bad, a game that relies on its story to be engaging needs to have a really, really good story. And that’s where The NADI Project comes up short.
The NADI Project is a first-person exploration game along the same lines as Dear Esther or Gone Home. Your character is Jeremy, a man who crash-lands on a mysterious island and hears the voice of a little girl, Anna, in his head. As you explore the island, you discover why the girl and her father were living on the island, and what ultimately happened there.
The major problem with the game is the writing. The characters are in no way compelling-- the most you ever learn about Jeremy is that he’s a businessman who gets headaches. It’s all right for the main character of this type of game to be a cypher, but then why bother to give him any characterization if he remains basically unaffected by the plot? Anna gets more character development, but she never becomes more than a lonely little girl. Everyone in the story is very one-dimensional. The game tries to introduce grand themes about taking a chance to change your life, but they don’t connect to the story as it’s presented.
The central mystery is pretty easy to figure out early on in the game. There’s a slight twist at the end, but it’s not shocking enough to save the story. Without good characters and an interesting plot, there’s not much to the game.
That brings us to the technical problems. The game looks reasonably good, but the cursor you use to find objects is small and white, so it gets lost easily in the textures on-screen, particularly on the inventory screen. This can make it difficult to find which objects can actually be highlighted and examined. It’s very easy to pass by an important object because your cursor isn’t in quite the right place to detect it.
Another, smaller issue is the sound design. It’s pretty basic; often, the only sound you hear is your own footsteps on the ground. I can cut the developer, Monkeys Tales Studios, some slack on the sound because they’re a small studio, but a more effective deployment of music in the game could have helped ratchet up the tension when it was needed. The story would have also been better served with voice acting. None of the text in the game is read, so the game misses out on a lot of the emotion and characterization that voice actors have added to other exploration games, like Gone Home.
There are some issues with the gameplay, too. There are a few puzzles, but they aren’t very intuitive to solve. For instance, at one point you need to make a light source to explore a cave. Right next to the cave is an oil lamp, and there are gas canisters all over the island. But you can’t interact with either of those objects, instead having to find the combination to a safe so you can get a hatchet (because . . . everyone keeps axes in a safe, right?) and use it to cut a log into sticks to make a torch. For some reason, your crowbar is the only tool that can break open a door; a pickaxe won’t cut it. Different items you need are in nonsensical locations, which requires you to run back-and- forth across the island to get further in the game. The island isn’t very big, but there’s no better way to feel like you’ll never make any progress in a game than having to backtrack multiple times.
So, is there anything to recommend about The NADI Project?
I can respect the developer’s attempt at creating a game that’s mostly focused on story and discovery. If you’re really, really into exploration games and have played everything else in your library, you might find the game to be an interesting diversion on a Saturday afternoon. But The NADI Project doesn’t do much to improve the status of an already much-maligned genre.
There are plenty of other exploration games you’ll find much more rewarding than this one.