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Neverending Nightmares (PC) artwork

Neverending Nightmares (PC) review

"Screams within dreams within dreams."

Neverending Nightmares is a game based around the disintegrating mental health of its lead developer, and the graphic nightmares he suffered through such a traumatic experience. It’s a brave admission and a very noble project aimed at highlighting mental illness through a man slowly losing his grip on his sanity. It’s a beautifully gothic-inspired title, looking more and more like an interactive Edward Gorey storybook as it progresses. The black and white pencil-drawn aesthetic works wonderfully, contrasting with splashes of colour that serve as visual highlights. Gold-framed portraits invite further examination; flickering candles break through the heavy pencil-shaded gloom; puddles of blood and splatters of gore collect in vibrant reds. The game’s outright creepy; it has jump scares, but throughout the couple of hours spent wondering what’s real and what’s an awful dream, what affected me hardest was the constant numbing dread I felt. Like all good psychological horrors, Neverending Nightmares does so much more than jump out from the shadows now and then to yell “Boo!”; it finds a way to seep in behind your eyes and whisper into your skull.

The design’s phenomenal, and the sound work is even better; it’s especially recorded to take advantage of earphones so it can throw noise around to disorient you further. A good section of the game is played in a small bubble of candlelight while darkness swallows up the majority of your view, so, that slight tapping noise coming from ahead? It might be the innocent ticking of a grandfather clock. Or it might be the padding footsteps of an eyeless madman keen to drive an axe into your throat. That scraping noise? Probably not so innocent. It’s probably a childlike ghoul dragging around a huge knife you’ll want to avoid. Akira Yamaoka-esque music distorts and pitches, whispered groans or urgent begs leak from the darkness. Fortissimo spikes accent pinpricks of visual horror. Nothing is as it seems; lines are purposefully blurred so you’re never sure if you’re in the waking world or suffering another nightmare. Dreams within dreams within dreams.

They’re suffered by Thomas, who seems to be trying to deal with the loss of his sister, Gabby, except it’s never made clear that she’s dead. Or his sister. Or real. The relationship between the two flutters and alters as you further explore his stuttering state of mind, voiced minimally by a gasping, wheezing protagonist who is only able to maintain short bursts of speed before reaching exhaustion. It seems to conspire to suggest that Thomas is unable to outrun his fears as he’s forced to track through a collection of unsettling scenarios at an awkwardly dire plod. What it actually advocates is that you spend a lot of time walking to the right and opening doors.

Pacing is a problem in Neverending Nightmares, one escalated by the lethargic stride employed, but also because some nightmares don’t know when to end and trudge headlong into obsolete repetition. Childhood homes slowly fall into disrepair the longer you explore, or segue into unsettling locations that shouldn’t be, but the game often leaves you with long stretches of inactivity where you’re supposed to find sustenance in ambiance alone. I’m not saying that never works out, but endgame chapters like to revisit locations with little alteration from their initial forays.

Sometimes, this is broken up with monsters, who provide a threat that you are unable to defend against. If you get caught, you’re gorily dispatched, but lose no progress. This is, after all, probably a dream, so you wake up with a start no more than a few screens away, and are free to try again. Most of these monsters require simplistic work-arounds to avoid. Towering infant-faced hulks can be hid from inside a series of convenient wardrobes; blinded straight-jacketed psychopaths can’t see you, but will charge towards any noise spikes. Timing limited runs between wardrobes or plotting a silent path through stumbling killers works well for a time until you’re confident enough in their limitations to treat them as an annoyance rather than a threat. But Neverending Nightmares really got to me when, during one of the three available concluding chapters, some -- up until then -- harmlessly macabre decoration pulled itself away from the foreground, and tore my intestines out. By the time I had found my way to the conclusion of that plot, this had become a common theme easily negated by pressing the up key now and then while plodding ever onwards to the right.

Okay, I exaggerate. You do sometimes go left as well.

Maybe the overlong stretches of inactivity are purposeful choices made in conjecture to the seemingly never ending pursuit of climbing out of depression; several in game choices certainly seem to suggest that. You’re forever walking down flights of stairs or dropping into inky black pits, burrowing further down into nightmare, never to resurface but to eventually end up somewhere completely different. I’ve spent a long time pondering that very point, which is reflective to how successful Neverending Nightmares was in driving its narrative home. It has a message to tell, one of worth that’s sometimes doubly painful to root out. Sometimes, you have to hang in there and walk a few more corridors then perhaps you’d like. Sometimes, tedium honestly does make a play at overwriting the horror. Then you’re assaulted with quick snatches of whimpering mutilation, snippets of dialogue that suddenly twist your expectations and force you to try to readjust on the fly. Sometimes, you can almost swear that the pencil-shaded gloom seems to be cloaking a human figure; sometimes that inauspicious sliver of noise sneaks up behind you at exactly the wrong moment. Sometimes, in between flashes of lightning, the gloom is lifted just long enough to see what’s been following you in the dark all along, and you wish you’d never found out.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (October 04, 2014)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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