Nightingale review: "Needs an injection of new ideas to help elevate it above the crowd"

Nightingale review
(Image: © Inflexion Games)

Early Verdict

Nightingale is an enchantingly pretty game that can't hide the fact that there's not much interesting beneath the surface. Those familiar with survival games may find this one too familiar, though it's rarely offensive - with the exception of some technical and server issues.

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Nightingale, is it thus which thou be ranging in the mottled undergrowth with such lupine countenance for want of bearing witness to mine merited judgment? Forsooth! I entreat thee, prithee spy upon yonder amber-dappled horizons: 'tis a survival crafting game, touched by the fae yet Faustian influence o' the Summer Court, in which gallivanters of regal mein doth – OK, I can't keep this up. I'll start over: Nightingale is a survival crafting game hitting Early Access on Steam and set in a quasi-Victorian take on fairy tale realms, the players squeezed into old-timey pith hats and sent to explore worlds that feel like they belong in Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics.

FAST FACTS

Release date: February 20, 2024
Platform(s): PC
Developer: In-house
Publisher: Inflexion Games

An interesting pitch, but is it enough? By my count Nightingale is the third big survival crafting game to launch in 2024, and about the millionth addition to the genre in recent memory. Any game that wants to thrive in such a crowded space is going to need some serious elbows – and a good hook to keep the audience coming back for more. The problem is that while the dev team show no small amount of talent, that all-important hook is conspicuously and concerningly absent.

Au Fae

Nightingale review

(Image credit: Inflexion Games)

Nightingale gets off to an arresting, if rather bewildering start, with a robust character creator that allows me to create a ruffled Edwardian noble tied to the usual system of nose-and-chin sliders – though there's no combination that won't make you look like Arkane's interpretation of a Spitting Image puppet. But it's only then that Nightingale offered up a whole new system, one which let me choose a bunch of goggle-eyed ancestors and mix them into my avatar's DNA, and achieved little except to undo all that slider-refining work. Still, it's an optional, harmless oddity; with it I created a chinless dilettante who looked like he'd never fought anything tougher than a vol-au-vent, and moved onto a context-laden cutscene that ultimately served to confuse more than illuminate.

The world is gorgeous screenshot-fodder and the characters are written fine enough – well, maybe a bit overwritten – but that fierce creativity doesn't seem to extend to the way Nightingale plays.

For its Early Access launch, Nightingale is definitely more setting than plot: in an alternate history the magical worlds of the Faewilds have some sort of alliance with humanity, only for the humans to predictably overreach with magical experimentation and let loose something called the Pale, which is, uh… bad, I think. Earth is apparently overwhelmed by the Pale, and we play a lone human refugee accidentally dropped among the Fae, journeying through portals to mythic lands, aided by a chatty native spirit named Puck – think Navi from Zelda as redesigned for Pan's Labyrinth. 

The goal? Find the city of Nightingale, a bastion of humanity still holding out against the Pale. The process? Explore biomes, locate portals that will transport you to the next, and craft up a storm along the way, repurposing all those ugly trees, rocks, and magical creatures into something more useful, while fighting corrupted enemies with first person stamina-managing combat.

Pixie Sticks

Nightingale review

(Image credit: Inflexion Games)

Unfortunately, that was the point where Nightingale started to lose me. The world is gorgeous screenshot-fodder and the characters are written fine enough – well, maybe a bit overwritten – but that fierce creativity doesn't seem to extend to the way Nightingale plays, which struggles to extend beyond a very familiar survival crafting formula, and never really hits upon anything particularly exciting. When Puck appears in a puff of whimsy and waxes soliloquies at you to explain the next step, only for an objective box to translate his spiel into "Make a pickaxe", I feel more is lost than gained.

Nightingale's first few hours were so rote as to be exhausting: find sticks, find rocks, make a campfire, cook some berries, make some tools, make a tent, make a workbench, make a bed, kill a deer… boredom threatened the whole process, and such by-the-numbers design feels unworthy of the fantastical setting around it. I hate to say it, but I've just seen this gameplay model too many times already – in Subnautica and The Forest, Ark: Survival Evolved and Fallout 76, and of course in Palworld just weeks ago, among many others. But Nightingale has no alien sea monsters, cannibal body horror, rideable dinosaurs, nuclear kitsch or Pokemon abuse to add spice to a very familiar dish.

What interesting ideas it has are at the periphery rather than the core loop, probably the best of which is the ability to tailor and modify the biomes you visit through special tarot cards, using them to turn the difficulty up or the gravity down, among other things. It's a neat notion, but one Nightingale probably doesn't utilize as much as it should. If I could draw a Black Lotus mid-combat and immediately hijack physics or open an escape portal, I might be more enthusiastic about the concept, rather than having to hike to the one reality-bending machine in the district and carefully feed a punchcard into it.

Steampuck

Nightingale review

(Image credit: Inflexion Games)

Still, the hike provides a chance to appreciate the scenery. Whatever world you generate in Nightingale, it's guaranteed to sell you on the mythic quality of its setting, with rising hills, radiant forests, sweeping golden sands, and sun-dappled swamps. Not only that, but all of these are peppered with a mixture of steampunk outposts and ancient temples, many of which house (questionably-fun) puzzles and bosses. There's also some interesting monster design – not so much the more obvious wolves and bears, but I love when I find a creeping aberration made of tree roots or a flock of hovering brass lanterns, which perfectly evoke the alien, yet storybook nature of this realm and constantly keep you guessing about what to expect. When a titanic ghost elk walks calmly through my camp without even reacting to my meager presence, I'm genuinely enchanted! That feels like an experience authentic to charting the untamed edges of reality, not feeding fiber into a spinning wheel to make – be still, my beating heart – refined fiber.

But ghost-moose was just a moment's thrill, and there was too much hampering the experience at that point to sustain it. The UI is pretty at first glance, reminiscent of a vintage explorer's journal, but pretty unintuitive even with practice. The combat engine is sluggish and unremarkable no matter your weapons, and will need to be a massive area of focus as Nightingale works its way through Early Access. And while I appreciate that there's a story to guide us through this little exodus – something more survival crafting games should have – it's mostly fetch quests and favors with little to emotionally invest in.

Nightingale review

(Image credit: Inflexion Games)

Nightingale certainly didn't do itself any favors with the array of glitches, bugs, incredibly long load times, and multiple server crashes that threw me back to the main menu – the Fae are pretty damn fickle, it turns out. Yes, it's Early Access and such things are arguably to be expected, but that certainly wasn't helping my overall experience at this point.

I think the core idea of exploring worlds somewhere between Fable, Dishonored, Jules Verne and Shakespeare's hippy phase is a perfectly fine one, but Nightingale has yet to really convince me that it's quite ready to do justice to that idea. When the scenery wasn't holding my attention, I was uncomfortably aware that I was just going through motions I'd simply done too many times before, and I suspect that anybody who's played more than a couple of survival games in the last decade will feel the same way. If Nightingale is going to rise to greatness during its time spent in Early Access – which it may still very well do – it will need more than mere refinement. It needs an injection of new ideas to help elevate it above the crowd, so it might still find that whimsy and wonder that right now is only present for fleeting moments.


Disclaimer

Nightingale was reviewed in Early Access on PC, with a code provided by the publisher

More info

Available platformsPC
GenreSurvival
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Joel Franey
Guides Writer

Joel Franey is a writer, journalist, podcaster and raconteur with a Masters from Sussex University, none of which has actually equipped him for anything in real life. As a result he chooses to spend most of his time playing video games, reading old books and ingesting chemically-risky levels of caffeine. He is a firm believer that the vast majority of games would be improved by adding a grappling hook, and if they already have one, they should probably add another just to be safe. You can find old work of his at USgamer, Gfinity, Eurogamer and more besides.