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Nightmare Reaper review: Half-lucid bedlam

Part retro shooter, part rogue-lite, Nightmare Reaper will leave you restless.

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As bad as things seem in the world right now, it can be frightening to think that our minds are capable of projecting even more disturbing thoughts, even when we drift off to sleep. The team at Blazing Bit Games opted to dive into the madness of the mind with their new release, Nightmare Reaper. Mixing visuals, level design, and atmosphere from the best PC shooters of the 90s and pairing them with rogue-lite mechanics, the game manages to maintain an adrenaline rush against the backdrop of a quiet, unsettling backstory.

Now I lay me down to sleep

Nightmare Reaper follows a female who has seemingly been committed to some sort of mental health facility. She is left alone in her room with nothing but her thoughts and the rather creepy lamentations and outbursts that are presumably from other patients at the facility. The door to the room is locked and no one is visible through the door window. A few items in the room can be manipulated a la Duke Nukem 3D and a single sheet of notepaper is left on the table in the room with notes that seem to be from our protagonist’s physician. 

Only when you flip the light switch off and opt to interact with the bed does the screen dissolve and toss you into a dream state. Yeah, this dream is pretty much a nightmare from the start with hellish imagery and disconcerting audio cues. You start meleeing walls to progress and are then awarded a small knife. At this point, things play out like your standard mid-90s first-person shooter, though with modern movement and other sensibilities. 

Killing enemies drops coins and potentially new items. These items can be used as weapons and are assigned item levels and attributes. Once you reach the end of one of these nightmare sections, you get a score screen right out of Doom and then are prompted to select the one weapon from the previous level that you’d like to keep. The drops are random and the itemization system will be easily understandable by most roguelike or RPG vets.

At this point, you wake up in the facility again and things appear to be exactly as they were before your first slumber. Upon closer inspection, you’ll find a second sheet of paper with physician’s notes that add a few more crumbs to the mystery. I also spotted a small blood spray near the bathroom sink. I flipped off the lights and re-entered the dream. I was back in the previous area, but some things were different, including new types of enemies and period-correct level design (I had to pull all the levers in the level to escape). 

On my second return to lucidity, things were once again slightly altered. Yet another physician’s note was left on the table and this time, the door to the room was left unlocked. I glanced out and looked up and down the hallways and saw nothing. I tried looking for other patients, but I could only move so far. Thus, a return to the dream. 

While indie games that mix established genres are beyond cliche at this point, Nightmare Reaper manages to stand out from the crowd thanks to the ingenious setup of its central narrative. Even if I’ve played ten other boomer shooters or rogue-lites in the last year, few, if any, have given such a compelling reason to hop back into the loop. 

Even if the central mystery wasn’t that intriguing or well laid out, the core gameplay is still incredibly solid. While the randomized levels never really stand out as anything other than retreads of dated first-person shooter design, the wide variety of weapons and strong audio design never failed to elicit a grin or chuckle. Sure, you have knives, revolvers, hand magic, and all sorts of standard stuff, but Nightmare Reaper isn’t afraid to include some wackiness in a sea of unsettling vibes.

One foe dropped a mop and bucket. I thought that it would be a longer-range melee polearm or something, but, no, you just use it to wipe gibs and blood off the walls. You can even dip the thing into the bucket. I’m also willing to declare that Nightmare Reaper offers the best first-person whip action I’ve seen with my own eyes. Like most rogue-lites, you can find an item dealer hidden in dream levels. Here, I love that the dealer is dressed up like a doctor at a mental hospital hocking items upgrades like fugazi watches. Sure, it’s just a little thing, but, over time, those add up. 

There’s also a skill tree that players can dump coins into for upgrades, though these skill boosts require passing various minigames intended to be tributes to gaming classics. The first set of skills is tied to a platforming game that is pretty much the first overworld map from Super Mario Bros. 3. While the gesture is appreciated here, the actual minigames range from kind-of-passable to actively annoying, mostly due to floaty controls or other issues. It is possible to disable having to deal with these skill tree encounters by disabling them in the options.

Performance on my PC was excellent, which isn’t too surprising considering the level of fidelity on display. That said, Nightmare Reaper does a strong job of offering players a full-retro visual presentation or something that works as more of a hybrid between the sprites of the past and the shaders of today. The music is handled by Doom Eternal veteran Andrew Hulshult. It does the job of making the murder of hundreds of sleep demons seem cool. Hulshilt is also credited with the audio design here and I felt it to be even more impressive than musical cues. The game is quiet when it needs to be and some of its more subtle cues work to provide a creepy vibe more effectively than any of the visuals.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

While I have issues with a few parts of the game, mainly the lower-quality skill tree stuff and gripes related to rogue-lites and old shooters in general, the total package on offer is really strong. At the time of release, the game is only available for PC, which I think could be the biggest negative here. It’s clearly capable of running on less-capable hardware, but I worry that it may go unnoticed unless the team at Blazing Bit Games can find a way to make console ports work financially. If you are already smitten with boomer shooters or rogue-lites, this one is an easy recommendation. I suspect many others will find fun in the myriad easter eggs and tributes to other games (the main menu UI is a Game Boy Advance SP) quite delightful if they aren’t too scared to keep sleeping. 8/10 gib mops


This review is based on the PC Steam release. The key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. Nightmare Reaper is available on Steam now.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

Review for
Nightmare Reaper
8
Pros
  • A whole shipload of fantastic weapons and items
  • Solid narrative design
  • Fantastic audio design
  • Loads of tributes to classic games
Cons
  • Suffers from issues inherent to the genres it evokes
  • Skill tree minigames could be executed better
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