3D platformers have become something of a dying art in the modern gaming landscape. Where once stood the lurid, technicolour realms of the Mushroom Kingdom and the breathtaking vistas of Hyrule, now stretch vast expanses of darkness and gloom populated by trigger-happy cyborgs and grizzled militia. Indeed, it’s indicative of how far the genre’s stock has fallen that Playtonic Games, a studio comprised largely of people behind such beloved classics as Banjo-Kazooie, had to turn to Kickstarter just to get their passion project collectathon, Yooka-Laylee, off the ground. With…mixed results.
Which is why it’s so refreshing to see a new indie effort dip its toes into this largely forgotten annal of gaming history, as if to defiantly prove that there’s life in the old platformer yet. And while Neorj is, quite frankly, unlikely to inject the genre with any miraculous new life, based on the demo we’ve looked at, it’s still a quaint and confident little thing that holds great promise as an art piece – albeit one which will require some serious technical tune-ups before it launches proper.
Put very simply, Neorj places you in the role of a girl and her dragon. See, it’s like ‘a boy and his dog’, except…with a girl. And a dragon. The two can be switched between at will with a simple tap of a button, and both have unique abilities (the girl can use magic, and the dragon can fly, natch) used to navigate the environment – and, hoo boy, what an environment. Easily the most striking aspect of the title is its artstyle, which blends oriental influences with a soft pastel look; vibrant colours and warm lighting come together to create a markedly cosy world whose rolling vistas and foliage call to mind Middle-Earth. Well, Middle-Earth sugared up on Skittles, more accurately.
It’s disappointing, then, that these gorgeous visuals are marred by a bit of a shambolic showing on a technical level. Although the version provided for play is in the extremely early stages of development, and as such some of its rougher edges can be forgiven, it’s still difficult not to miss some pretty big elements integral to good game design that are conspicuous in their absence. From what I could tell, Neorj doesn’t appear to have any native controller support (and believe me, I looked hard) which is a fundamental misfire – having to use my keyboard and mouse for a game in 2017 felt oddly nostalgic, and not in a good way.
Likewise, the demo deposits you into a fairly confusing starting area, the inside of a tower to scale, with very little in the way of guidance. You have a vague help menu that can be pulled up as you please, but that’s your lot. This seems a petty complaint in the era of games having giant neon arrows pointing you in the right direction, I know, but given the complexity Neorj seems to be aiming for, it’s an issue. It took me a fair bit to get to grips with the controls enough to make it out of this initial zone (it is not made clear, for instance, that you have to click and drag the spell you want to use out of the menu as opposed to highlighting it with the arrow keys, which would have been more intuitive) and the camera did me no favours, swinging around erratically as if taped to a drunkard and refusing to shoot the action from an angle that allowed me to navigate the stage with any degree of competency. The total lack of any sound effects, or any actual sound at all beyond the pleasant music, is also noticeable and, to be honest, rather eerie – although again, this will doubtless be fixed by launch. One would hope, anyway.
It’s all especially frustrating because Neorj presents a world I want to see more of. The game is wonderful to look at and the characters animate with a charming bounce to them; it feels like a living, breathing universe. Sadly, though, I can’t overlook its clunkiness. When everything was working, it felt grand – zooming about the place with the dragon was great fun, as was messing about with the available spells – and there’s absolutely potential somewhere in here. It’s just going to need a heck of a lot of polish before it comes anywhere near those platforming favourites of yesteryear.
As it stands at present, though, Neorj can best be compared to a punctured football: fun to look at and muck about with, but not much good for playing.