Nosferatu: The Wrath of Malachi Review
Developer: Idol FX
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 733 MHz, 128 MB RAM, DirectX compatible sound card
Billed as a "shock-style horror first-person shooter," Nosferatu thrusts you into the role of vampire killer. You must wander the Romanian Castle of the Count, searching for your abducted family members armed only with your 1912 weaponry and the sorts of holy relics that really seem to bug the undead. Rescued family members repay your service with new weapons for use against the final foe. Randomized dungeons mean that no two games replay in precisely the same manner.
Rob de los Reyes
Nosferatu does a few things pretty well, certainly enough to let you see what seemed compelling about the design plan. Some nice musical moments and some striking graphical touches do yeoman's work establishing a reasonably creepy and tense atmosphere. The rest of the game, however, just feels dated. Dated graphically, but even more dated from a gameplay perspective. There are a few interesting ideas in the otherwise vintage play – and a few successes – but the rest of these elements are probably better left in the ground than dug up to roam free again.
One of the things that works well is also one of the first things you'll notice. The entire screen is made to look "grainy" like an old horror flick, such as, well, Nosferatu. The developers stopped short of going to black-and-white (probably a wise choice), though having seen black-and-white used to good effect in I Was an Atomic Mutant, it's hard not to wonder what Nosferatu might have been like if you'd had the choice to drain it of color. In any event, the "grainy" effect, while perhaps not mind-blowing in scope, is a small, brave choice that pays off in genuine creepiness, or at least kitschy fun.
Despite an older graphics engine, Nosferatu is capable of deft artistic strokes here and there. The drawn light and shadow, while static, offer a number of beautiful mise-en-scènes throughout the game. Because the dungeons are randomized (more on that in a moment), you never know quite where you'll find one, but you'll know them when you see them, as in the hallway pictured below. Unfortunately, you'll know them, in part, because they stand in such sharp contrast to the rest of the graphical elements. The world of Nosferatu is a low poly affair with few of the advances that characterize first-person shooters in the year 2003. The result is mercifully easy on the system requirements, rather less easy on the eyes.
More distracting than the older engine is the older style of play. To a certain extent, that style is a result of an experiment (more of a revival, really) that simply doesn't pan out. Nosferatu drops you in the courtyard of Malachi's castle and tasks you with finding and retrieving captured family members en route to your final confrontation with the bad guy. These family members are scattered throughout the castle – a dungeon that is largely randomized and different each time you start a new game. The idea of the randomization is to provide some replay value. A good goal. The problem is that the randomization seems to wreak such havoc with the enemy scripting that Nosferatu is a little tough to get through once, much less multiple times. Enemies tend to advance (when they can figure out how to advance at all) in a straight line over the top of anything that happens to be in their path, heedless of realism or goofiness.
Worse, nearly all of the "scariness" in Nosferatu emerges from the Friday the 13th school of horror, relying almost exclusively on sudden loud noises and enemies that reside behind doors and under hidden floor panels. There's nothing scary on a more cerebral level, just the jolt you get from someone sneaking up behind you and banging a couple of pot lids together. Even that might be relatively engaging on a dark and stormy night were it not so predictable. There is an enemy behind almost every door. Run in, turn and fire. Other times, you'll spot monsters in advance as you approach from the other end of the hallway, while they stand there motionless, waiting to be triggered by the opening of their particular door. When that happens, you can get practically on top of them before they bother to attack. And when the enemies aren't predictable, they come off as so unfair as to be annoying. Enemies often pop up from hidden ground and slash you, hopping around your body in wild and unrealistic ways while you fumble to line up an attack.
Added to this is the maddeningly antique mechanic of the "hidden clock." Your family members are scattered about the dungeon, and, while its not strictly necessary to rescue them all to advance the game, a rescued person rewards you with a new weapon or item for use against your foes. The challenge here is not only finding your family members in a maze of locked doors and secret keys, but finding them before an unknown, invisible timer goes off and kills one them. You don't know who will die, and you don't know when. Arbitrariness on that order just isn't fun. It may have been typical at the dawn of 3D shooters, but it has (rightfully) been left out of most games today.
In the end, even if you overlook general graphic quality and focus on the legitimately beautiful and interesting elements, these gameplay issues simply overwhelm Nosferatu's handful of good, or at least interesting, ideas (such as enemy power that waxes and wanes with the time of day). For the same $30 being charged for Nosferatu, you could just as easily pick up Unreal II, the original Max Payne or Return to Castle Wolfenstein, all of which (whatever their own issues) feel more modern, playable, and even scary than Nosferatu.