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Review: Nali Chronicles

Project Information

  • Title: Nali Chronicles
  • Author: NCTeam
  • Platform: Unreal Tournament
  • Category: Large Campaign
  • Review Score: 72%

Main Review

A very fun and unique take on the Unreal world

Part 1 of Nali Chronicles came out bringing with it a completely unique concept, and generally decent design quality, leading to me giving it 8 out of 10 (the old review can be found here). Now the rest of the pack has been released, so how does it stack up as a whole?

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Firstly, the installation process is much less painful this time. Nali Chronicles uses a special .exe to launch its own version of UT, this means you have to set up your control and graphics settings within it. However, unlike the previous version of Nali Chronicles you can now use your own renderer with it, so, unlike before, I could use OpenGL without any issues. There is also a manual added to this release which explains the systems of the pack and is done in an interesting style.

Part 1 of the pack seems to be near identical to how it was in the original version (including bugs). The only difference there seems to be is that the mana zones around the Moonspire have been removed, making killing the Titans far more difficult (and therefore stopping you from going on a spell levelling spree there). This is a shame, since some of the earlier levels would have been aided by some improvements to the lighting and geometry, although they are decent enough for the most part. The low point is Sram's Cerberus Castle, which has its exterior walls decorated with one of the ugliest "rock" textures I've ever seen, as well as lots of ugly shadows on the borders between brushes due to "bright corners" not being checked (While the bright corners issue remains, the texture problem has been found to be a issue with using S3TC textures in this level; Fashahhh has provided a fixed version of the map which can be found at the end of this review, this was enough of a blight on the visuals originally that I have upped the texture score by one as a result of this fix). Things do pick up a little once you reach the interior sections, and Sram's following Skaarj base map is much stronger, although the geometry is still relatively simple. While this is the most blatant case there are other obvious drops (and highs) in build quality throughout, in terms of design consistency I'd go as far as to say it's almost as inconsistent as Deja Vu 1.0 (although the other aspects of consistency, like storyline and gameplay, are far stronger). NC really should have had its more experienced mappers help with bringing up the design quality of the weaker sections.

Lighting suffers from the same inconsistencies. I can recall finding NC part 2 extremely dark the first time I played, but I didn't really have any troubles this time around other than in Neutron's Sky island map, which was almost pitch black outside and turning on the flash light led to a huge performance decrease if you shone it on the skybox. There was also a pitch black water cave in map 4 that I think could have done with some illumination, although there was enough light to guide you. In some cases NC suffers from the opposite of darkness, in that there are areas bathed in nasty greenings, although thankfully these aren't too common. Some of the levels also relied a bit too much on white light rather than more interesting colours. Other than these problems the lighting is generally decent, and is of very high quality in Gui's maps, although the other maps have high points as well. Other than the terrain walls in Cerberus Castle, the texturing was convincing throughout, and I can't recall any blatant misalignments.

The new music in Nali Chronicles is very good and is used well throughout, although some of the regular music use was dodgy at times, in particular, Dusk.umx in the Prophets Palace did not fit in the slightest. UT music was used in some cases, but it is usually only used in short intervals so didn't stand out too much and fit the situation quite well, although one or two cases with stuff like heavy rock music kicking in didn't seem that fitting with you playing as a Nali. I still don't think the UT ending music fits that well in the attack at the start, but it's established later on as sort of being the "Skaarj theme" of the pack, which means I'll let it off somewhat. Also, as NC does not use Oldskool it suffers from the "music reset" bug when you load game. Sounds are also covered well, the only thing I can recall that stood out as wrong were some Tarydium like details in Gui's first level that give off high-tech type sounds. Some people might not like the way that Nali sounds are repeated when they speak, but I didn't really notice it.

The story is different from almost anything else involving Unreal. You play as a young mage who is forced on a journey to find your destiny in bringing an end to the tyranny of the Skaarj invasion, there are some twists as well, a talking Nalirabbit being particularly surprising, and your character's banter with it brings a little comedy to the story. There are lots of conversations with other Nali, who also relay various story and world details, as well as sometimes giving you items and allowing you to progress. A logbook and diary are also included with different purposes (one being like the translator, the other being a sort of "story so far" guide), the logbook messages throughout the levels are good quality and I didn't notice too many blatant errors (although I can recall one message early on that just cut off and was unfinished).

There are some flaws in the story though, two maps were cut (from the section between part 1 and 2), which means a ton of spells are dumped on you and the Nali Rabbit is left to do some exposition after you wake up in a crashed sky pod. On this same note a sub-plot brought up at the end of part 1 involving a Nali traitor is never resolved at all. There was also another sub-plot involving a psychotic Human that doesn't seem to be completely resolved either (the messages provide a wrap-up, but you never seem to come across a corpse or anything, although I may have overlooked something). In the second Sandcanyon map the fact that you fight Mercenaries on a Human ship after fighting a Titan felt a little... Mind bending, especially as there wasn't much explanation for why the Titan had got there and there were also a couple of other Titan placements that seemed odd (like out in the open in a Skaarj base). Finally, early on, there is a Nali who tells you to kill some Pupae outside his house, but then he does nothing to reward you if you do so. Without these flaws I might have been tempted to give the story scores a ten, due to how it manages to pull off a unique concept very well, but even with them it is still in the upper end of Unreal map pack stories.

Gameplay is one of NC's strongest points, the spell system takes a little getting used to, but it's simple enough after you get the hang of it. The first half of the pack is mainly fighting pest enemies like weakened Slith, and the fact they respawn in a lot of cases can get frustrating when it comes to stuff like Flies, but this is all just a build up to the second half, where things change and you find yourself up against large numbers of tougher enemies. Some of the new weapons look a little weak, but they are actually pretty powerful and there are nice details like how sniper rifle has an effect where the neck stump of a victim smokes when you behead them. There are also a couple of more familiar weapons in the form of the ASMD, which has a faster firing rate to make up for the lack of secondary fire and the Razorjack, which is pretty much the same as before. The weapons are just a sideshow to your true arsenal though, the spells. Your spells start off quite mundane, but build up until the point where you can pretty much summon a redeemer blast on enemies, there are also a wide variety of armour spells, some of which have quite unique effects (such as invisibility, repelling projectiles and damaging nearby enemies, they also change your character's skin, which is a nice touch), as well as the odd "different" spell (like summoning a Squid to hold enemies in place and damage them). You need this large arsenal though, as, especially in the last third or so of the pack, you are thrown into situations that wouldn't look out of place in a crazy pack like EXU or Unreal Zero.

The fun part of NC though is that you can throw yourself into these sort of situations and come out on the other side perfectly fine. The gameplay highlight is probably the 3-part Skaarj base section, which has many situations that force you to constantly adapt your tactics, as well as having a lot of enemies to kill. To add to this, many of your enemies in the later sections attack through things like scripted sequences and ambushes adding to the awe factor. The Nali are portrayed as more warlike in NC and there are a few sequences where you fight alongside armoured Nali toting various weapons, which is fun, especially as a lot of the fights would be big even without the Nali assisting (and they can actually be pretty helpful). The only flaw in the awe other than pest fighting is that some enemy set-ups seem quite unlikely (like Skaarj and Krall working in the same room as Gasbags and the somewhat bizarre Titan placement I mentioned earlier).

For the most part the challenge curve is very smooth, gradually throwing more and tougher enemies at you. Unfortunately, there is one GLARING balance flaw at one point. I said the boss at the end of part one was way too easy, but now it's been made the total opposite, being one of the most unfair fights I've ever seen (even with 90% armour protection it can kill you in about 6 hits), there is one saviour in this battle though, as Magical Lake holds it still and therefore can make it trivial if you use it right, but without that or some other holding spell you are pretty much doomed. As just one "blip" in the challenge that can be circumvented easily with the right tactic it gets off slightly, but this is still way too big a problem to ignore (especially as it basically equates to "learn by dying"). NC as a whole also suffers from not having any new enemies or modified AI. It looks kind of stupid when a Skaarj runs straight at you just as you are about to throw a massive boulder in their face and the general Unreal AI just isn't adapted to deal with the magic too well. The main show of this is the "Shadow Armour" spell that makes you invisible, while invisible you can slaughter an enemy standing right beside another with a one-shot kill spell and they won't even bat an eyelid (or notice the glowy effects as you cast a spell in their face for that matter), on the flip side, it is nice to see an invisibility power up that actually works.

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There are also some general imbalances and redundancy issues. Divine Bolt seems extremely overpowered for its mana cost compared to other spells that cost around the same (or more); it casts very fast, it has a fast recovery time after casting (there is a delay before casting again that seems to vary between spells), it is VERY powerful (as in it gibs a Skaarj lord when fully charged) AND it goes through enemies. The only things about it that seem balanced are that it is not hitscan and that it requires an accurate hit to do damage, but the advantages easily overshadow the weaknesses. If you combine this with Shadow Armour and some other protection you can pretty much get through the game without using much else, although some of the other offensive spells aren't much better in terms of balance they do a least seem to have some sort of weakness (like long casting times). There were also so many potions lying around that I never had to bother with alchemy and some effects like bloodlust and vitality were not explained so I just ignored them. I gained a lot of ammo as well, but I think this was partially intentional on the part of the designers to allow for players to ignore the magic system if they want. On my first time through I played on Hellish (the equivalent of Unreal) and can recall it being pretty challenging whenever I couldn't exploit Shadow Armour/Divine Bolt, although most of my deaths came from being too stingy to use potions in areas that were low on magic recharge areas. For this review I played on Medium and only had problems when I hadn't prepared right or, again, didn't use potions, which is pretty much how it should be. Of course the hugely overpowered boss Skaarj is the exception to this (Although I beat him easily the second time when I knew what to do).

There were some areas where it seemed like there should be more magic draw points than there were, although NC gets away with that by not outright stating that the magic drawing comes from every instance of the element (just "points of power"), still, there was a temple map near the end that seemed quite lacking in recharge points considering how "natural" it was. Although in a way I consider it a good thing, since having to utilise your other equipment a bit more was an interesting change.

Conceptual Grandness is probably NC's strongest point, even the weakest levels have events or battles that make them memorable, and there is plenty of guided non-linearity (as well as foreshadowing). Some of the level themes also seemed quite unique (for instance, the second level of the Skaarj section was done in a style that seemed quite different to a lot of Skaarj levels I've seen). Plus the originality of the concept itself adds to the memorability of the pack.

Technical execution is a little lacking in some ways, partially because of the lack of testing that some areas show (like the imbalanced Skaarj), but as I said the bugs from the previous version are also not fixed, meaning that you get stuck if you jump off the boat after it has moved to its final position on the Moonspire exterior and you can also get stuck by blocking a lever part way up the Moonspire. I played through this time swapping between two computers (one much slower than the other) and had few performance problems with either that weren't expected, other than that flash light bug in Neutron's map that I mentioned earlier and also near an island in the water cave on map 4. The final cutscene did make my weaker computer pause for a long period multiple times but it involved a lot of complex explosion effects etc so it made sense. I noticed one or two BSP holes, but nothing huge. There were a few times where I was attacking a decoration and suddenly died, plus I had a crash at one point, but these were rare enough that I think it was UT itself rather than something the NC designers could have fixed. There is a way to change the text delay in the menu, I recommend you make it manual so you have to use the "skip cutscene" button to scroll it, as it's possible to miss text if you don't since there's no conversation storage(although if you do this you have to remember not forget to scroll it in dangerous situations). The description text of the HUD was also dodgy, it was in the style of the game, but at higher resolutions it's almost unreadable in some cases, I think plain text would have been much better. Finally and perhaps most detrimental to the enjoyment is that the Nali Rabbit can become completely mute, there seems to be no way to prevent this if it happens and it can get get you stuck since some of his comments are essential to know how to progress, you also miss out on some of the story.

Summary

If you can overlook the extreme inconsistency and lack of polish in some areas then this is a very fun and unique take on the Unreal world.
Review Scores
BuildThe combined value representing the technical quality of the level's construction.66% CastThe combined value representing the imagination and reasoning behind the level's conceptualization and design.78%
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.6 Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.9
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.8 Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.8
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).6 Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.9
SoundUse of ambient sounds and event sounds to give the level atmosphere, and the quality of any custom sounds. Appropriate use of music and silence to complement the atmosphere.7 Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.8
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.6 Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.5
Final Verdict: Good
Score: 72%

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