I learned so many intriguing things about Nightingale during my visit to Inflexion Games that it’d be impossible to unpack everything in one succinct article – so I won’t, but I will hopefully shed some light on its development process, setting, and gameplay loop. Nightingale isn’t necessarily the game you’d expect from seasoned ex-Bioware devs, but the years of experience behind its ideation is evident in what I saw in more than six hours of gameplay: a stylish take on a shared-world survival crafting game.
The world of Nightingale is similar to ours in the “best of Victorian times,” as Inflexion CEO Aaryn Flynn put it, in the late 1800s. However, in this alternate reality, the Fae appeared in the 1500s to share their knowledge of magic with humans, altering the path of history and spurring the birth of the home of magical studies, the city of Nightingale. Alongside magic, the Fae also introduce humanity to the existence of small Fae Realms and the portal system that connects them.
Nightingale features characters from history, literature, and folklore – from Puck, a Fae inspired by Shakespeare; to Ada Lovelace, an English woman considered the first computer programmer – they’re fun little easter eggs for history and literature buffs. This combination of Fae, magic, and Victorian influences cements Nightingale’s genre as a gaslamp fantasy – think the fantastical, magical side of the sci-fi-inclined steampunk genre.
Why this setting? Simply because Flynn and art director Neil Thompson have done medieval fantasy (Dragon Age) and sci-fi (Mass Effect) already, so they wanted to create something unique. And Nightingale certainly takes its style seriously.
Nightingale begins with a short prologue introducing the world and setting the stage for the opening moments. A mysterious phenomenon known only as “the Pale” has foggily swept over the entirety of Earth, putting everything it touches into a state of suspended animation. The only human city left is Nightingale, but the magical portals to get there have malfunctioned, cutting off access. Actually, the entire system of portals and Fae realms have been thrown into chaos, tossing the human Realm Walkers, including you, around with it.
The story and setting loosely glue your overarching objectives together, but as inconsequential as the story seems to be in the grand scheme of things – Nightingale is a survival crafting game, not a narratively-driven RPG ala Bioware, after all – it still serves as a curious jumping-off point into the world and gameplay of Nightingale. It certainly provides more of an intriguing premise than washing up on a shore with nothing but your underwear, which by now is a common survival trope. And if story is what you’re after, Hope Echoes can be found scattered throughout the realms that add narrative context for those who want even more world-building and story. These are, of course, dropped by Realm Walkers who came before you.
Alongside you on your journey back to Nightingale is Puck, who explains much of the way of the world to you as you progress, accomplishing small quests he presents to you. It seems he’s helping you, but if you know much about folklore, you know the Fae aren’t always to be trusted – providing a curious seed that piqued my suspicions. Perhaps unwarrantedly.
Questing Your Way
Nightingale has been in development at Inflexion Games for nearly five years, and though it’s kept the same setting inspiration, it’s gone through an evolution from MMO to the more compact experience it is now, with up to six players able to play in a shared world at a time rather than countless.
For early access, Nightingale will have about 30 hours of content if you race through the main objectives, and this “early” game seems to have been fine-tuned to be as fun as possible. Rather than being developed in a vacuum, Nightingale has had dozens of playtests, tweaking the experience in both big and small ways. You can read more about Nightingale’s development process here.
Personally, I look for games that instill a sense of intrinsic motivation in the player. If the only objective is clear, I know I can do it, and the only reward is external, like another task and story beat, well, I can get bored. Instead of assigning small tasks one after the other over and over again to serve a story, Nightingale allows the player freedom and space to grow curious enough to ideate their own goals. It’s a not-so-uncommon trait among survival crafting games, which might be why I vibe so well with them, and it’s just one reason why Nightingale is so appealing to me.
“That was definitely a challenge: to construct a game that inspired players to go and achieve their own goals instead of just dictating to them what they had to go do. And that was a real mindset shift for us at the studio,” Flynn explained.
In the beginning, players need more short-term, explicit goals to help them get going as a sort of tutorial. Puck dishes out these little quests to teach you what’s what. As you follow him from realm to realm after fleeing the Pale, he instructs you to do very basic survival crafting trope tasks: Build a campfire, cook a meal, build a shelter, fight off the interdimensional horrific creatures called the Bound sicced on you by the malevolent Winter Court Fae. You know, run-of-the-mill quests you must complete to progress.
And yes, even though there is magic, the developers wanted to keep magic more grounded – you can’t just conjure stuff, like a campfire, out of thin air. Magic exists for humans in a system of enchantments. Collect materials and craft to be able to perform magic, but only while wielding the weapon with the enchantment. It’s a less whimsy sorcerer, more academic approach, inspired by the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Fairly early on, the gameplay diverges from that model of “one quest, two quest,” and gives players more and more inspiration to go and do things on their own accord. There were even UI changes to remove the reminder of quests from the main screen, so as not to pressure anyone.
After putting down your first “cairn” to stake out a home base, you’ll find a “Site of Power” if you look around. These mini-dungeons of sorts are only unlocked if you meet the gear and hope requirements, of which you can achieve by a variety of means.
“And so the idea there was rather than have a straight narrative set of quests that just were do this and then do this, and then do this, and then do this (a game model we’re all very familiar with at the studio), we put the sites of power in to inspire players to say, ‘Oh, well, I wonder what’s in there. I’m curious about that,’” Flynn explained.
Production lead Leah Summers emphasized it’s not meant to be a massive grind, or something you need to push through.
“It’s really, all these realms are now yours to keep and enjoy. Fish in them, bring them back, craft different clothes…It’s really quite neat,” Summers explained. “We’re hoping that people will take their time and just enjoy what’s there rather than rushing the progression.”
Our reward for meeting the requirements and conquering the Site of Power included a crafting recipe for a new Realm Card.
Realm Cards, basically, are used to open portals to new realms. There are three kinds of cards:
A Biome Realm Card and a Major Realm Card is needed, while the Minor Realm Card is optional. The Biome dictates the environment–Forest, Swamp, and Desert, for now; the Major Card generally dictates the difficulty of that realm; and the Minor Realm Card will affect minor things (who woulda thought), like weather or creature behavior. I’m especially looking forward to discovering what silly Minor Cards will be available at launch. One of them lets players have super-powered jumps for a limited amount of time, for example. The Minor Cards can even be deactivated and switched out at will, leading to so many creative possibilities.
The realm that’s created once you apply the cards to the portal is completely procedurally generated and uniquely yours: no one else will have the same layout for their Abeyance Forest realm. Once you’ve generated a realm, that will be the layout for that realm permanently, so once you figure out where to go to collect the resources you need, you’ll be able to return to find them easily.
You collect recipes for Major Cards from the various Sites of Power you’ll find, and Minor Cards from different subterranean mini-dungeons, too.
This is your main goal and basic progression: Unlock card recipes to unlock more difficult realms, with the goal of getting stronger and eventually reaching Nightingale. Nightingale isn’t available just yet in Early Access, but in its stead is the multiplayer hub The Watch, Apex Hunts, and the difficult Vaults, the only content intended to be completed in multiplayer.
But there are plenty of other incentives and goals, too. Conquering these little dungeons with their puzzles and combat challenges can also reward you with crafting recipes for new building pieces, so you can make the house or settlement of your dreams. Unlocking new realms helps you toward that goal, too, as each realm combination has shops with different crafting recipes. Some might carry onwards to challenge the Nightingale’s difficult Apex Creatures and Vaults, others may do so to build the best settlements to hang out with their friends, and it’s fun we’ll be able to do that together in groups with both types of players.
In most survival crafting games, I generally leave the building and town organization to others – except farming, for some reason – and I see my aim being similar in Nightingale. The Apex Creature hunts and Vaults, inspired loosely by Destiny 2’s Strikes, promise to be challenging with worthwhile rewards.
Though I didn’t play these myself, I did get to be in the room while a group of players coordinated together to conquer these. First, the Apex Creature Humbaba, a colossal dragon. I loved hearing lead designer Bjorn Taylor yelling at his teammates to remember to eat for buffs before aggroing it. It reminded me of myself before Monster Hunter hunts.
Despite their best efforts to prepare, to eat, to don the optimal equipment, to lay down a nearby respawn spot, the hunt still turned into a bit of chaos, to my delight. One person accidentally aggroed the Humbaba.
“You have to press a button to shoot, how did you do that?” is something someone said with gleeful frustration.
Meanwhile, another player was unprepared and killed by a rare and especially powerful spider monster nearby, taking them out of the fight before they could lay on a lick of damage.
Despite the setbacks, they succeeded, but once they defeated the Humbaba, Swamp Giants showed up and started conjuring giant frogs to attack them before they could even finish looting their kill.
I couldn’t help but smile and laugh along with the team. It looked like a fun time with your friends that left you with a story to tell others who couldn’t make it to game night.
Watching them play through the Vault, the cooperative endgame content, was equally amusing. The team struggled to complete a puzzle. This kind of puzzle is found in many places in Nightingale, but the layout of this Vault made it especially difficult.
To complete it, they needed to watch and listen for crystals to light up and make a sound, and then hit them in the same order. Doing it wrong causes a horde of the Bound to attack. The last crystal eluded them. Flynn hung his head in his hands and lamented as he watched.
To their credit, the Vaults are also procedurally generated, so their layout is never the same. Eventually, they succeeded, moved on, and tackled the Apex Creature at the end of the dungeon, an Apex Eoten.
All in all, the gameplay loops of Nightingale look flexible, engrossing, and fun, though I am mildly worried about how much attention the base building can keep of my crafty friends. I’m unsure of what else there is to do or maintain once it’s built the way you like. Of course, I do suppose creatures can also come wreck things and force you to build anew. Ah, the joys of survival…
Nightingale will be released in Early Access on February 22.
Casey DeFreitas is the deputy editor of guides at IGN. Catch her on Twitter @ShinyCaseyD.
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Author: Casey DeFreitas