Spooks in SPPAAAAAAACCCEEEEEE (Nebula: Echo Night)

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Considering just how many games are out there you’d think we’d have a few more ghost stories around by now other than Fatal Frame, Echo Night, Corpse Party and… and… umm… Ghostbusters on the C64? But even though the horror game market has relatively little competition on the ghost-game front From Software still felt the need to mix things up and instead of presenting Nebula players with a typical haunted house/school setting they went with the more unusual ghosts-in-space angle instead, casting the player as the last living human trapped on a remote moon base. It was this uncommon take on the genre that attracted me to the game when I bought it all those years ago, but it was Anne's #Frombruary that got me to finally dig the game out again and play it through.

Now then, wandering around a futuristic moon base in a giant spacesuit doesn’t exactly conjure up images of untold terror, but the unfamiliar setting coupled with some clever design make for a consistently off-kilter ambience that leaves players genuinely unsure as to what they’ll encounter next. Movement is slow and clunky (although not intolerably so) due to the unwieldy spacesuit you’re wearing and your visor’s restricted field of vision means everything feels just a little more claustrophobic and uncomfortable than it normally would. You can run (well, jog) if you want to speed things up a bit or if you need to escape from a ghost but this also slightly raises your heart rate which means it’s a bit easier for you to keel over and die because…

...because staying alive relies upon you keeping the main character’s heart rate at sub-heart attack levels. Nebula has no health bar (nor weapons or any means to defend yourself either, while I remember to mention it) and as dealing with ghosts is quite rightly a terrifying business having them chase you down a corridor  baying for your blood can kill your character from fright. Even better (“better”, she says!), as your heart rate becomes an audible thumping in your ears your vision narrows and grows darker too, which only adds to an already panic-inducing experience. The good news is your heart rate will recover completely if you find a safe room to duck in to or if you can stop the ghost attacking (more on that later), so while it’s easy enough to get yourself in a mess it’s also easily reversed too.

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There’s a good variety in the ghosts and the scares you’ll encounter, ranging from the supremely unsettling laughter of small (dead) children to violent (dead) priests that will chase you from the room and then can be heard (and seen, via the security camera) banging on the door separating you from their wrath. These encounters are genuinely scary when you first encounter them… although this is the part where we come to the problem with Nebula as towards the end when these things should perhaps be building to a crescendo it instead peters out – to the point where there are literally no ghosts left to deal with (and by that I mean “run in a blind panic from”) if you’ve been diligent in your ghost-saving.

You see, all the ghosts in Nebula have meaning and tie in to the plot in some way – there are no generic “grunts” to run from. While this sounds like a good idea on paper in Nebula’s case this also means that all the ghosts can be saved, and when you save them they happily trot off to the afterlife and stop scaring you with unearthly moans about being dead. Actually we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, because all you really need to do to stop the ghosts attacking is find the card-swipe panel on the wall in each area used to remove the mysterious fog that makes the ghosts aggressive – once this is done helping them shuffle off this mortal coil is for a lot of them an optional extra. Some ghosts are non-aggressive from the start and in those instances all you need to do stop your spacesuit-ed lead’s pulse from racing is find the ghost in question and start talking to them. So all-in-all having everything in the game have some significance is in some ways a problem, because the more involved you are in the mystery and the deeper you involve yourself in the ghosts (ex) lives, the safer you end up being.

It doesn’t help either that the story really doesn’t make a lick of sense, with plot holes (or if we’re feeling charitable, unexplained mysteries) so big you could fit a moon base of your very own in them without any difficulty. In fairness though this isn’t really a problem that rears its head until the very end of the game when you realise that the big reveal that’s going to tie all these loose threads together simply isn’t going to happen, leaving you feeling rather underwhelmed and baffled as you watch the credits roll.

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I’ve been a bit negative up there but overall Nebula was good fun and is well worth playing through once, as the first time through piecing everything together can be enthralling if you get caught up in the lives and the mysteries of the people on the base as told through the flashbacks, notes, and dialogue you encounter as you stumble around in the dark.  It was also nice to see a horror game where the character is scared as well as the player – something that’s often strangely absent from a genre that’s all about pitting reasonably ordinary people against the dead and/or foul monstrosities.

So my advice would be to play Nebula, just don’t think about it too much – unlike Konami’s Silent Hill 2, for example, there is no greater meaning to be scried here or dark mystery that can be unravelled on a more attentive second play through, making Nebula a very entertaining but ultimately disposable haunted house of space-based horrors.

If you’d like to give the game a go but don’t fancy playing through in Japanese you’ll be pleased to learn Nebula: Echo Night had both an NTSC-U and PAL release under the name Echo Night Beyond.