Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals
First posted on 23 October 2008. Last updated on 26 August 2009.
Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals is a fusion of efforts of the creative minds between White Birds Productions, the studio founded by game designer Benoît Sokal of the famed Syberia series, and Enki Bilal, author of the popular French graphic novel trilogy also titled Nikopol. Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals is the first video game adaptation of Bilal's Nikopol universe, a futuristic facist version of France, and it follows the story of an artist living in poverty named Alcide Nikopol as he is caught up in a political coup connected to the reappearance of his father and the arrival of a mysterious floating pyramid home to ancient Egyptian gods. This game is not the only work inspired by Bilal's graphic novels—a film adaptation of the trilogy has already been produced and the novels themselves have even inspired the creation of a real life sport called chess boxing.
The most striking element about Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals is the design of the game art and interface: all the in-game environments and even the menu itself are done as expansive panoramic scenes, largely pre-rendered, but with an animated environment and even occasional 3D rendered characters. The level of detail is impressive, and the environments make for some nice visual eye candy as your attention is focused on puzzle solving. Small but subtle usage of music also serves to enhance the mood. The voice acting works well—Nikopol himself is crisp, understandable, and likable, and the other characters fill in adequately. In between sections of gameplay, the game employs simple cut scenes which are split across the screen akin to a comic book page, and you can learn more about Nikopol's world from reading news clippings and listening in on blaring propaganda booming over loudspeakers that pollute a large part of the cityscape.
Having never read the graphic novel upon which this game is based, I am approaching the game as somewhat of an outsider. Still, the general atmosphere and the tidbits I have learned from playing this game about Bilal's dystopian France are interesting, and the pieces of story given to me by the game have been enough to lead me forward and keep me interested. Still, I suspect that gamers who are more familiar with the source material will likely be in a better position to appreciate the significance of what takes place. For most of the game, Alcide is caught up in running errands to help his father, who seems more central to the story than Alcide himself. Your objectives are always kept clear from the story so you will not be left completely baffled as to what is taking place, but there is probably a greater amount of context left there to be appreciated, and I have found the general atmosphere of the game to be more memorable than the particulars of the plot.
Most of the puzzles you will encounter are typical adventure game fare, interacting with the available objects around you and solving puzzles with the help of an inventory. There are also a few other types of puzzles included, some self-contained mini-games based upon achieving a particular combination, and a few puzzles based on correlating information you receive. The puzzles vary in scope. Some have a very immediate nature and must be completed within a certain time constraint which, when handled well, can add to the intensity of a sequence but can also leave you flailing if you are stumped for what to do next. Other puzzles involve collecting items and information across a larger area to advance your quest. On the whole, I have found the puzzles to be both challenging and rewarding, but with a few exceptions.
The biggest drawback I encountered in playing this game was in the interface—there were a few points in the game where I was genuinely stumped and at a loss for how to proceed. This was not due to the inherent difficulty of the puzzles, which I found generally clever and worth working through, but because of the difficulty in recognizing what objects I could interact with. Every major roadblock I hit was because I had missed some object which could be interacted with, which speaks to the challenge of doing pixel hunting for inventory objects in a panoramic view game. I would occasionally hit a point where I felt certain I was missing what I needed to proceed forward, and had to turn to exhaustively exploring the areas to find some subtle item to interact with.
The panoramic environments of the game are gorgeous to explore, but doing an inventory based puzzle game in this style puts a greater burden on the player to find relevant hotspots than an inventory free game such as Myst which has far fewer items to find and use. Although the cursor changes wherever you hover over an object that can be interacted with, this may not enough for to catch it on your first pass. A possible solution is to explicitly label each objects with a tooltip on a mouseover or highlight all important objects in a 3D environment so they remain distinct in the view. Aside from this, the puzzles represent an enjoyable mix, but being forced to search for relevant points of interaction can bring a halt to otherwise intuitive gameplay.
Despite being a budget title, the length of the gameplay and puzzles in Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals is comparable to what may be expected from a full-length adventure game. The major difference is that the game progresses through a rather linear sequence of areas with puzzles contained to that general area, rather than a completely open world with possible backtracking. You will never be in a position to get stuck from missing some item or need to regularly save your game, but each area represents a self-contained set of challenges to get through rather than a complete world to explore.
Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals is enjoyable to play on a few levels, in appreciating the detailed art design, learning about a richly conceived world, and puzzling through the challenges placed along the way. It is an interesting entrant in the contemporary library of adventure games.