After years of begging and pleading, Sega finally gives us a sequel to their Saturn classic with NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams. The much-loved original NiGHTS into Dreams was one of the high points of the 32-bit era, so hopes were high that the follow-up would be a return to form for Sonic Team. Sadly, the new NiGHTS is simply a decent game that manages to balance almost every high point with a corresponding low.
The problems become apparent almost as soon as the story kicks in: NiGHTS starts talking. There are two characters to choose, Will and Helen, each with their own storyline and stages that intersect. While the stories dealing with strengthening their hearts and reacting to NiGHTS's dark secret are only mildly obnoxious, the voice acting is enough to set your teeth on edge. NiGHTS in particular just sounds wrong, though so high-pitched and girly voice that, I hate to admit, probably suits his(?) androgynous design. Thankfully, the story sections are only unskippable the first time through. Then it's time to start improving the levels' letter grades, boost some scores, enhance the "My Dream" garden area, and search out hidden goodies.
NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams still ends up being a decent game, but it should have been so much better.
The gaming structure remains roughly the same whether you play as Will or Helen. There's a central hub world called Dream Gate, and both characters have three unique five-level stages to play through. The first level of each stage is most reminiscent of the original NiGHTS, being a set of three circuits around a track and ending in a giant boss fight. Then there's the Octopaw chase, where the object is to make as big a chain as possible, two levels that could end up being just about anything, and a final boss fight to close out the stage.
While all this sounds like classic platformer fodder, NiGHTS is a game about flight. Will and Helen fuse (or dualize, as the game puts it) with NiGHTS and take to the skies of the gorgeous side-scrolling dream worlds, flying fluidly through the air leaving behind a trail of twinkly sparks. Performing a loop that creates a circle of sparks causes a vortex, which is useful for sucking in the enemy Nightmaren, the blue chip collectables, and even the harmless Nightopian. NiGHTS also has a drill dash that puts on a burst of speed, handy for plowing through obstacles and keeping a chain alive.
There are two keys to a great score in NiGHTS- speed and chains. Speed is self-explanatory, because a large part of the score comes from completing the level quickly, but chains take a bit more effort than just bulling to the level's end. Scattered throughout each level are blue spheres and yellow gates, and picking up one within a second of another creates a chain. While the blue chips are just there to link one set of gates to the next, the gates have a secondary purpose of refilling a tiny bit of the dash meter. Once a chain is finished, 50% of the number of items linked gets added to the time in seconds. Maxing out the level score is frequently a balancing act, combining flying the best path with style, speed, and a dash to keep the chain alive. Perfecting a level can be exhilarating, but you'll want either a classic or Gamecube controller to do it.
One of the big failings of NiGHTS is how it uses the Wii remote. Having NiGHTS fly towards the cursor sounds fine on paper, and the few times I got it to work right felt great, but there's so much wrong with it that I'm mystified as to how it was released in its current state. The cursor moves much more slowly than in any other Wii game, and to make matters worse NiGHTS will ignore it entirely if it gets too far away. A sluggish cursor combined with a character who can't be bothered to pay attention to it is the opposite of fun.
Other problems come in the form of level structure. There are several levels where the kids just walk around, trying to get to the end of the area within the time limit, and these sections involve a little exploring and then a replay to get an A rank before never looking at them again. Thankfully the on-foot levels are easy, unlike the first time or two through some of the boss fights. The boss fight issue is particularly aggravating in the first level of each stage, where losing the battle involves being sent back to the beginning. Not the beginning of the boss fight, of course, but all the way back to the start of the circuit. While this is only a real problem the first time a level is done, due to the bosses being pretty easy once you learn their patterns, a few of the boss fights just aren't that fun. Hide and seek with a chameleon feels a little too much like a game of chance, and the witch where you have to roll ball-shaped cats through the holes in her hat is as obnoxious as it is bizarre. And then there's the final level, which has the best and worst of Nights: Journey of Dreams all rolled into one.
Flying through the final level is a joy and a triumph, and it finally helped me make up my mind that I liked the game enough to deal with its issues. The scenery and music are fantastic, and the way all the level items interact with each other makes it a blast to play through. Then Wizeman hands you your head on a platter and you get to do it again, over and over until you figure out the trick to defeating him. Adding insult to injury, NiGHTS finally breaks out unskippable cut-scenes that, while not very long, completely wear out what little charm they have by the fourth viewing. The final level, which should have been the deciding factor in a game constantly wobbling between pretty fun and mildly aggravating, became tarnished by the drudgework of forced repetition. NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams still ends up being a decent game, but it should have been so much better.