Review: Nosferatu: The Wrath of Malachi

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What would you do if you had an incredible idea for a game, but lacked the technical expertise or funding to pull it off? Would you still make the attempt, or perhaps scale it back to something you could reliably complete? I’m not sure where the deficiency was in the development of Nosferatu: The Wrath of Malachi, but the result speaks for itself. It’s rough on every level, from basic interactions to clipping errors to game balance, so much so that you’d expect it to be lost to the annals of time. But that would be robbing players of a brilliant, unique game that blends roguelike, horror, and adventure elements. It’s not easy to play and it’s thick with jank, but the experience is more than worth the trouble.

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Your sister must be really pissed at your family, because she’s decided to marry the lord of Castle Malachi deep in the heart of Transylvania. I guess you’re the only one of your relatives that’s seen any vampire movies because they all go on ahead for the wedding, and when you arrive they’ve all been imprisoned by the obvious vampire your dense-ass sister shacked up with. Armed with your trusty cane sword, it’s up to you to scour the three wings of the castle and set everyone free. But the undead do not dwell alone, especially not in Transylvania, and the castle is crawling with lesser vampires, vicious ghouls, devil dogs, and much, much worse. With only a few hours before midnight and the sacrifice of your family, you’ll have to work quickly to gather what you need to put this evil to rest for good.

That last bit isn’t colorful prose, the game is actually timed. The first of Nosferatu’s many unique features is that once you arrive in the castle courtyard, you’re on a schedule. Your many family members will be killed or sacrificed after certain amounts of time, starting with the priest you find defenestrated near the start. Hostages must be brought back to the entrance of the courtyard (behind where you start) once found in the castle, where they’ll open their luggage for your use or offer you some service. Take too long in your search and all you’ll find is their corpse, and let too many die and it’s game over.

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It’s not just a matter of speedrunning to their rescue, either. Every time you start the game, elements like key locations and barricades are randomized. The layouts of the wings themselves remain constant, so you’ll always find the east tower or the forge or the hell portal room or your aunt dangling from the rafters in the same places, but you’ll have to take different routes to reach them. Monster and item locations are reshuffled as well, and foes seem to be able to spring up whenever they damn well please so you’ll need to proceed with caution as you hunt. That also means you can be caught flat-footed without much health or ammo, or with one of your gormless relatives in tow.

The structure of the game is terribly unique, all the way down to your single-shot flintlock pistols and extremely effective crucifix that you wave in demonic faces. But the ambition that produced this experience also left it rather rough and threadbare in places. I don’t know what engine Nosferatu runs on but it is garbage, with zero graphical options, floaty collisions with anything that’s not a solid wall, and a weird, slippery gait to your character. The graphics themselves are chunky and muddy, and while plenty of atmosphere is wrung from them they still look like the early days of 3D games. Even the level design suffers with lots of completely empty rooms and absurdly long staircases that nip at the corners of your immersion.

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It’s not going to look or play particularly well, and the difficulty is going to kick you around for your first dozen runs as you learn the ins and outs of this horrible place. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a thrilling experience, and totally worth your time. It’s amazing how dynamic the castle feels with the randomization and all the relatives to rescue. It’s remarkable how haunting the halls are and startling your foes can be. And it’s impressive how much genuine challenge there is in mastering this one, even beyond learning to live with all the jank and weirdness. Nosferatu is an ambitious project for its era, one that shows its age more than most but can still thrill and terrify if you let it.

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