Review: The Nightmare Cooperative01 Sep 2014 0
Let's go ahead and stick "The Nightmare Cooperative" on the list of Surprisingly Literal-Minded Titles, just under Quantum of Solace and above Face/Off. It's either a roguelike-y puzzle or a puzzle-y roguelike, one where you're given a randomly selected pair of adventurers and tasked with plundering all four levels of a dungeon to drum up funds for a cash-strapped town. New pals sit sleeping in this subterranean deathtrap, waiting to join your fellowship should you wander over and wake them up.
The trick--and this gets worse with each new pledge for your gang--is that all your characters move and act in unison. That's the "cooperative" bit. The "nightmare" part comes in, oh, around the thirtieth or fortieth time your priest gets dunked in an acid pit so the rest of your adventurers can snag some treasure.
This is just one of many scrapes your party might stumble into while making headway towards the exit for a stage--headway which is chiefly forged through a series of other, slightly more thought-out, stumbles. A turn where you get one character to a level's conclusion or within arm's length of a health potion, while simultaneously running some other schmuck face-first into a yeti's fist, is still a good turn all things considered.
Each collected health or mana pot is shared among the group, with each getting one of four heart or magic pips filled. On top of the basic attack activated by pushing into foes, each character in the game has a special, mana-fueled ability. The priest heals characters you've positioned next to him, the archer has a ranged shot which can travel along the cardinal directions, the mage a diagonal ranged attack, the warrior a double-strike which can take out most beefy foes in one turn, and the barbarian a blow which knocks mobs back. Oh, and there's a ninja too, one that teleports through foes. That's sort of a ninja thing, right?
Special moves, like all movements, are synced. One tap of the blue potion button and every active adventurer shoots off their little something special, but only if they're in a position where that makes sense and have their own unused mana potion. This group of perfectly coordinated fantasy tropes isn't about to waste azure magicks, even if they are bound to move in a unified fashion that often puts individual team members in danger. That would be silly.
You don't "maneuver" in The Nightmare Cooperative so much as "drive," as in cattle. When you're doing well in The Nightmare Cooperative it's likely because you've kept a fresh cycle of meat-shields rotating through your party's ranks. The whole point of this perfect unison curse is to force a series of sacrifices; each move which propels you closer to the bottom of the dungeon, and victory, likely has a cost associated with it. Move these two characters here, but strand your wizard alone in the corner. Attack and kill this enemy here, but leave your archer open to a free swing from some other thug. Heal your near-dead barbarian while also forcing your ninja to—somewhat uselessly—teleport through a monster and halfway across the level.
These sorts of cock-ups are nearly impossible to avoid completely, especially once you've already sketched out the path to an exit and thrown your squad down it. I found myself regrouping at the start of each new level, running my team around in circles and up against walls to try and corral them together before a messy push through the gauntlet. (I also imagined them behaving like football players doing macho pregame warm-ups, with copious headbutting and wizard ass-pats for encouragement.)
Beyond that, it's simply a matter of tanking damage smartly, with special care given to holding onto a roster of complementary heroes—priest, warrior, and two ranged classes seems to work nicely. Straight-up combat is surprisingly effective, though only for punching out a path to the exit. The Nightmare Cooperative also has a timing element, with new mobs spawning after a not-quite-generous allotment of turns, preventing one from completely locking down a stage and gathering coins and coin-filled treasure chests (used exclusively for score) at their leisure. Of course, opening a chest also spawns a mob and, of course, you're going to accidentally pop open a few of those suckers just trying to move around, ya goof.
Enemies range from relatively mundane patrolling monsters to lethal rotating turrets to truly devious mobs which follow your every move, even foes which can swap places with your heroes—often swapping themselves to safety while simultaneously dropping your fragile mage into a crossfire. Monsters—on top of the lava pools, acid pits, spike traps and other assorted environmental hazards—are effective killers, though their lethality stems mainly from superior numbers, especially when deployed in later, more cluttered stages. For all their trickiness I've also seen the above swap creatures trade with a character and make their route to the exit, or towards a power-up, easier.
Those power-ups include a staff which gives a character an insta-kill attack (though only once per level), or a pair of plastic Halloween vampire's chompers which, naturally, give a character life-steal (again, only for their first attack on a level). Like the additional characters made available as you plow through a Nightmare Cooperative run, these power-ups are always welcome help, but won't dramatically influence how you tackle any one level. The possibility of one extra health per level of a twenty-four-level game (assuming you nab those knockoff fangs on the first level) does not make for a full-on Vamp Teeth build.
Similarly, new characters unlocked by collecting specific bits of treasure or completing challenges—while more interesting than the default Janes and Joes—don't sport revelatory new powers. The ice mage is... like the mage, only he freezes enemies for a few turns instead of just blasting them to death. There's a sort of mystic character, and she's able to phase through walls for a few turns. The miner, interestingly enough, is able to hypnotize foes with long-winded stories detailing the several times he met Italian novelist Italo Calvino—purely by chance! But, no, he just destroys walls. Again, useful, but not game-changing.
That's the ultimate redemption of The Nightmare Cooperative: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The added wrinkle is that, here, being part of that “whole” isn't about individuals adding value to the group through their interactions as much as it's about those individuals devaluing themselves through self-sacrifice. We're heading in this direction, we need that item, most of us can head in this one direction safely, but you need to face-check that hard-looking fella in the blood-cloak. The individual elements of this broke-ass hero squad seem a bit throwaway because that's exactly what they're meant to be.
The strongest criticism I can levy on The Nightmare Cooperative is that, for an ostensibly puzzle-like game, it rarely feels like you're asked to efficiently “solve” any of its procedurally generated levels. With your perfectly imperfect team, and several opportunities to reinforce said team should a few elements die off, the prevailing strategy is closer to a brute-force approach than some might like. Where other roguelikes with puzzle tropes (or puzzles with roguelike tropes) might present you with a series of risk-reward choices, The Nightmare Cooperative all but demands that every bit of forward progress you make also saddles your team with some mundane damage or a quirky formation.
It's not risk-reward, really, because there's no way to opt out of these situations and continue to move forward—rather, it's about finding the least brutish of many ugly, convoluted possible solutions. In that regard The Nightmare Cooperative is wholly enthralling while it has you, yet hard to wrap one's head around after the fact when you're rethinking a failed run, wondering not how you could have avoided making a sacrifice, but which sacrifices were the better optimized ones. All for the greater gold--sorry, good--of course.
The Nightmare Cooperative was played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.