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Blood Nova review – the right kind of retro

Considering it looks about thirty years old, Blood Nova feels refreshingly new. Sure, it’s a point-and-click adventure game that evokes the look and feel of the early ‘90s, with unvoiced dialogue, a limited color palette, and mostly static characters. But it’s blessedly free of the audience-winks and cheap nostalgia-bait that often bog down such self-conscious throwbacks. Indie studio Cosmic Void aren’t here to wax poetic about a bygone era; rather, they’ve adopted an older set of standards to produce something original. More often than not, they’re successful.

Blood Nova casts players as the teenage Princess Love, daughter and heir-apparent to the empress of a vast galactic imperium. Following her mother’s unexpected abdication, Love has undertaken a whirlwind tour of the galaxy with her best friend and bodyguard, Kel. It’s to be their final trip before she ascends the throne. Love is young, inexperienced, and totally unprepared to rule; Kel is her voice of reason, but she’s clear-eyed about how much Love will have to grow if she wants to fit her new role. Both girls are preparing for the new realities of their lives during a routine stop-off at an interstellar lighthouse; however, no sooner have they come aboard than do they find the lighthouse under attack, and they’re left stranded without a means of escape—or any idea who’s responsible.

Blood Nova packs a lot into a small package. Its science fantasy setting—where necromancers and astrological spells exist alongside androids and interstellar travel—is well-developed, and though we see very little of it in-game we get a clear picture of this galactic society and the geopolitical forces at work there. The basics are established quickly and early on, so that we never feel lost or unsure of what’s happening.

While it takes about three hours to complete, Blood Nova’s story never feels rushed or half-baked; rather, when the credits roll, it feels like this particular tale has lasted just as long as it needed to. The dialogue effectively communicates what we need to know while establishing the characters’ personalities. Conversations are non-interactive (save one brief sequence near the end), but they’re to the point and never drag. We learn a lot about Love, Kel, and how they relate to the world around them, and we leave the game with a deeper understanding of who they are; but we also spend the full play time with a clear idea of what we need to do and where to go.

The puzzles are more of a mixed bag. Most of the time you’ll have a good idea of what to do—whether because it’s obvious or someone flat-out tells you—but a few times I had to brute-force my way forward, using inventory objects on every hotspot I could think of just because a logical solution wouldn’t present itself. (The worst offender is a puzzle about having to clean a gunk-covered item that you found right next to a non-interactive sink.) Still, most of the time you’ll be able to intuit your next move by thinking about what’s in front of you, and the streamlined one-click interface keeps things simple.

Where Blood Nova really stumbles, though, is in its navigation system. Rather than clicking an exit to progress from screen to screen, you access a mini-map in the lower right-hand corner of your screen that shows you which nodes you can reach from your current location. In many places it’s not clear how the different rooms connect, or why you’re able to go from here to there but not somewhere else.I frequently found myself disoriented and confused about where I needed to be and how to get there. The map represents each room as a featureless gray block, so that you have to hover over one to figure out where it will take you, and they shift orientation depending on where you are. 

Visually the game is lovely, with pixel-art graphics and a restrained tritone color palette that simultaneously foreground its retro sensibilities and bring its alien world to life. The synth score by Megahammer Studios’ Donovan Jonk is versatile and expansive, with tinkling piano tracks in tranquil areas giving way to threatening bass as a threat presents itself, then fading back into a familiar character’s leitmotif as they arrive on the scene. It all adds up to a transporting experience that makes the setting and characters feel full and fleshed-out.

I’ll admit, I’m normally a retro-game skeptic. Over the past decade-plus we’ve been overrun with indie adventures presented as “love-letters” to the good old days, most of which pay worshipful tribute to their groundbreaking, trailblazing forebears by steadfastly refusing to explore any new ideas. Blood Nova, blessedly, is better than that. It takes cues from its predecessors, yes, but it respects both itself and its audience enough to deliver an experience worth playing for its own sake. There are some rough patches along the way, but this is a unique and original experience with much to appreciate for the discerning adventure lover.

Our Blood Nova review was created with a review key made available by the developer. Blooda Nova is available on Steam.

Blood Nova: Blood Nova nods to the past but keeps its head firmly in the present to deliver an engaging story in a unique science-fantasy realm, and despite issues with navigation and a few obtuse puzzles it’s a solid and memorable adventure. Will Aickman

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