In some ways, Nadia Was Here feels like familiar ground. There’s a party of a thief, a mage, and a fighter, traveling through the kingdom looking to solve some mysteries and to discover secrets about their pasts. There are gods and monsters and ancient temples and a secret plot to stop the adventurers from reaching their goal. In other ways, Nadia Was Here holds unique takes on some classic RPG game mechanics and pleasant surprises for anyone who’s moaned about level grinding.
The game begins by introducing us to a very young titular character Nadia, mysteriously appearing in a desert town and being adopted by a gang of bandits. There’s an abrupt change of pace when we switch to many years later as an old soldier named Hogan has a special shield stolen from him and sets off to get it back. Hogan teams up with Nadia as she escapes from a prison, having followed in her foster family’s footsteps to become a thief. At first Hogan is simply strong-arming Nadia into helping him recover his shield, but when they are joined by Tereshan, a mage in self-exile from his home, they suddenly have a mystery to solve, with every step revealing more secrets that need to be uncovered.
The battle mechanic is unusual and takes a bit of getting used to. Your party appears in a line along the right side of the screen with enemies on the left side. Nadia and Tereshan have multiple moves and can learn new ones when they encounter new enemies, Tereshan by using a “Study” move and Nadia by outright stealing them. Hogan only has one move but can switch easily between different shields that have different abilities (increasing evasion, ignoring enemy defenses, that kind of thing).
Instead of your traditional turn-based combat, this is a little more like Child of Light where different moves take different amounts of time to “load”, if you will. However, aside from HP, there are no additional stats that affect your ability to cast spells or choose attacks. Characters will perform the same move in perpetuity until they run out of HP, though status effects like poison, berserk, sleep, and sticky can affect whether or not the attack lands. Your party does have an energy meter based on how much damage they are dealing and taking, which allows them to summon different spirits for different kinds of attacks or benefits to the party. These cannot be switched during combat, which can become really frustrating based on the way battles are structured. (More on that in a bit.)
Early on in the tutorial-esque escape from the prison tower, you learn that you can dodge enemy attacks by moving characters between lanes on the left side. When you have three party members, you might start thinking that the mechanic is pointless (especially since you have three party members for the majority of the game). However, when you start learning more about which characters are effective or immune against which enemies, being able to swap positions mid-battle can be quite effective.
Another interesting difference from most RPGs is the lack of “revive” items. If one member of your party dies, you lose. Period. This affects which spirit you choose to have on deck for summoning, which items you stock up on, how hard you work to reach the free items laying around the dungeons. Even though the characters do NOT level up (because there are no levels), there’s a convenient replacement for stereotypical level grinding- a coliseum where you can face off against monsters you’ve already seen for big boosts to gold and “dust” (more on THAT later). I did this a couple of times because I found it a lot easier to keep some poison darts and shurikens on hand for enemies that have healing abilities.
The lack of leveling is counterbalanced by magical amulets that CAN be leveled up by spending gold and dust at a particular location in the kingdom. An amulet that gives 5 extra HP can be leveled up to give 15, an amulet that increased evasion by 15% can be leveled up to 45%, so on and so forth. Each character can only hold three amulets and each amulet is only attainable by solving a puzzle that DOESN’T help you finish the dungeon, so this becomes a really strategic part of going into battle.
Which brings us to how and when you fight. There are a decent number of enemies on dungeon maps that can be avoided altogether, as well as enemies that are smack-dab blocking the way to the next portion of the map. The longest battles however take place when going to a new location on the map. These are marathon battles with multiple sets (somewhere from 3 – 7) of enemies. During my playthrough, I more often died during these big battle sets than during boss battles. I also knew that if there was only one set of enemies on the road to the next city, it was going to essentially be another boss battle.
I feel like combat is actually less than half of what I spent my time on during this game. Solving the dungeons- I say dungeons but I actually mean secret libraries, abandoned mines, forests, caves, temples, and occasionally an actual dungeon- usually involved spacial puzzles, managing to collect a new item that allowed you to interact with the environment in a new way, and MORE spacial puzzles based around your new ability.
The cool thing about that is that there are very obviously some areas you can’t get to from the very first area in the game, so you keep heading back to old locations to see what you missed. This is also the maddening thing because if you’re a competitionist, you’re going to constantly go back through the same levels over and over trying to figure out if you’ve finally discovered all the secrets. This is compounded by the side quest to take pictures of various plants that are ALWAYS just out of reach.
Many people will be pulled in by Nadia’s classic 8-bit art and sound, and will stay for the story that is revealed piece by piece as you explore the world of Amytah. I think that equal numbers of people will be enticed and repelled by the fact that there are essentially zero let’s plays, walkthroughs, or hint guides for the game. Although there are a very few people active on Steam’s community group for the game (who are being happily assisted by the game’s developers, by the way!), when you get stuck in this game, you are effectively on your own.
Overall, Nadia Was Here is an interesting play for fans of RPGs and puzzle-lovers. But if you depend on hints to get you through the puzzles, you may want to wait until the following has a little bit longer to develop. Until then, you can always check out the demo for free.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.