Neverending Nightmares feels so confident in its disturbed vision, until it comes time to actually say something.
The opening is fantastically unsettling, agitated hand draw artwork clashing with splashes of unexplainable depravity in a way that’s captivating in its skill at disorienting and frightening the player. It alludes to great things in Neverending Nightmares’ future; the idea that this might be a horror game which actually means something, pulling terror from the traumatic experiences of its developer and in doing so making it apparent to others how hard it is to live with them.
But despite what Neverending Nightmares wants to be, what it comes so close to being in its strongest moments, it lacks a deep enough understanding of itself to be able to fully accomplish it. Its effort is impressive and commendable, but its failure to completely reject the conventions of its less inspired horror peers caused me to feel uncertain what exactly Neverending Nightmares hoped to achieve, as well as call into question its ability to do so.
Neverending Nightmares essentially works on two stages. There is the build up to a pivotal scene – slow nervous walks through dark corridors, dread hanging in the air over things hiding in the shadows – and then there is the climax of you current loop, in which you come face to face with whatever horrific abomination or memory has been haunting you. In this formula Neverending Nightmares is fairly comfortable and for a while succeeds in balancing the level of tension with due time for it to grow and dissipate, but somewhere around halfway through it introduces a third disrupting stage, that being terrifying abominations which can hunt and kill you long before you’ve made it to the next leg of your journey.
I don’t wish to imply that I think death and repetition is unusual or an instant fowl for horror games in general, as when used properly it can elevate the terror by keeping you feeling vulnerable and on edge. Neverending Nightmares doesn’t fit into this genre the way many of its contemporaries do however, and through almost every aspect of its design is unprepared to have you need deal with threats in any meaningful way. Your ability to interact with the world is almost solely reserved to opening doors and occasionally picking up a key item, which leaves avoidance as your only means of moving forward when something more deadly is in your way. Except, nothing about Neverending Nightmares feels as if it was built to allow you to hide or quickly move the way you need to for this style of play to work. Its solution then is to create monsters nearly as incapable as yourself, but in doing so it disrupts the authenticity of its world and creates an awkward hurdle for you to constantly crawl over.
Once the limitations of your enemies become clear, getting past them is little more than a chore. Being unable to follow you past the room they exist in means any threat is only that for as long as it takes you to walk to the next door, and in many cases enemies won’t even see you if you’re slightly higher or lower on the screen than them (though the game is 2D you can still move slightly up and down on that plane). Their necessarily predictable movement patterns serve as the final knock to any sense of place Neverending Nightmares may have had, leaving it a bundle of transparent design conventions which grind noisily against each other as the game struggles to hold onto an identity fast slipping away.
By the end however it wouldn’t have mattered if Neverending Nightmares had found a way to make its mechanical insides work together, because it isn’t working toward any end worth arriving at. The scattered plot becomes more threadbare and contradictory as it goes on, fabricating confusing imagery and dialogue for the sake of actual progression. In the end it settles for tired, hastily wrapped up clichés which gave little closure and felt more bizarre and unfocused than anything Neverending Nightmares had showed me thus far. It felt like too little too late, a tame closure to a game that moments prior was assaulting me with nauseatingly continual depictions of a woman being mutilated, hung up like a slab of meat, and thrown from a window into a crumbled mess of limbs. There is a lot of messed up stuff in Neverending Nightmares, but these final scenes were the only time it really got to me, because it felt gratuitous and pointless in a way that everything else had not.
I’m as much disappointed with Neverending Nightmares being a dull and uninteresting horror game, as I am with it failing to live up to its potential of being something more than just an excuse to get freaked out. With so much trashy, exploitative horror with no goal at being anything but that, Neverending Nightmares seemed to want to do something more, delving into the real psychological horror of its developer and wrapping it up in a distinct visual style that all hinted at this being a project trying to do something different. I can’t say Neverending Nightmares didn’t try, but somehow that only caused it to fall further down the well of tired horror traditions.