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Neva Hands-On Preview – Wolfmother

I’m the boy who cried (at) wolf.

As I sat down to play Neva, my last hands-on in a long, exhausting few days, the game’s intro began. Scenes of the its painterly, natural world – yet to be touched by the looming rot – go by, all punctuated by an emotionally-charged score from Berlinist. I turned to the Nomada Studio developer to my right and said: “I’ve got a bad feeling this game is going to make me cry.”

“We hope so,” he quickly replied. 

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Neva’s original announcement trailer, which depicts a mother wolf fighting alongside the player character against the cursed darkness that attempts to claim their world, serves as the game’s heartrending opening salvo. You’re left brokenhearted as Neva, the wolf cub, nuzzles up against the young woman for comfort as both of their worlds are upended. In just five minutes, Nomada delivers the crushing, emotional deliverance it takes others hours to eek out—it’s almost Studio Ghibli-like in its utter disregard for your happiness. 

I’m looking at you, Grave of the Fireflies. 

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Once the game proper begins, we naturally run rightward into the world, taking in what uncorrupted splendour is left. You’re accompanied by Neva, still no more than a pup, whose hesitance toward the foreign woods and fields is so real and endearing. The fact that she, at first, needs a reassuring pat on the snout to be drawn along on this adventure is a beautiful touch that, along with the singsong way the heroine calls out to Neva when she’s distracted taking a sip from a brook or trying to catch butterflies, speaks to the burgeoning relationship between the pair. Though I’m sure it’ll be leveraged into complete devastation the further in we go, I’m going to focus on the nicer, less traumatising stuff I got to play. 

The introductory portions, as you’d expect, and the paths designed serve as an intuitive obstacle course that teaches the player the very basics of traversal—jumping, double jumping and combining both with the hero’s dash. The other mechanics in the game, such as downward plunges with the sword and interacting with items of interest, are signposted, of course. 

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Granted, being the artful experience that it is, the fundamentals of the game are kept pretty simple. That said, expanding upon their team and increasing their resources for Neva has led to a more diverse and scaled up experience than Gris was. Where that game wrapped up all in a couple of hours, we’re told Neva should last more than double that at around 5-6 hours. 

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The nameless young woman is also armed with a broadsword that she uses to defend herself and Neva. In terms of swinging the steel, a light attack is really your main means of offense, but it’s obviously effective pairing it with a well-timed dodge to get in behind creatures. Surprisingly, it isn’t the hero’s skill set that expands in Neva, rather it’s Neva herself who’ll gain powers as she grows which help the player in their journey. Unfortunately, the forty or so minutes I played didn’t shed light on just what the powers might entail, but all I want is the best for Neva. 

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The twisted, ink black creatures that peel themselves from the rot don’t pose an enormous threat if you’re decent at action games, but when combined with hazards, like the long ropelike arms that emerge from above and below, they can begin to overwhelm. I could gush for hours about the game’s art, but the way this corroded threat is presented, particularly the smaller grunts with their long, slender frames and ghostly white masks, is chilling. Even more disconcerting is the boss encounter against the giant, distended version of these monsters who’d, until that point, pursued you. With only a sword, the best attack becomes learning to recognise his patterns to keep behind him, slashing away at his bulbous calves.  

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Outside of Neva’s worried whining and the hero’s calling out to her, there’s really little to no dialogue in the game. This is in keeping with how Gris presented its world as it was, offering as much storycraft as the player was happy to seek out and dream up based on the ruinous remains of that world. Neva similarly banks on player curiosity to fill in the blanks, like pondering who the architects of the monolithic, dreamlike totems might have been and for what purpose they still remain. It’s really the best kind of environmental world-building, it’s there if you want it but it doesn’t feel pivotal to enjoying what is simply a beautiful game.

Despite making me want to go back and play Gris again, I can already tell Neva is going to be a game that speaks to its audience. Its beginnings might be sorrowful and blue, however, as these two spirited travellers leave their imprint the gloom lifts and carves out room enough for just a sliver of optimism.

Neva is coming to PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Switch and PC in 2024.