Blood Nova is brought to us by Cosmic Void, who most recently graced us with The Corruption Within in 2021. That game was a Victorian-era psychological horror story, narrow in scope and ambition, but reasonably well-executed within its self-imposed confines. This contrasts interestingly with the narrative paradigm of Blood Nova, which tries to do two things at once, but doesn’t seem to know exactly where to set the limits of either. Is the primary tale being spun one of self-realization, set against the backdrop of massive intergalactic events; or is the crux of the story a galaxies-spanning epic, as channeled through the relatively narrow experiences of our protagonist? As the player, I was never quite sure. Does that matter? In a game that puts so many of its eggs in the story basket, I believe that yes, it does – but it also doesn’t necessarily mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. (And if you were able to stomach two metaphors in one sentence, you’ll probably be able to digest Blood Nova’s symbolism-heavy script just fine.)
You experience the events of Blood Nova as Princess Love, the recalcitrant teenage heiress to a galactic empire. Her mother, the Empress Adele, has recently abdicated The Crystal Throne of Velaya, sending political shockwaves throughout a tenuous network of intergalactic domains, and leaving her teenage daughter on the cusp of an unwanted ascension. To make matters worse, The Looping Vale, the Lighthouse in which the princess is temporarily residing, has been infiltrated by a mysterious malignant entity. This entity has unleashed a deadly biological weapon, apparently killing everyone inside. As luck and the need for a story with a living protagonist would have it, free-spirited Love and her dutiful Royal Sentinel/best friend Kel Yakavvan were having a heart to heart on an outdoor catwalk at the time, and so survive.
What follows is their attempt to unravel a sinuous knot of political mysteries entangled with esoteric enigmas. Who is behind the attack on the Lighthouse? What was their motive? Where has Love’s mother gone? Why and how did a Seer gain access to her subconscious? Were the secret schemes being perpetrated by the Looping Vale’s medical staff intended to aid or compromise the Velayan Empire? How can realities formed by choices we never made affect the reality formed by the choices we did make? Will we watch Princess Love overcome her teenage antipathy and rise, if not gracefully then grittily, to the challenges that will face her throughout the five or so hours it will take you to complete Blood Nova? This is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot to unpack, and don’t expect the unpacking to go neatly.
‘World-building’ is a ubiquitous colloquialism in the storytelling mediums these days. The phrase is most often used to describe the creation of an entirely new world in which a work of fiction takes place. Cosmic Void dives headlong into the art of world-building in Blood Nova. From the get-go, players will be bombarded with proper nouns, fictional technological terms, and alien social, cultural, and political mores. All of these will be casually dropped into descriptions and conversations, usually with little to no explanation. This isn’t an issue in and of itself: it’s a common literary device that anyone who reads a lot of fantasy or science fiction will be familiar with. Unfortunately, the game leaves us struggling to grasp who’s who and what’s what for far longer than it ought. There is a wide line separating ‘world-building’ and ‘lore-dumping,’ and Blood Nova more often than not occupies the less flattering side of that line. This isn’t helped by the dialogue, which is overflowing with prose that far too often devolves into opaque gibberish, when I suspect it is aiming for partially decipherable haziness.
This deep purple prose, and the general highfalutin manner of discourse from Blood Nova’s characters, contrasts jarringly with Princess Love’s vernacular, which is littered (and I do feel like the word ‘litter’ is appropriate) with such timeless expressions as ‘yo,’ ‘you suck,’ ‘you’re shitting me,’ and ‘dudes.’ These are doled out with an almost ironic sense of precision during some of the most important moments in the game. They utterly drain these scenes of any gravitas we might have been feeling, along with a good deal of the sympathy we might have been developing for the Princess. Which, in my case, was already not much. I imagine it is extremely difficult to write an apathetic hero that evokes sympathy from the player and whose shoes the player enjoys filling. We are supposed to be controlling said hero, but they keep on behaving in ways that are antithetical to our own rational or ethical sensibilities.
This dissonance is only increased by the game’s interface, and the way it conveys its narrative. Blood Nova’s gameplay takes place entirely in first person. Although we see the world, which is a series of still modern-retro pixel art screens, through the eyes of Princess Love, I never felt like I was Princess Love. Blood Nova is a story-heavy game. There are a fair number of rudimentary inventory and codebreaking puzzles to solve, but the time spent enjoying these moments of player agency is vastly outweighed by the amount of time spent clicking through conversations and internal monologues. With only a couple of inconsequential exceptions, there are no dialogue options in any of these; you just sit back and click and read and click some more.
The sensation of being the protagonist in most adventure games is largely illusory. We choose where Guybrush/King Graham/April Ryan go, and what they say and do, but they ultimately must follow a predefined arc of character development that adheres to a linear story. However, our awareness of the illusion does not mean that we cannot buy into it, for the sake of enhanced immersion, and the extent to which a developer makes it easy for us to do so often contributes significantly to the level of enjoyment we feel playing their game. In Blood Nova, I simply could not buy in. The lack of interactivity, combined with Princess Love’s often grating personality, meant that I never once felt like I was she. Nor was I convinced that I was living in her world, as a physical, cohesive place.
Blood Nova takes place entirely within the Lighthouse and its immediate surroundings. The scenery is rendered predominantly in muted dark blues and greens, with shades of pink, red, and purple used for contrast and detail. The graphics are clear, and it is easy to distinguish every object and location, despite the intentional low resolution and limited color palette. It’s not often a beautiful game, but it is a convincingly moody one. You can see why Princess Love is not exactly enamored with her current situation. The visuals themselves, then, are not the problem leading to my disbelief in the world. It’s the way you navigate it that is.
Rather than clicking on the edges of the screen to move room to room, a grid is placed in the lower-right corner. A green circle on the grid represents your current location, and you can click on any of the adjacent brown squares to go to another location. At first, I was happy with this navigation system. It made it easy to travel about without the need to drag the cursor from one edge of the screen to another in search of exit-point hotspots. However, as the number of places you can go expands, it becomes increasingly hard to fathom exactly how these locations are connected to one another. As such, you’re left with the sense that each room is a hub with portals to other rooms, rather than the feeling of navigating a solid piece of interstellar architecture. On the plus side, it does make the abundance of backtracking that much faster.
The music only augments this uncomfortable dissonance. The synthesized soundtrack contains just a handful of songs. All are quite pleasant, and I would gladly listen to them while doing a jigsaw puzzle, playing Myst, or sitting on the balcony of a space station and looking out at the cosmos while having a deep and meaningful conversation with a friend. But if my friend and I retreated into the space station and found that everyone on board was dead of a toxic fungal contaminant, I’d probably want to switch the tunes to something a little more urgent. In Blood Nova, however, the music just twinkles along, as indifferent as Opechi’s twin suns to the vicissitudes of the relentlessly escalating situation. Whether enjoying a drink with Royal Sentinel Kel (in one of the game’s most ridiculous scenes), or searching through the pockets of a corpse impaled upon the limbs of a sentient tree, the song remains the same.
I’ve been harsh on Blood Nova so far, but the game is not without merit. As a fan of puzzle-rich adventures, I was pleasantly surprised by how many there are to solve here. None of them are particularly difficult, and I can’t imagine any experienced adventure game player reaching for a walkthrough, but there were several times when I found myself temporarily and happily stumped, until I remembered the something-somewhere that would help me move forward. Confusingly for a game that doesn’t mind throwing its players a small challenge every now and then, there are also many instances where you are told exactly how to solve a puzzle before being given a chance to figure it out for yourself. It’s almost as if the developers couldn’t decide if they wanted to make a visual novel or a traditional adventure game.
Even the story, which I have spent many words unkindly vivisecting, has several redeeming qualities. It begins strongly, introducing us effectively to the two key characters and, subtly, to the fact that the norms and customs of the world in which they live are definitely not our own. The stakes ramp up nicely, somehow instilling panic and urgency into the laid-back-by-nature point-and-click gameplay. The confusing purple haze emitted by so much melodramatic prose never quite coalesces into anything sensible, but definite plot points do exist as lighted buoys in the mist, and they can be reliably followed. And while the tale absolutely spins out of control and twists too many times for its own good, it ultimately resolves in a satisfying conclusion.
I’m still not sure what kind of story the folks at Cosmic Void were trying to tell: the personal micro tale of Princess Love, or an intergalactic macro epic of empirical war, politics, and intrigue? The former, it turns out, is the story of a character I never cared about. The latter had much more potential, but perhaps exceeded either the grasp of the developers or the possibilities of such a short and spatially confined game. Fans of esoteric, progressive, and politically infused science fiction (such as the novels of Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert Heinlein) will certainly find appealing elements in Blood Nova’s proceedings, but might also be ever-cognizant that they pale in comparison to the game’s inspirations.
And that’s really the story of Blood Nova in a nutshell. It could be recommended on several bases, most especially the atmospheric graphics, quality puzzle integration, and the skillful way in which the disparate story elements conclude. Yet none of these upsides can fully compensate for the game’s shortcomings enough to allow me to recommend it as a whole. I did not enjoy roleplaying as the grating protagonist, and while the story begins strong and ends on a decent note, it is not enough to redeem the bumbling middle. The graphics, which set the tone of the game splendidly, are to a large degree wasted on a navigation interface that robs each area of a sense of real place. Still, despite my overall disappointment, there is an obvious wealth of talent at Cosmic Void, and I am very much looking forward to what they do next.
Blood Nova asks us to assume the role of an unlovable protagonist who spends a good deal of the befuddling lore-bloated adventure acting like she doesn’t care. Which, for the most part, is how many a player might feel too.
- A surprising number and variety of puzzles
- Stakes and tension ramp up nicely
- Story starts strong and resolves with a satisfying conclusion
- Well-defined art style and atmospheric graphics
- An apathetic, bratty, unlikeable lead character
- Strong beginning and decent ending are hamstrung by a bumbling middle
- World-building is compromised by lore dumps that seem artificial
- Navigation interface removes the feeling of exploring a physical place
- Limited soundtrack means strangely inappropriate music during several scenes
Michael played Blood Nova on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.