There’s no shortage of cyberpunk games to sink your augmented teeth into these days. Setting aside the obvious candidates like Cyberpunk 2077 and Deus Ex, there’s even Ghostrunner 2 peeking over the neon-drenched horizon. Among these high-octane offerings, Ion Lands’ Nivalis sits apart with a unique slice-of-life approach to the subgenre that’s instantly appealing to anyone who ever wanted to visit the noodle bar in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner. PCGamesN got the chance to pound the rain-slick pavement of Nivalis at WASD for the playable demo’s debut, and I’m already struck by its scope and potential ahead of its release next year.
This isn’t my first time entrenched in Ion Lands’ eponymous city. Fellow cyberpunk indie game fans might recall its predecessor, Cloudpunk, which is set in the same city and retains the same spirit of comfortable dystopia. Ion Lands’ first iteration of Nivalis had a clear vision but was ultimately pretty barebones, and largely in service to Cloudpunk’s function as a delivery service simulation – the vast majority of Cloudpunk is spent in the air, cruising between skyscrapers. Cloudpunk imbues the city with life through item descriptions and good conversation, whereas this vertical slice of Nivalis immerses me entirely, establishing a definitive sense of place.
Nivalis is an impressionist voxel panorama, where unfiltered textures coalesce into a moody metropolis dripping in neon and persistent rain. This capitulation to a retro pixel aesthetic is a smart move to deliver a lavish open world while staying within the limitations of an indie budget. Of course, we’ve seen the genesis of this aesthetic in Cloudpunk, but it’s obvious that Ion Lands has dedicated the intervening three years to develop this visually arresting style into something even more rich and complex.
I awaken in my Nivalian apartment and for a moment I’m transported back to the opening sequence of the System Shock Remake – a lofty comparison, given the latter’s $1.35 million dollar budget. However, unlike System Shock, I’m not unceremoniously abducted by a private security force. Instead, I’m free to potter around my apartment rearranging furniture to my preferences. I take a few minutes to scope out my creature comforts, reposition a dog portrait so it’s pride of place on my wall, and then head out at the behest of my AI assistant.
My first steps onto the streets of Nivalis are awash with rain, neon, and faces. The city’s skyline is instantly familiar to even the most casual fan of Blade Runner. Billboards starring beautiful women, fast food, and exotic animals are mounted on ramshackle high-rise apartments, their windows suffused in bold neon. Cloud pollution hangs low and saturates the city in a sickly orange by day and wreaths it in claustrophobic darkness at night. These visuals are accompanied by an ambient synth soundtrack, suffused with a vacillating reverb that is by turns gently intimate and strikingly cinematic.
The 3D character models of Nivalis’ citizens are remarkably smooth and stand in stark contrast to their surroundings when scrutinized. Some NPCs fit seamlessly into the world, whereas others have the glassy-eyed stare of a vintage blow-up doll. That said, the commitment to neo-futurist hair and fashion means that they still manage to exist in that space without too much visual dissonance.
My connection with each of my fellow Nivalians is represented by a dynamic Cartesian plane in which four axes – enemy, friend, business, and romance – converge on a neat circle, representing true neutral. However, as the flow of conversation changes based on the dialogue I choose, that circle contorts in myriad directions. I offer to help a dominatrix find out why her fast food is taking so long, and we part on far friendlier terms than when we began. Nivalis might not be a dedicated dating sim, but I see the potential for a romantic dalliance in my future.
Admittedly, a floating grid may not do much for immersion’s sake, but I appreciate this system’s incremental approach to building relationships. Just because I did someone a solid in Nivalis, doesn’t mean that they’ll consider me a friend for life – equally, a social faux pas might be redeemed at a later date. It’s also helpful to see where I stand with someone at a glance, particularly when there are so many people to talk to as I explore.
However, among the sea of myriad distractions lies my main objective: meet with Thaddeus Carminus, the old noodle bar manager who’s retiring to pastures new. He wants me to take a shot at keeping his dream alive, and even though I don’t know the first thing about the business, his familial affection makes me keen to give it a shot.
Management of the noodle bar is condensed into a neat menu consisting of various tabs that allow me to adjust my finances, bar inventory, and menu. I can hire and fire staff, and adapt the rota to suit everybody’s needs. Once Thaddeus lets me loose on his life’s work, I’m also free to set up the noodle bar’s dining area in whatever area I choose. I opt to set them beside the railing that overlooks an ever-flowing river of floating cars, the chairs slightly off-kilter, to lend the space a well-used vibe, though that’s really for my own benefit.
Whether Thaddeus would approve is anyone’s guess, though I’m too busy appraising my prospective menu to worry too much about that. There’s an abundance of seafood, which doesn’t much appeal to vegetarians but does lean fully into the Japanese throughline that persists across the cyberpunk genre. I opt for sushi as my signature dish, then set off to the docks for a spot of fishing – which begs the question, is it really a life game if it doesn’t have fishing? I digress.
As I make my way over to the Nivalis taxi rank, I get a little too carried away talking to my enterprising neighbors and cross paths with a sharp-suited jobsworth sent by Corps Sec, the prevailing authority in Nivalis. He tells me in no uncertain terms that I shouldn’t disrupt the pursuit of capitalism above all else by collaborating with any local businesses, and the threat of what might happen if I do hangs heavy in the air. I quickly wrap up our conversation with a sequence of clipped but respectful responses and head in the opposite direction, perturbed.
These moments serve as a stark reminder that, as toothless as Nivalis may seem, it’s as cyberpunk in function as it is in form. The city is on the brink of falling into the ocean. An android serial killer is on the loose. I see a man lying prone in a sewer pipe, clutching a bottle; whether he’s passed out drunk or dead is anyone’s guess, as is whether the dark stain by his head is blood or wine. I can do little else but proceed past.
As I approach the endless shoal of cars, I experience the only performance issue I encountered with Nivalis; the framerate dips noticeably, though not to an unmanageable degree. As a cutscene depicts my canary yellow taxi swooping up into the floating motorcade, I’m curious about the scope of Nivalis’ open world. This fast travel system suggests the city is split into hub areas, though the exact number and parameters of each one are still unclear.
I can also see the potential for Nivalis’ laidback job simulation to lapse into the cutthroat of a cyberpunk dystopia. The owner of the nightclub next door asks if I can continue the arrangement he had with old Thaddeus and offer discounts to his high-roller attendees and I tell him to get stuffed. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m capitulating to Corps Sec, but I already know we won’t be friends – once I’ve monopolized the noodle bar industry, I’m coming for his business next.
Nivalis feels like the natural evolution from Cloudpunk, and my brief taste with this early demo leaves me hungry to explore the seedier corners of the city. In Nivalis, I realize that I don’t want to be an emancipating hero or a security chief looking to tear down the establishment. Instead, I want to carve out a piece of Nivalis for myself, take a walk in the rain, and help the friendly neighborhood dominatrix as society decays in increments right before my eyes. Maybe I’ll even go fishing.
If you’re looking to get a cyberpunk fix ahead of Nivalis’ release date in 2024, our Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty review is the best way to get a taste of Night City – it’s also worth checking out the Cyberpunk 2077 system requirements while you’re at it. We’ve also got the best Cyberpunk 2077 mods to bring Nivalis’ flying cars to CD Projekt Red’s metropolis.