If you know anything about Benoit Sokal's track record with adventure gaming, you know going in that Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals will be weird. But even prior experience with the French designer's surreal Syberia games doesn't prepare you for the strangeness of this adaptation of the work of graphic novelist Enki Bilal. Sokal's White Birds studio tells a bizarre tale here about a totalitarian government, gods from space, and action-oriented puzzles, all of which lend this game an off-kilter feel that is very different from that in traditional point-and-click adventures. All of these eccentricities make Nikopol an extremely challenging, acquired taste that you'll either love or hate.
First off, the story is extremely odd. You play Alcide Nikopol, an third-rate artist making a pretty poor go at living off his paintings in Paris, France, in the year 2023. At least it sure doesn't seem like Alcide is earning much coin, judging by his dilapidated apartment and hobo-like appearance. Actually, the whole world seems to have fallen on tough times. All of Paris is a broken-down mess, and ancient technologies like film reels exist side by side with Jetsons-esque gimmicks, such as flying cars. Hockey has become the biggest sport in France, with players so fanatical about the game that they have no problem committing suicide or murder on the ice to get a win. A totalitarian government has spun the clock back to 1984, with the dictator-prophet leader Choublanc pumping Big Brother propaganda into homes. However, various resistance movements are springing up to fight the power. Alcide's father has been sentenced to hibernation off-planet under android supervision because of his rebellious acts, and Alcide himself has just joined a quasi-Christian resistance movement called the Order of the Great Evangelical Return as the game begins.
Meet Alcide Nikopol, tortured artist, and friend of Horus.
And Nikopol gets much, much weirder. Slug-like monsters are patrolling the streets, acting as cops for the fascist government. A massive alien jellyfish perched atop the upper floors of the regime's skyscraper headquarters grows ever larger and serves as sustenance for giant ticks being trained for civil service work. The immortal, animal-headed gods of the ancient Egyptians have just arrived in a pyramid spaceship currently floating ominously above the Seine. Had enough? Even stranger, nobody seems to care about these surreal developments. Instead of panicking in the streets, people have apparently just accepted the pyramid from space and scary monsters roaming about. Gorgon, your possibly traitorous boss with the resistance church--who, incidentally, peppers his speech with more uses of "thou" and "hast" than the Marvel Comics take on Thor, for absolutely no reason--barely even takes note of the aliens or the creatures.
Actually, nobody says much of anything here. While the story is based on the graphic novels of European author Bilal, you have to wonder if his stories are largely told visually. Conversations are few and far between as this futuristic Paris seems nearly deserted. Most of Nikopol's dialogue consists of Alcide talking to himself about the puzzles he needs to solve. Script and voice-acting are both first-rate, though, so this is one adventure where you actually want the characters to speak more. Well, maybe not Gorgon. But the actor handling Alcide does a fantastic, subtle job with his lines. He moves adroitly between talking to other character he encounters and talking directly to you. He also offerings up laid-back hints on what you should be doing and commenting on monster attacks with over-the-backyard-fence dialogue, such as like "Well, I'm not surprised he got me. What was I thinking, standing out in the middle of the room like that?" Such lines are awfully incongruous, especially when accompanied by bloody red smears across the screen before everything fades to black. But they do serve the purpose of keeping you informed about what just happened, and warning you about what not to do while avoiding the second-rate dialogue histrionics found in the average modern adventure. Hearing more from the Egyptian gods would have added a lot to the game, too, as they have deep, spooky voices and probably could have been used to fill in the many, many blanks about just what is going on here.
Most of the story-telling is conveyed through the visuals, which are superb in comparison to most adventure games. You don't have free range of movement, being forced to swivel in place behind a first-person camera in the classic Myst style, but the scenery is extremely well detailed and the 3D character models almost as well done as you would find in a contemporary shooter. Rooms are sometimes a bit too cluttered, however. The visual vibe of the game is a blend of post-apocalyptic grunge with sci-fi dreariness a la Blade Runner, so there is generally so much junk and refuse all over the place that puzzles can easily turn into pixel hunts. Many locations are dark and gloomy, as well, which further interferes with searching for items. Some objects are also a bit finicky, requiring clicks on specific locations to pick up or activate them. Still, these issues are not that bothersome, and are generally a small price to pay for the lived-in appearance of the gameworld.