Neva hands-on: A grand achievement in emotional game design

And a stellar platformer.

Nomada Studio

Neva is going to make me cry. It very nearly did at Summer Game Fest, as the game’s introductory cinematics faded to black, literally just one minute into my time with the demo. I won’t divulge what happens in those initial frames, but it shattered my soul. It also perfectly primed me for the heart-pounding danger and devastating beauty that I would get lost in for the next 45 minutes, alongside my new best friend, Neva the wolf.

Neva (Nomada Studio)

Every aspect of Neva is breathtaking. It plays like a living watercolor illustration: Alba, the protagonist, has long, slender limbs, a cloud of silver hair and a flowing red cloak that drapes behind her elegantly with each leap and fall. Neva is a young white wolf, fluffy and energetic, and the two share an intense bond that’s repeatedly reinforced and tested in the demo.

The world of Neva feels slightly more grounded than that of Gris, the game that put Nomada Studio on the map in 2018, but it’s still filled with layers of magic. The landscapes beyond the 2D plane that Alba and Neva traverse have incredible depth — dense forests hiding secrets and mountain ranges towering above wide valleys, sharp peaks piercing the sky in the far distance. The demo has lush glades draped in vines and weeping branches, sunlight streaming through the gaps in the leaves, as well as cave systems with dark, tight corridors. At times Neva takes the Frank Lloyd Wright approach to design, squeezing players through claustrophobic thickets that suddenly burst onto fields of thick green grass, the camera pulling back to show how small Alba and Neva really are in this space.

Neva (Nomada Studio)

Trees, leaves, rocks and roots compose the game’s sidescrolling playground, with sloping platforms and floating islands built mainly out of stone. Touches of fantastical alien technology appear with increasing frequency as the demo progresses, as do hordes of inky-black enemies with round white faces, mouths open in silent screams.

Platforming in Neva is intuitive. There’s minimal on-screen text in the game, and instead direction comes from the environment, soft highlights and sunkissed glows marking the proper paths in a way that feels completely natural. I flowed through most areas of the demo, leaping onto ledges with almost-subconscious impulses, knowing that I could trust the game’s subtle instructions. There are areas of spiky blackness that Alba has to clear for Neva to be able to progress, and at times it’s necessary to leave the little wolf behind for a moment, generating instant separation anxiety. Neva yelps and squeaks as she learns how to traverse the world, and they’re heart-wrenching sounds. I was keenly aware of Neva with each jump, making sure she could follow my path, lingering to watch her complete big leaps, petting her after each success, and consistently calling out her name.

Alba’s voice is fairy-like and the way she says, “Neva? Neva. Nevaaa!” has become an earworm I can’t shake. In the days since coming home from Summer Game Fest and reuniting with my two small dogs, I’ve been walking around the house saying, “Neva?” as if it were their names. It’s been a very confusing time for them, but they’ve gotten a few extra treats, so all’s well.

Combat in Neva feels as intuitive as platforming, with simple inputs that land satisfying hits of Alba’s sword. The enemies, long-limbed creatures that appear out of dark pools in the ground, slash at Alba with their spiky fingers and throw lethal blobs at her, but one-on-one, they’re fairly easy to dispatch. Alba is able to get incredibly close to each creature before she takes damage, and this generous proximity makes the fight scenes feel like dance, with constant action and minimal interruptions. I didn’t die until I reached the boss fight at the end of the demo, where Neva and I had to fight off a giant creature, double jumping around it to slash at its legs and back, avoiding its attacks. I defeated the boss after three deaths, and the scene felt like an appropriate escalation of everything I’d learned so far.

Neva (Nomada Studio)

I’m convinced that every preview of Neva (including this one) will mention how quickly and easily the game will make players cry, and I want to take a moment to recognize the magnitude of this achievement. The bond that Nomada Studio have built between Neva and Alba is incredibly powerful, and this type of emotional connection doesn’t just happen when you put an animal and a human in the same scene. Neva is a constant source of anxiety and joy: The cub must be protected, at all costs, and she feels like a physical part of Alba’s being, necessary to the protagonist’s survival. Neva establishes their shared trauma and every following mechanic reinforces their partnership — protect, pet, repeat. Neva and Alba need each other, and their shared love resonates from each frame of the game.

Guaranteed, Neva is going to make me cry.

Neva is due out on PC and PlayStation 5 this year, developed by Nomada Studio and published by Devolver Digital.

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