Hide and Squeek
NUTS should line up perfectly with my personal interests. If you’ve read my previous reviews, then you know that I’m a big fan of odd, quirky, narrative-driven games. Some of my favorite narratives try to use their mechanics to engross you in a specific time, place, and setting to unfold the story. Usually, the narrative takes precedence over the gameplay in these titles. However, NUTS clearly has a very ambitious goal with its gameplay that unfortunately falls short on almost all fronts on the Nintendo Switch.
NUTS sees you playing as a researcher for the Viago University, which monitors the behaviour of squirrels in the Melmoth forest. This behaviour analysis of the endangered squirrels is critical, since the Panorama corporation wants to build a new construction within the forest. You are stationed within several locations of the forest and are given nothing more than a GPS, cameras and recording equipment. The goal is simple, try to observe the habitat of the squirrels by placing cameras during the day and checking the recorded footage by night. Print out photos of the locations and send them to the project director, Dr. Nina Scholz. Along the way you discover that not everything is what it seems in this natural environment.
I absolutely adored this premise. Your only hint as to where the squirrels live and hide at first is a marker on your GPS that shows the hiding space of their nest. From there on out it’s up to you to place the cameras and rewind and observe the footage closely in order to figure out their patterns, movement, and routes. The game uses a unique art-style that consists of three contrasting colors. This means that objects like your cameras and the squirrels stick out from the background of the footage. That doesn’t make it easier per se, but it does give you a good way to quickly gather information from a specific recording. The story is also very enjoyable. While you only interact with Dr. Nina Scholz via telephone, the voice acting is really convincing and draws you into her life as well. She used to be part of the same research team many years ago. As the plot thickens, her relationship with you is both reserved and intense especially when things get, well, nuts.
The issue, however, is that, as much as the story and gameplay mechanics are innovative, the Switch version suffers from a plethora of issues in terms of performance, graphics, and UI. I want to get the UI out of the way first. Since this game takes place in something that resembles the ‘90s, there is no digital equipment. This means that you have to use a VHS player and a television screen enhancer to observe the footage properly. This wouldn’t be such an issue, except that to use these things you have to use your controller to direct a cursor to hit the specific buttons. Rewinding, playing, fast-forwarding, reversing, for every action in your command center, you need to perfectly position your cursor on the button. This gets tedious and annoying very quickly. There are no button commands assigned to the controller, which would have instantly solved this problem. You might think: “Well, this game is perfect for handheld mode with the touch screen then.” But for some absurd reason, this game does not support touch or gyro controls of any kind. Meaning that you are stuck from beginning to end with rudimentary and annoying taps of the control stick to select items, shift camera angles, and adjust the recording. To make matters worse, while the graphical style is unique and really pleasant to look at, the UI has no separate color for your cursor. Meaning that I almost always lost my cursor at some point while scrubbing through the footage. There are little to no visual adjustment options to increase contrast or anything. The only option is to make the controls even more sensitive, which is something you do not want while scrubbing footage. The game is also divided into chapters, which you proceed through by playing the days and nights. However, the game only saves progress at the end of a chapter, meaning you have to finish a chapter before you’re allowed to save. This meant a lack of quick play sessions, which seriously diminished my enjoyment of the game.
While this game originally released on Apple Arcade, it feels like this Switch port was done pretty dirty. In later stages, there are frequent stutters and framerate drops when too many objects are on screen. Adjusting photos from your inventory takes quite a bit of getting used to because you pause the screen and then drag a photo out of your journal. All these little frustrations make for a pretty downer experience on Switch. I can imagine that if you were to play this game on PC, there would be no downside, since a mouse would be far more precise. On a final note, while the story did engross me and kept me playing, the payoff is a tad disappointing. Maybe I was expecting a bit more from a title called NUTS, but it felt pretty straightforward near the end.
Overall I really would recommend NUTS if you are into narrative-driven games with a solid and interesting game mechanic. However, I cannot in good conscience recommend the Switch version. The UI is very hard to manage without any touch controls. The visual design harms the experience, and there are frequent framerate stutters and hiccups while playing the later levels. I enjoyed the premise and the ideas the game presents, but within this context the Switch version does not do the game justice. There is nut much to be gained here.