Early last year, I heard about an iOS puzzle-platformer with an impossible to pronounce yet attractively mysterious name and my interest was instantly piqued. As you might assume given the title of this post, that game was Nihilumbra and as often happens, it ended up being one of those games that I was always curious about but never got around to playing. Needless to say, when I found out it was being ported to PC and I’d be reviewing it I got interested all over again, and I will confess to walking around telling everyone I know that I was reviewing it, just so that I could say the name in a slightly wistful voice. Trust me, it added to my enjoyment of the whole thing. Not that the game didn’t do a fine job of that by itself.
The story begins in a world simply known as ‘The Void’, where you are a small black blob known as ‘Born’ that seems to long for escape from the world you are told is its home. A home that is evidently determined not to let it go as it immediately begins chase, protesting your departure. Born makes it a short way away from home before it finds a scarecrow and changes shape, and thus marks the beginning of its search for an identity, and a place in which it can lead a more peaceful life. It’s somewhat unclear what it is exactly about The Void that is so terrifying to young Born, but when something is filled with shiny purple and black swirls and it churns out dangerous creatures like the ones produced to hinder your progress, I sort of tend not to question these things.
Of course, it would be too simple for the swirly goo and the shadow-like creatures to be the only things vying to get you down. As you progress through the worlds, your story is revealed to you in a somewhat vague fashion by a pessimistic and rather rude narrator, who gives you handy tips about the pointlessness of life and the fact that even when things seem perfect, there are always consequences to every action. Honestly, I actually quite liked the story that was being told and by the end of my journey I somehow felt like I wanted to be a better and more socially conscious person, even if I’m not sure that that was the message I was supposed to take from the whole experience. What I did mostly object to was the fact that this narrator often wanted to tell me about what I couldn’t do, or to inform me that something was impossible about two seconds before it was painfully obvious that I was going to do it. I feel like this might have been something of an effective mechanic in a game where I actually had the choice to be disheartened and turn back in my travels, but in a linear game like this one it seemed a little pointless.
Sadly, just when I felt like the condescending narrator and I were finally building a solid relationship, I realised that I had effectively just spent two hours playing the tutorial of the game and that the real thing was barely beginning. It’s at this point that the narrator leaves you on your own, and the nice hint system that was present throughout the first part of the game disappears. In the first run-through when you get a little stuck, a faint outline of your next move appears on the screen just to push you in the right direction – and of course, once the game gets hard and it’s actually needed, it becomes strangely absent. There’s not so much of a difficulty curve as a difficulty cliff that you’re pushed off with only the first prototype of a parachute – you’re pretty sure that you have the necessary tools, but whether or not you can actually use them is a whole different story.
I’ve left the actual gameplay until last, but it’s genuinely the most exciting part of the game. You interact with the environment through the use of five different ‘colours’ that loosely represent elements, and that help you to do things like jump higher, slide across ground with speed, or light your world on fire to destroy enemies or to make the world’s few existing weapons stronger. It’s a simple mechanic that’s done by simply dragging the mouse of the area you wish to apply the colour to, but it really works nicely with the puzzles you are given. I can’t help but think it might have been more intuitive or comfortable on the game’s original platform, but it does function on the PC. I would recommend against using a laptop touchpad though – when you have to switch between colours with speed and apply them with precision, it’s not really the most effective tool. Their functionality aside, the game colours also add to make what is really a beautiful game only more aesthetically appealing, and I think a lot of what allowed me to stay patient through experience was the fact that I really didn’t mind staring at the same environments over and over again, because they were that beautiful. I play a lot of visually stunning games, but Nihilumbra managed to top most of them.
If you plan to see this game through to the end, you’re going to need a lot of patience and some damn good logical thinking capabilities, but it is a rewarding experience if you can overlook the difficulty curve and the narrator that seems to exist only to tell you ‘no’. It’s a decent puzzle-platformer with some unique and engaging elements, and it translates quite well to this new port. Though, perhaps unlike Born, I do suspect it may be more suited to its original home.
(note from Matt McLeod: regular readers may know of my disdain for mobile games ported to PC. I’ve had a go of Nihilumbra, as I do with all the games that are reviewed on SSM, and I’d like to say well done to Beautifun Games for proving wrong my initial assumption and making a top drawer mobile-to-PC port. As Jess said in her closing statement, this game is definitely more suited to a touchscreen, but it’s still great fun on a less portable device.)
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Nihilumbra by Beautifun Games.