The puzzle-platformer for Nihilists
There’s a nugget of a solid game here in Nihilumbra. Unlike many of the PlayStation Vita’s offerings, it uses the touchscreen in a novel way that doesn’t feel tacked on or forced. And the puzzle-platforming is supported well by an ethereal art style, score, and sound design.
You just have to wade through a jumble of pseudo-philosophy to get to it.
Nihilumbra (iOS, Mac, PC, Vita [reviewed])
Developer: BeautiFun Games
Publisher: BeautiFun Games
Released: June 28, 2012 (iOS, PC, Mac) / January 27, 2015 (Vita)
MSRP: $2.99 (iOS) / $7.99 (PC, Mac) / $9.99 (Vita)
The nature of existence certainly could be well-explored in a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer but Nihilumbra never really makes it work. It’s a difficult genre to tackle such intricate subjects as the nature of consciousness and creation because there’s no real choice offered to the player – you either continue moving to the right or stop playing. The ham-handed narration desperately wants the puzzles to mean something, but all it does is distract from the fun of solving them.
You begin playing as a tiny blob inside a purple black force called the Void. Moving to the right, as you do in a platformer, you escape from this void somehow and enter the real world. A disembodied voice speaks to you with incredulity that your little blob exists at all, but then it proceeds to give you hints in a vague tutorial-esque way. After traveling past a few obstacles easily leapt over, the blob encounters a scarecrow with its garments flapping in the wind, and with no explanation your blob transforms into a vaguely humanoid shape.
“Even if you change your shape to match this world, you are still an outcast,” the narrator says. Why? Who made the scarecrow? Why can’t I transform into a dinosaur or something? Meh – it doesn’t matter. There are puzzles to be solved! That said, the bleak atmosphere of Nihilumbra is refreshing, and the use of slowly unlocked “colors” you can fingerpaint onto the ground using the Vita’s touchscreen feels imaginative and interesting. Just don’t go in thinking you’ll figure out the secret of life as the narration incessantly suggests.
The dev team at BeautiFun Games might have been better off just relegating it to tutorial duties and allowing the game to speak for itself. Do we need a gruff voice saying “Fear” or “Run” in tense moments? The narration commits the worst crime in storytelling – it tells you what’s going on and how to feel instead of just simply showing.
You start in the Void and that massive purpley force seeks to find you and pull you back into itself. To do so, it has belched out a bunch of weird void monsters with inexplicable names like Shyphoniths. To get past these enemies, and through the other environmental puzzles, you must use the ability to paint colors onto the landscape. The first you learn is blue, which makes the ground slick like ice. In true platformer fashion, you can use it to slide faster than you can normally to gain the momentum needed to make larger jumps.
Or you can use it to make the enemies slide into chasms so you can pass. Painting the colors with your fingers is a nice use of the touchscreen, belying Nihilumbra‘s roots as an iOS game. Painting the colors is intuitive and easy to understand, but the mechanic is used in pleasantly complex ways as you progress.
There are five levels and you learn a new color in each one. As expected, the levels focus on puzzles which can be solved with its distinctive color, but I liked that as you progress you uncover interesting synergies. Combining the use of green, which creates a bouncy trampoline surface, and brown, which you can stick to, allows for some super high bouncy jumps. By the finale, you’ll have to use all five colors to keep progressing right in the 2D universe. Always to the right. Keep going right (That’s not something the narrator says but it should).
While some of the puzzles took a few attempts to suss out, or demanded some tricky finger work to pull off, you can make it through the whole game in just a few hours and those who demand brain-busting may be a little frustrated with the simplicity. That is, until completing Nihilumbra‘s main story and unlocking “Void Mode.” Here, you go back to the five level environments to solve a series of much more difficult puzzles and situations using all five colors. The biggest bonus to these grueling challenges? The narrator isn’t talking over them.
Nihilumbra is a quick diversion for these who need a puzzle-platformer in their gaming lives and have ran out of things to do on the PS Vita.