There’s a quote from Francis Ford Coppolla who, while shooting Apocalypse Now, was responding to criticism that he was pretentious. His response, which I’m paraphrasing, was that it’s okay to be pretentious as long as you have something important or interesting to say. There are a lot of games out there, particularly in the indie realm, which strive to make grand statements. Some of them tell moving and powerful stories which transcend the gameplay experience, and some end up like Nihilumbra.
Nihilumbra is an indie puzzle-platformer by Beautifun Games in which you need to manipulate properties of the game world in order to progress. In each world, you receive a new ability, represented by a color. Using the mouse, you can drag over a spot to activate an area that has a number of effects. For example, drawing blue makes a surface icy and allows you to move quickly, while brown makes it sticky and slows you down. Each ability has its uses, and you’ll find yourself using combinations of them in unison in later levels. To draw a more mainstream comparison, this mechanic is similar to the blue/red paint in Portal 2. Each color takes some getting used to, but once you’ve figured it out you can handle anything that gets thrown in your way.
The big problem with puzzle-platformers as a genre is that they don’t lend themselves well to multiple playthroughs; once you’ve figured out a section, the mystique is gone. Nihilumbra is very much this type of game, and it feels even more pronounced by the lack of any alternate routes or secrets within. In addition to that, the level of challenge is for the most part not terribly high. The last two worlds have some tricky puzzles requiring use of multiple colors together, but leading up to that is a breeze. Once you beat Nihilumbra there is a ‘Void Mode’ available which increases the difficulty for a greater challenge, so there’s that.
As a gameplay experience, I enjoyed my playthrough of Nihilumbra, but its story really turned me off. It attempts to tell a post-apocalyptic tale about acceptance and sacrifice, which is fine (though hardly original), but it really fails in its execution. Throughout the entire game, text appears in gigantic letters telling you exactly what is happening and how you are supposed to be feeling. It comes across as so earnest and self-important that it may as well have been taken from the script of a Kingdom Hearts game.
What makes this storytelling infuriating, however, is that it’s impossible to ignore. A booming dramatic voice says it as well. Imagine you were playing Shadow of the Colossus, and as you were fighting one of them a voice kept saying things like, “ARE YOU A HERO?” “THE WORLD IS CRUMBLING,” or, “WHO ARE THEY? WHY DO THEY WANT TO KILL YOU?” You thankfully have the option of turning the narrator’s voice off in the Options menu, although you’re stuck with the text plastered everywhere for its entirety. I am generally a believer that it’s better to aim high and fall short than to not try, but Nihilumbra‘s storytelling is hamfisted and comes across more as ‘Jonathan Blah’ than ‘Jonathan Blow.’
My biggest takeaway from Nihilumbra is that it’s a solid iOS port of a puzzle-platformer that looks and sounds good and has a fun world manipulation mechanic. On the gameplay side of things, the only real issue with it is that its early sections are hampered by a lack of challenge and variety. Where Nihilumbra falls flat is with its relentless demand on hammering home every single plot beat while you’re playing. What this all results in is a game that is pretty clever, but not half as clever as it seems to think it is.
[+Clever platformer] [+Nice music] [+Latter sections are challenging] [-Abysmal storytelling] [-Fails to stand out from the indie pack] [-Lack of challenge early on]