Nihilumbra, developed by Spanish developer BeautiFun games, was released in 2012 for IOS to high critical acclaim, and is now coming to home PCs. Nihilumbra is a puzzle platformer that brings a unique style to the genre, along with some interesting and well-implemented gameplay mechanics. It has some well-advised music, art, and design choices that show a lot of creativity and talent for game design. However, the experience is marred by some questionable design decisions. Nihilumbra is available on IOS for $2.99 and for $9.99 on other platforms.
Gameplay and Controls
The game follows Born, a shadow from the Void that has escaped to the human world. The Void wants to reclaim this shadow, so the player has to navigate various ecologically-themed settings (forest, cold mountains, volcano, etc…) to attempt to escape the Void and the creatures it sends out to recapture Born. The primary tools the player and Born will use to accomplish this task (aside from standard 2D platforming elements) are various “colors” that they will unlock that they can paint onto surfaces. Each color has a unique function and conventions governing it’s uses. For example, Green makes Born and other things bounce based on how high up he was when he jumped, and Red slowly burns enemies until they are destroyed, excites fireflies into giving more light, and makes cannons more powerful.
The gameplay focuses mostly on finding creative uses of the various colors to bypass various puzzle-type situations. The basic platforming elements are downplayed and simple, but they are reliable and the controls are tight. Interfacing is seamless and intuitive, and the interaction of player and environment is without bugs or frustration. Most puzzles in the first half of the game only have one way to solve them, and the level design typically makes this clear. Later on, once the player has acquired more colors, they will encounter a few more open-ended scenarios with a couple methods to proceed.
Graphically, Nihilumbra shows a unified and original aesthetic. The art direction has a clear “voice” that holds through throughout the game. Creatures have strong, striking silhouettes and the environments have a nice painted look. The Void creatures are designed appropriately to look like they do not fit in the real world. The inclusion of an art gallery certainly feels welcome.
The music and sound effects are well-done, and the music in particular shoulders the burden of creating tone quite admirably. The sparse wilderness and wind sounds punctuated by the occasional cries of Void creatures works to create a feeling of melancholic loneliness that seems to suit the pensive art of puzzle-solving, as well as the story the designers intended to tell. Fans can buy the soundtrack separately, and Nihilumbra is one of the few $2.99 games in existence where one can easily imagine a number of people taking them up on the offer.
There is one major problem that is especially apparent in this new version of Nihilumbra: the narration. For the first couple minutes of the game, the narration works. It helps set a fairy-tale, melancholic tone and it establishes the basic premise of the game. However, by the end of the first world (about ten minutes or so), players will likely be searching for the mute button. This situation is especially unfortunate as the addition of voice acting was supposed to be a feature of this updated version. The narration is almost constant, overwrought, and the narrator himself appears to be attempting his best David-Hayter-as-Solid-Snake impression, which just does not work in this context. Thankfully, there is an option to mute the narration, but that only solves one part of the problem. The text narration still appears. The content of the narration makes the classic mistake of narration in that it often serves absolutely no function except to tell you exactly what you are seeing—or even worse—almost explicitly telling you how to proceed. Not only does this indicate a failure to trust the player to solve the puzzles, but it clashes with the “you are all alone” tone the game tries to portray.
Like a novice writer explicitly spelling-out the point of his story, the designers of Nihilumbra need to learn to take a risk and trust their audience more. Nihilumbra has many good design choices, and it offers some very fun and creative puzzle opportunities. The puzzles are intuitive and logical enough that players do not need baked-in hints. The sound and art direction are strong enough that the game does not need overwrought narration to convey tone and theme. Perhaps therein lies the most frustrating aspect of the game: it’s so close to brilliance. For the $2.99 iOS price, the game is a must-buy. For the $9.99 price on other platforms, it’s sadly only a must-consider at most.