Nihilumbra Review

The transition from mobile to home computer is always one met with at least some measure of trepidation. Mapping touch control to the mouse seems like an easy proposition – they’re similar enough to avoid losing anything, after all. Not always is it so straightforward, though. Some games are just better suited for touch devices, whether because they use the hardware in unique ways or because they’re made solely with such platforms mind.

But more importantly, there’s the unfair stigma attached to mobile games. That they’re somehow lesser for being released on non-dedicated gaming platforms, not worthy of our time because they’re inherently simpler affairs, making it little more than a simple time-waster than fulfilling experience. Total hogwash, of course, as Nihilumbra from Beautifun Games proves. This puzzle-platformer began as a simple iOS game, which released last year to much critical acclaim. And it’s easy to see why: it’s damn good.

2013-09-18_00003Nihilumbra tells a touching, sometimes tragic tale about life and self-discovery. You play as Born, a creature spawned from the Void – a huge, dark, colorless mass that destroys all it touches – who escapes into the real world in search of a more fulfilling existence. The Void doesn’t agree with his actions, however, giving chase in an attempt to reclaim him, sending out ghastly creatures to bar his path.

Born’s journey takes him across the land, from the snowy peaks of a frigid mountain, to the dry expanse of the desert, and even an abandoned metropolis. Each locale is finely crafted, their vibrant hand-drawn aesthetics a pleasant contrast to the dark machinations of the Void. The music that accompanies these areas carry a sad tone to them, with just a hint of wonder inserted to convey Born’s conflicted thoughts and feelings throughout.

He admires the world’s beauty, often wishing to make this place his home. But his escape from the Void only ends in everywhere he goes becoming a wasteland, which upsets him. He wants to live, but not at the expense of his surroundings. Narration expresses his innermost thoughts, pushing the story forward while also developing Born’s character. Each line of dialog rolls out against the background, excellent voice-work ensuring you never miss a single quip.

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Narration occurs frequently, granting regular peeks at what Born’s feeling or thinking at any given moment.

Not that you would ever have to worry. Nihilumbra moves at a relaxed pace. It retains a sense of tranquility throughout despite the urgency of the Void’s constant presence, never disrupting the calm atmosphere with moments of intensity. What few action scenes there are refuse to lean so hard into them as to get your heart racing with excitement or fear. The sense of danger remains ever present, of course, but deftly so.

Even its puzzles are a breeze, offering simple solutions to basic problems. That’s not to say they’re devoid of enjoyment – regardless of their straightforward nature, there’s still some finesse required on your part to bypass them. Spikes deploy at regular intervals, only granting a brief period to cross their path safely. Vacuum-esque obstacles force you to inch dangerously close to death to climb otherwise insurmountable walls. Pistons attempt to crush you whilst racing to pass through a steadily closing gate. The premises remain simple, but the execution does not, providing just enough threats to keep monotony at bay.

The hook lies in Born’s power over color. By encountering flowers during his travels, Born is able to harness their color and apply it in a variety of ways. Using these abilities, you vanquish otherworldly foes and soar over obstacles. Puzzles revolve around figuring out which paint to use where. A stroke of blue conjures ice, for instance, granting extra momentum while running and jumping; green turns the earth into a springboard, while red burns whatever it touches, and so on. Applying these hues only takes a quick swipe of the mouse, a menu in the upper-right corner of the screen allowing you to swap between elements at will.

2013-09-18_00122You don’t often have to use more than a couple colors at a time (say, a dash of blue followed by a splash of green in a chasm below to make a long jump). Most puzzles keep a limit to prevent them from requiring too much set up or becoming too complex to keep straight. Which is fine – the challenge should come from traversal instead of paint application. But Nihilumbra contains a few cases in which the reverse rings true. Namely the chase levels that bookend each locale.

As the Void relentlessly pursues Born, it eventually catches up to him. In these levels, you’re forced to be swift and nimble, both in your movement and brush strokes, as the stages scroll automatically. Quick platforming isn’t so much of an issue; the jumps are never especially treacherous, all usually able to be overcome with few mishaps. Tossing down paint and swapping colors at the drop of a hat, however, requires a degree of dexterity that’s simply lacking in the mouse control.

You’re asked to lay down precise brush strokes while maintaining your lead against the Void. Difficult, but feasible with a bit of trial and error. The hard part comes in changing hues. On a touch device, it’s relatively simple because you can easily just tap about the screen and take care of business. With a mouse, you have to account for the extra time it takes to drag the cursor to the palette menu, select the color, then apply it before repeating the process as necessary. A few seconds may not seem like much, but in later chase levels, every second counts. The slightest delay could very well end you. Thankfully, checkpoints are frequent, making each death little more than a small loss at most. Still – that the nature of these encounters doesn’t translate as flawlessly as the rest of the game is unfortunate.

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An example of Void mode in action. With half of Born’s powers disabled, enemy dispatch becomes a far greater trial.

Though the main story keeps the challenge simple, Void mode, which is new to the PC version and unlocks upon finishing your first playthrough, ramps up the difficulty considerably. The levels are the same, but the puzzles are harder, more restrictive and treacherous. Enemies appear in droves now instead of small groups, death traps and obstacles in greater supply, your repertoire of colors limited. Where previously your entire palette was available, only a select few can be used per puzzle. Flower-like beings in the background absorb any trace of their corresponding color, forcing you to think of more creative solutions because you’re so accustomed to using every tool at your disposal by that point. What were once minor hiccups suddenly become devilish puzzles as you work out how to get around them.

Nihilumbra shines brightest here. Where the story merely hints at the potential of its mechanics, Void mode demonstrates their genius. It brings out Nihilumbra’s best levels, testing your mettle while retaining the game’s penchant for easily understood puzzles. The mode tests you without employing opaque logic, making you reexamine how you approach problem solving. Plus, there’s even a couple story hooks that bring some additional closure, thus sweetening the deal.

Nihilumbra makes the jump to PC spectacularly. It’s mechanics are a joy to play around with, the puzzles growing more challenging and intelligent as time goes on, rewarding your patience for sticking through the easier parts by allowing itself to fully flourish. And even then, the touching tale it weaves is more than enough to keep you engaged throughout. It takes time for Nihilumbra to realize its promise, but once it has, the wait proves itself well worthwhile.

4.5stars

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