Format reviewed: Wii U eShop
Other formats available: iOS, Steam, PS Vita, Android
Developer: BeautiFun Games
Publisher: BeautiFun Games
Website: Official Website
Born was created from the absolute nothingness: The Void. His long journey utilizes the colours around him to gain powerful abilities and eventually find himself and escape from the ever encroaching Void that seeks to reclaim him. To survive, Born will have to condemn the Earth to its inevitable obliteration by the Void.
Born’s story is told through narration, much like how the sublime Thomas Was Alone handles it. However, the narrator in Nihilumbra voices every line of conversation as if he was auditioning for the part of a movie trailer and this becomes grating very quickly, where emotion other than suspense is required it just doesn‘t exist. The dialogue in Thomas Was Alone always felt moving, touching upon the delights and adversities of friendship and left you wanting more. Nihilumbra has other problems with its dialogue, in particular the narration wants you to think that it is making some deep metaphoric tirade on the meaning of life and the futile effort require to stave off death. It rarely hits anything other than a superficial understanding and the whole story comes across as a childish take on existence itself.
Nihilumbra is a simple puzzle platformer that pits you against 5 locations within a futuristic apocalyptic Earth. You’ll be visiting regions such as the Frozen Mountains, Living Forest, Ash Desert, Volcano, and The City. As you progress you’ll obtain colours, one per level, and each has a different ability that must be mastered to allow progression to the next. All coloured abilities are used by touching the coloured circular icon in the top right of the GamePad. This brings up a branching tree which flowers in circular colours. Touch the Blue icon and it will let you place ice on the floor. Touch the floor on the GamePad and that location is iced, make a mistake and choose the Void colour to erase. Each colour can be used in more than one way and this allows for some lateral thinking problems. For example the ice can be used to make enemies slide off platforms to their death, speed you up for a longer jump, push and slide heavy blocks to switches, etc. Green allows bouncing items, Brown for sticky wall jumping, Red for lava kills, and Yellow electricity to power up moving platforms and turrets.
You can play Nihilumbra on the GamePad alone or on the TV. However, due to the game’s insistence on using the touch screen for every puzzle, the TV is made redundant and forced GamePad play ensues. So, BeautiFun Games have added, exclusively for the Wii U edition, a 2-player co-op mode. One player uses the GamePad for the application of the coloured abilities and the other a Pro Controller and the TV for movement. This is one of the nicest features of Nihilumbra and a sound local challenge and exercise in communication plays out.
Each level feels self-contained and for the vast majority of the main game you’ll rarely use a different coloured ability other than the one you obtain within that level. It really isn’t until the very last Boss level that you’ll use more than one coloured ability in succession. There are frequent restart points for the slightly trickier sections, and all this ends up making the main game a lot easier than it needed to be. Instead of thinking about what ability would be needed to progress to get you through the puzzle, you already know the answer. It allowed me a 3-hour first playthrough before unlocking The Void mode. If the main game is too easy, then The Void mode is the complete opposite. Just surviving the first screen without dying 12 times in a row is one hell of a challenge, where it‘s on to the second screen and another death inducing screen of frustration.
At the end of each level you’ll square off against a slow moving chasing Void in a runner-type level. These levels are short and too easy.
The game’s background hand drawn levels look sublime. The same cannot be said of the animation of Born, his enemies and The Void. As still images they look very presentable, but their movement lacks frames, it’s a jerky staccato mess. This affects all aspects of movement in the game. The jumping, a key element of a platform game, is far too floaty and once airborne is completely unresponsive to additional movement until it clicks and moves too much. It leaves some simple jumping sections far too frustrating, especially in the harder unlockable Void mode.
The last frustration with Nihilumbra must be aimed at its frequently disruptive loading screens. Play through 4 quick screens of puzzle platform fun, about 30 seconds to a minute’s worth, and you’ll be facing yet another 10-15 second wait until the next 4 screens worth of platforming appears. The loading progress circle even stutters and freezes which makes the waiting even more interminable.
Nihilumbra tries to be a metaphorical masterpiece, but its simplicity is childish. It tries to transcend the meanings of life and death with its narrative, but fails on every level. Some nice puzzles are heavily let down by awkward touch screen controls, unresponsive jumping mechanics, bad animation, frequent long loading and short play time due to easiness, that leads to an unlockable mode that is too frustratingly difficult to enjoy.