Despite its unpronounceable name, Nihilumbra is a simple, fun and beautiful game. Playing as a nameless fragment of ‘The Void’, the player is guided through a selection of different whimsical locations as they try to escape their fate and kin.
Like many puzzle games, Nihilumbra is built out from one simple mechanic to become an involving and challenging title. Although this mechanic might not be new, it is being used and performed in a way unseen until now.
Nihilumbra may be self stylised as a hybrid of Portal 2 and Limbo, and with its coloured gels that effect the players movements its easy to see why this might be the case. The game however feels a bit more like a blend of Thomas was Alone, while the art style of a grim and shadowy Rayman, rather than the bleak and terrifying Limbo.
Like Thomas Was Alone, the protagonist cannot speak, and the world is explained through silent exploration and the omnipresent voice of the narrator. While this disembodied voice has nothing of wit and humour of Danny Wallace, its dark, oppressive and overshadowing tone adds an a lot of intrigue and presence to the game, and makes it much more compelling. Mixed with a perfectly flattering soundtrack, the sound-work of Nihilumbra is just about perfect. The only fault is the hideous and looping screech of some of the enemies as they lurch towards you.
You’ll find them scooting around the desolate landscapes hunting you down, created by the void that is trying to entrap you once again. That can lured to their doom easy enough, but as you acquire more and more colours the puzzles and areas become harder and harder, it can even harder to find an easy solution. Less ear murdering variants are introduced later in this relatively short game, but the most common is also the most hideous sounding.
Despite its shortness and linearity, Nihilumbra is very satisfying to explore, with plenty of artwork and interesting puzzles to overcome. You won’t have much room to escape the path laid out before you, but for the most part you’ll never feel trapped, especially as you revisit old locations to find new routes. Each area is unique, introducing a new colour and ramping up the challenge, with some beautiful artwork and interesting puzzles.
Sometimes exploring can be a little annoying however, with traps and spikes killing you with little to no mercy. Moving to near a set of spikes is enough to restart the area, and it can be annoying when you can’t judge where the game deems to be deadly. There’s no health bar or second chance, and with checkpoints spaced between multiple puzzles, you’ll get annoyed constantly repeating the mundane to get to the challenge. But when you’re experimenting with the different colours, and flowing through the levels with the looming narrator close behind, it’s a fun experience.
It’s a nice idea that the developers borrowed the mechanics of Portal 2 and built on them. Puzzle games often attempt to create entirely new mechanics, or survive on older, unclaimed premises to build their puzzles upon. Nihilumbra decides to take on something else, and build upon it. But this isn’t just lifted from one game, as they’ve completely rebuilt the mechanics of the gel formula to fit within a 2D world. The colours work perfectly for the vita too, allowing you to use the touchpad to place them across the map with speed and ease.
Some of the colours are the expected variety; like speed boost and bounce, but Nihilumbra evolves to more creative colours toward the second half the game. One such is the lava, or red colour which burns and kills enemies. Before this you’re forced to be passive, running and avoiding enemies as best as possible, but this and the last colour both introduce new ways of playing the game entirely.
The final power, which won’t be spoiled here, increases the players focus on interaction with the world rather than just travelling over it. The story does an amazing job fitting with the powers, locations and characters.
Playing as a newly existed being you enter each world and discover each power with a mix of wonder and fear, and the story revolves around your right to exist, as your existence threatens the world around you. Its surprising deep stuff for such a small game, and does raise some questions worth thinking about.
Nihilumbra is an impressive little title. It has a story thats astonishing thoughtful, gameplay that builds on one of the most innovative game series of recent times, and art work you could get lost in. It might not be the longest game in the world, or the most accessible at times, but Nihilumbra feels like a game thats perfect for the palm of your hand. If you have a Vita, and you’re looking for something you can pick up and put down with ease, Nihilumbra might be a title worth looking at further.
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