In linguistics, Lemma is the abstract meaning of a word before it’s been given any definitive vocal form – what the word represents inside of your little skull box without having any of the confines of aural structure. Lemma, the video game, is the internal abstraction of one-man developer Evan Todd playing Minecraft and thinking: ‘Man, I really miss Mirror’s Edge‘ – the ideas behind Mirror’s Edge being filtered through a voxel fever dream. It comes with all the aesthetics you’d imagine from someone who would consider themselves an artist with a capital ‘A’, with more merit than a video game reviewer who waffles about half-understood linguistics describing himself as an ‘Author’. But, is Lemma a satisfying experience to actually play? More importantly, is it as fun as the cult favourite that it takes so much from?
The runny-jumpy-puzzle-em-up shoots for a first-person replication of parkour. Lots of leaps-of-faith, wall running and desperately grasping for an inch of over-hang. The controls are workable if inexact. Too floaty, too much flailing, certain modes of movement never feel precise enough to make your failures seem fair. Even after hours of play, pulling off certain grabs was a crap-shoot of luck – the ability to jump up a tall surface before latching onto the edge would often take several attempts of doing the exact same thing until it worked. But these are all criticisms that could be leveled at Mirror’s Edge, and the same overflowing praise could also apply. Stringing together a series of elegant vaults still gives you the same ‘look-how-bloody-cool-I-am’ sensation, and the moments before landing a death-defying plunge still gives you the anxious stomach-pits you’d get from falling in a dream.
The extraneous skills you’re given aren’t as satisfying as the core gameplay, however. Rolling off an edge affords you the capacity to create your own mini-platforms – fragile blocks that sprout from where you left. The idea is to have a means of bridging larger gaps, a way to solve ‘fill-the-hole’ puzzles. In action, it mostly just broke the flow. You’re unable to exactly judge how far the game will allow you to roll out, resulting in a stop/start process where you carefully make sure you don’t drop into purgatory. My views on its inclusion constantly flitted between the technique being nothing but a dull fail safe, a mildly useful gimmick and a somewhat interesting puzzle mechanic.
You’re later given the ability to magic-up your own walls out of thin air, producing invisible conveniences by, in theory, clicking towards a faint impression of them mid-jump. It all feels arbitrary. Too often would my route only become available by faking a seizure on my control pad until a safe landing poofed in. The randomness involved put a cap on the accomplished pride I got from sticking a complex combination of jumps. These are unique bells and whistles, but they only detract from what could have been a taut central idea.
Other annoyances include the baffling decision to include undefeatable enemies. Trying to drum up a solution while being pummeled by turrets filled me with nothing but disgruntlement. My face was caked in gruntle. Not only are they irritating and break the atmosphere of sedate puzzle solving, but they also destroy the blocks around you. These aggravating, constant, killing machines have the power to stop you moving forward. Their early inclusion sapped a lot of the good will I had for Mr Todd’s, otherwise lovely, game.
That good will had been justly earned in the early stages. Hopping through the tighter levels was liked a washed-out version of those endless void mini-levels in Super Mario Sunshine. It has a dream-like, M.C. Escher meets Notch, art style. Tonally, every element fits into a consistent atmosphere, like walking through a surreal art installation. Even the lovably goofy story where you read pop-science notes, visit your Ikea-designed apartment, somehow get phone-reception from mystically sprouting pylons – you’ll empathise with the protagonist, not sure if you ever want to leave this calming Dali-esque world.
You’ll become one with Lemma, challenging yourself to run to the end without break. Racing to the beat of the effective, if unmemorable, Brian Eno b-side soundtrack. Alien rhythms that become part of the landscape. It all works together to put you in the zone of climbing mountains as quickly as you can, pausing only to stare off into the gorgeous skyline. It can only be described with the vague-sounding word: ‘charming’.
Lemma veers off a cliff when it tries to branch away from these strengths. The latter method of raising the difficulty is to make the maps larger, the puzzles more obtuse, the enemies more abundant. None of it works nearly as well. The last section of the game dumps you in a sprawling hub with no real guiding direction. It’s here that the minor control frustrations become a quit-inducing nightmare, the unknowable properties of alakazam’d platforms could lead to dropping back into an area you just spent five minutes working your way from. Turrets can blow-up the wall you have been painstakingly building to bridge your way to the exit. Lemma is at its most charming in the smattering of challenge maps, the rigidly formulated bursts which you’ll be happy to replay over-and-over. Stopping to wonder where the heck-fire you’re supposed to be going puts a damper on the entire experience.
I don’t want to be too harsh to Evan Todd and his small crew, I’m only disappointed that he appears to have worked so hard to step away from what makes much of Lemma such a joy. There appears to have been a crisis of confidence, a lack of faith that the simplistic nucleus would have been enough to sustain an entire game. As such, I can’t entirely recommend Lemma as a whole. There’s spikes of brilliance, individual levels which I’m speed-typing to go and replay, but far too many trenches to wade through to get to them.
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