While there are some genres that are way over done and I would prefer to see not done anymore, it’s always refreshing when a developer at least tries to do something different when they do decide to make a game in an overused genre. The micro-stage puzzle game is probably the most over used genre in indie development today. A large part of this comes from the fact that they’re so easy to do on mobile. The other reason is because they’re easy to do in general. It’s a lot easier to make a simple puzzle game with no plot and unlinked stages than it is to make a proper game with all the bells and whistles. And that’s exactly why Nebulous impressed me so much. This recently released (8/30/2016) level based puzzle game by Namazu Studios tries to break out from the traditional lazy puzzle game genre while still remaining a simple, straightforward puzzle experience.
Nebulous is not a game that will be remembered for its visuals. It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t necessarily look that good either. The game was made with Unity, but it doesn’t have a perfectly consistent visual quality. The first thing I noticed about the game was that the main menu did not fit my screen. You have to rotate the camera to see the very bottom of the menu. At all times your cursor is denoted by a white ring that you use to target objects. The menus never move but you can move the camera with the ring. I actually didn’t like this mechanic for the menus because I like my menus centered but because of this camera mechanic they never really were. The menus themselves don’t look bad. They are simple and very concise while trying to have some level of technological feel to them. I like the menus but I feel that the rest of the game’s visual style doesn’t necessarily match with them properly. It’s like the menus are a little bit cleaner than the rest of the game if that makes sense.
The game has a static black and purple background with stars in it. It comes off a little cheap compared to the other visual assets in the game or at least that’s how I felt about it. The levels themselves use the same background as the menus, but the objects in them use a slightly different visual approach. They don’t look as clean as the menu boxes do which again is why the visual style feels inconsistent to me. The game is about an astronaut floating through space so the objects in the game consist of small planets/moons, wormholes in multiple colors, and machine panels that come in a few different colors. The astronaut is just a faceless man in a spacesuit that floats around in a ball. The game is very small in scope, like most games in this genre, so there’s not really that much going on visually. But everything runs very smoothly. I didn’t experience any lag and even when fast forwarding it all works very well. Overall, I’d say the graphics are average, but very appropriate for what this game actually is.
Nebulous is a simple game to play. The entire point is to get the astronaut from point A to point B by placing pre-selected objects around the stage to guide his movement. The astronaut is in a giant ball so rolling and bouncing are the main forms of movement you have to take into account when playing. You do not guide the astronaut in real time. You place the object and then press play. If your path is correct, the astronaut will make it to the level’s exit portal. If it isn’t correct, he will either get stuck somewhere or hit a wall and die. You can take as many tries as you want to construct a winning path. Some stages use wormholes and require you to navigate the astronaut through multiple panels in the same stage via said wormholes. Each time you want to try the astronaut you just press R1 and he rolls from the start again. You can also stop the astronaut mid roll if you want to, but when you press start he will start from the beginning every time. There is more than one path to the finish in most levels. Touching the stage’s walls results in an instant death. Each level also has stars which can be collected. At the end of each stage you are given a star rating based on time to complete level, number of tries, and number of stars collected. You can get zero to three stars for each of the 40 levels. You can also go back and play previous levels whenever you want from the level select screen.
That’s basically the whole game. You just trial and error your way through each stage trying to get the astronaut to the level’s exit portal. The controls are very simple. You move objects around the stage by selecting them with X and then moving them with the left stick. You change panel views with the d-pad. You start and stop the astronaut run with R1, but it starts from the beginning of the path every time. You can also fast forward the astronaut’s roll with R2, which really comes in handy for later levels. As you progress farther into the game, puzzles get harder and new elements are added such as new types of objects to place in the stage. Not all pieces are necessary to beat every stage unless you want all the stars. The gameplay works well enough for what this game is, but it admittedly gets boring pretty fast. Having to rewatch the astronaut fail and having to make slight adjustments to obstacle placement over and over again gets really old. Ultimately the gameplay accomplishes what it set out to do. It might not be the most exciting thing, but it runs well, is very challenging, and allows the player’s personal creativity to come into play. You can also replay successful runs after you’ve beaten a given stage.
The sound is not super creative or that varied but the quality is quite good. You have the option to control the volume of effects, music, and voice acting separately, but they are mixed very well and have adequate strength at the default 50% settings. The music isn’t too impressive. It’s just one continuous track that isn’t that variable or interesting. It’s meant more to be ambient noise. The effects work well, but there aren’t a lot of them. Making menu selections and the astronaut interacting with objects such as by bouncing on them is all you really get. When he hits a wall, there’s a small explosion sound as well. What is most impressive about the sound is the voice acting. At the beginning of each stage you get some talking, but what’s even more impressive is that the astronaut reacts to the falling through space and hitting objects. He screams and complains as he’s bouncing through the level supposedly to freedom. The game is very well mixed and all the sounds contribute to the game, but it’s really not that important to the overall Nebulous experience.
The writing might be the most impressive part of this game. Rarely do games in this genre have any semblance of an actual story and using voice acting to portray what little story exists is even rarer. But this game does. The game centers on an astronaut named Dash Johnson. He’s an arrogant prick. The game starts with him doing an audio journal, while floating in space, about how his crew is incompetent and that the mission can only be completed because of him. Then suddenly he gets sucked into a wormhole. At the beginning of each stage he says some lines which help develop him as a character. While he is not likeable as a character, his dialog is very well written. It’s funny while still sounding serious about the character’s situation and feelings. There are also transmissions from what appears to be aliens that he can’t understand and often complains about for that reason. The game has an actual ending and there’s even a trophy for seeing it. Though the writing is not the main aspect of the game, I was very impressed by its presence in this game. I’d like to see more games in this genre with stories and voice acting where appropriate.
As I stated above, there are only 40 total stages in this game, separated into four sections. Many of which can be solved in multiple ways plus there are collectibles. The game has 11 trophies, including one gold. Most of these are obtained for completing a certain number of levels and collecting the stars. It’s hard to say how long this game will actually take you, because like with all such puzzle games it depends on how often you get stuck and for how long. Each level can technically be done in a matter of minutes. I think the $15 price tag is too high, because this should not take you nearly 15 hours to beat once and as I said, the gameplay gets pretty boring so you probably won’t care to play it again and try to get max rank for every level. It’s not that the game doesn’t have replay value, it’s just that it’s not a good enough game or that interesting as far as replay value to really make use of it. And if you’re really good, you can get all the stars and a max rating for each level on the first try.
Nebulous is not a bad game. In fact it’s pretty decent when compared to other games in the genre. But it’s not so amazing as to warrant the $15 price tag and compared to many other games in the genre, it’s rather short. And let’s not forget that the gameplay is a bit boring because of the stop and go style. I’d definitely wait till this one was on sale for like $5. It’s good enough to consider playing, but not good enough to inconvenience yourself to play.
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