Review: Nihilumbra

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Part platformer and part puzzle game, BeautiFun Games’ Nihilumbra, first released on iOS devices, has been re-mastered for PC with higher resolution artwork and a fully voiced narrative. Nihilumbra follows the journey of Born, an entity who frees himself from the Void and explores the world to find out who and what he is. In the beginning there is nothing. Only a black and purple Void. Breaking free of the Void, Born sets out to discover the world and to learn and feel emotion. 

Set as a side-scrolling game, Nihilumbra presents five contrasting stages for Born to explore while discovering powerful colors to enhance and manipulate each new area. Blue allows Born to make surfaces slippery with ice, Green makes the ground bouncy, Brown is a sticky mud, Red generates fire, and Yellow conducts electricity. Movement is done with the keyboard while strokes with the mouse cursor allow you to paint these different colors on most surfaces. Using the scroll wheel on the mouse will cycle through the colored powers, or a tree branch in the upper right corner can be accessed to manually switch between them as well. Among the powers is a Void-like eraser so that colors can be removed if necessary.

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Traveling through the stages, Born encounters different enemies formed from the Void. Some are look like shadowy scorpions, while others are stationary and either shoot projectiles or snap shut like a Venus fly trap. Many enemies block forward progress and thus require using the colors to slide them along the ground to their doom, or help Born move faster on the ground to quickly get away. As the journey proceeds, a narrator offers hints as to what happened to allow Born to separate from the Void, as well as how to manipulate the colors to dispatch the various enemies in each area. Pacing is measured perfectly in each stage as various uses for each color are introduced, but not overly exhausted before learning a new approach to using the powers.

One example is using the blue icy surface on one side of a slope and green on the other so that Born can quickly slide up the hill to jump high enough in the air, that way when he lands on the green bouncy surface at the other end, he bounces even higher to reach the next area where jumping alone would not have worked. Other uses include putting blue on the ground and brown on the side of a wall so that an enemy will slide uncontrollably into the sticky mud and not be able to chase after Born. Red adds heat to the ground which over a short period of time will burn up any enemies (and Born as well if not careful). Some stationary enemies fire small Void blasts which will bounce when hitting the green surface. Placing green bounce pads strategically around a section of a stage will cause the blasts to ricochet and hit other enemies.

Once all of the powers are collected, the game really opens up its puzzle solving bag of tricks. It is fun to mix different color combinations together in the world to see what works and what doesn’t through trial and error. To add to the challenge, some areas require quick timing of jumps and color placement simultaneously in order to get to the next checkpoint, which refills all color used in the previous area and creates a new spawn point if Born dies. Toward the end of each stage the Void catches up to Born and chases him through a series of quick platform-hopping challenges. Perfect timing and some twitch reflexes are required when the Void is present. There is nothing quite so intimidating as a solid black and purple wall quickly moving from the left side of the screen to the right, consuming all in it’s path. Fortunately, Born has infinite lives.

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While I enjoyed the puzzles and much of the narrative, I found some of the storytelling techniques a bit off putting. With the narrator constantly calling Born “you,” I felt at odds with the game wanting me to be so invested as the character. Second person narrative is rare in both fiction and video games, and it just feels weird in Nihilumbra. The use of “you” as a way to connect players to the experience works in a game like Tearaway because “You” aren’t controlling yourself, but rather Iota or Atoi. In Nihilumbra, “you” are Born and the narrative disconnect of what the game is telling you, the player, how Born feels on screen doesn’t necessarily match what you are feeling while playing the game. I know it’s a bit odd to call out something like this, yet at the same time the narrative style just fell a little flat for me, especially during the final moments when a particular emotion is hammered on to try and make you feel a certain way.

Once the game is complete, the puzzles become even more devious in the unlocked Void mode. Void mode offers all powers and areas from the beginning, but enemies are in new locations and come at Born with a deadly zeal that requires even more reflex precision and different color placement combinations. With a visually striking look and a compelling combination of platforming, unique color-based puzzle solving, a mostly interesting story, and engaging music, Nihilumbra is definitely worth playing through. And if you enjoy a challenge, Void mode will lure you back for a second run.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fun use of color combinations to solve puzzles
+ Arresting visuals
+ Haunting music

Cons:
– Second person narration is off putting
– Some of the quick reflex puzzles can be frustrating

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Steam, also previously released on iOS
Publisher: Beautifun Games
Developer: Beautifun Games
Release Date: 9/25/2013
Genre: Puzzle-Platformer
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.