beautiFUN Games Release Date:
Nihilumbra will likely get a lot of attention for its hauntingly beautiful art style. Unlike a lot of similar iOS games that rely on a simplified pixel style to conjure up those sentimental feelings of nostalgia we all hear so much about, this 2D platformer boasts its own unique visual style. As you travel to different parts of the world, the painted backdrops reveal a fully realized universe that compares to some of gaming’s greatest environments (the apocalyptic steam punk world of Machinarium definitely comes to mind). The colors are dim and muted and the impressionist brush strokes depict a world full of detail and emotion, painfully rendered by some truly talented artists.
Sadly the designs of the levels themselves aren’t nearly as interesting. I often found myself staring into the hand-drawn landscapes, wishing I could explore the snowy vistas and vibrant forests Skyrim-style instead of continuing down the predictable path ahead. The 2D levels that your character wanders through in the foreground are made up of particularly familiar elements: floating ledges, switches to stand on, cliffs to jump across—just the kinds of building blocks you’d expect to find in any 2D platformer from the past thirty years.
But it wasn’t that the game didn’t want me daydreaming off into the distance. True to Nihilumbra’s obvious artistic aspirations, the levels actually allow the player plenty of time to stare at the gorgeous backdrops. In fact, quite a few scenes from each section of the game have the player doing no more than just casually walking across the screen. Now I am not the kind of person who demands constant action from a game—point and click adventures are practically my bread and butter after all. However, a lot of the levels in Nihilumbra feel tragically flat and underdeveloped, especially when contrasted against the breathtaking backdrops. Setting Nihilumbra as a 2D platformer just seems like an odd choice for a game with very little going on it.
Nihilumbra’s particular breed of platforming isn’t about jumping on bricks or collecting coins. The game’s primary mechanic is a color palette of sorts that lets the player draw on the environments to solve puzzles. Each color that you earn gives you the ability to change the environment around you and defeat the enemies that threaten your safe passage. It’s a clever little mechanic for this sort of a game—drawing on the touch screen feels great and it’s a fantastic companion to the slow movement of the shadowy character you control.
However, I really would have loved to see each ability fleshed out with more complex puzzles that do the mechanic justice. The drastic changes in setting, from snowy tundra to the volcanic core of the earth, had me wishing that the gameplay challenges and level designs were as diverse. In that sense, Nihilumbra feels more like an extended tech demo or art showcase than a full-fledged platformer. The aimless narrative that follows you around in the form of a textual tutorial/storytelling device certainly doesn’t help either.
When I stumble upon a game that I have little to no knowledge about, I always do my best to keep a fresh perspective by not comparing it directly to other games right away. Indie games that have been given as much time, sweat, blood and thought as Nihilumbra deserve that at the very least. Nihilumbra is a perfectly playable game and perhaps even one that’s worth going through just for its art style alone. However, I couldn’t help but feel like the simplicity of the gameplay and level design just didn’t live up to the ambition of the art style.