A look back at Nihilumbra, a five-year-old indie gem that you probably missed

There’s more than meets the eye in BeautiFun Games’ dark and twisted 2D puzzle-platformer. Despite being overlooked by most, 2012’s Nihilumbra is a game with an atmosphere so ominous and engrossing that it gives Limbo and Inside a run for their money. Pacing and narration issues aside, Nihilumbra still holds its own against indie gaming’s most illustrious titles.

Immersive: a word that gets tossed around quite haphazardly these days in the games industry. Over the last 15 years or so, AAA publishers have hijacked the word, using it as a soundbite for their games – games that are rehash upon rehash of the same high-octane, testosterone-infused first-person romps. These stale, lifeless ‘open’ worlds are more on-screen characters than innovative ideas. To me, these games resemble perversion more than immersion.

In something of an immersion coup d’état, the indie scene has usurped the AAA industry’s definition of the concept, giving gamers the chance to delve into worlds that actually are, well, immersive. Braid, Inside, Fez, Journey and the like have given us fresh, unique and thought-provoking experiences: trips into weird and wonderful worlds unlike anything we’d seen before. To an extent I think Nihilumbra claims a spot on that illustrious list. To an extent.

Nihilumbra – as the name might suggest – is the embodiment of nihilism. Players take control of Born – a gloomy, shadow-like being that escaped the ominous Void to platform and puzzle-solve his way through BeautiFun‘s dismal portrayal of the mortal world. The atmosphere in the game is top-notch. The environments are dark and debauched, evoking a strong sense of melancholy; the enemies are twisted, otherworldly and all-but-invincible, providing a sense of hopelessness; and the audio in the game is subtle and elusive, spreading an unnerving ambience across the entire experience.

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It’s a bit of a trend nowadays to include in-game narrators. Nihilumbra continued this movement with its calming yet uncanny narrator, who knowingly comments on most of the game’s occult occurrences. The narrator isn’t wise-cracking and snarky à la Bastion’s reciter, though; he’s much more solemn and grave, which is on the money for a game with such a sombre tone.

My feelings on the narrator are two-fold: On one hand, he adds to the atmospheric engagement of the game, providing subtle clues about the game’s world and meaning, which builds up in an insidious storytelling crescendo that had me hanging on to every word; on the other hand, the narrator provides ham-fisted hints on the game’s puzzles, which I felt should have been left to my imagination. These hints really are on the nose, which is one of the only shortcomings that took me out of the game’s mesmerising atmosphere. “The faster you go, the further you jump.” Well, yeah.

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To the naked eye, the gameplay looks very run-of-the-mill for a 2D puzzle-platformer. However, when observed more deeply there’s quite a bit more depth to it. The puzzles in Nihilumbra are all loosely based on the elements – or colours as the game likes to call them. Each of the game’s five worlds unlocks a colour-based ability for Born; for example, there’s earth-based brown, which lets Born stick to surfaces, and there’s ice-based blue, which lets him slip ‘n’ slide across the environment. If you’re playing on a system that supports touch (Vita, Wii U, iOS, Android), the colours are physically painted onto the environment via the touchscreen. It controls like a treat; the mobile-gaming market could definitely learn a thing or two from its responsiveness and intuitiveness.

The learning curve in Nihilumbra is exponential. Things start off relatively simple, but the more colours Born unlocks, the more complex and multi-faceted things get. Some of the puzzles left me genuinely dumbfounded. I remember almost looking at a walkthrough on my first playthrough – almost. I didn’t, though; there are few things more joyous than the smug complacency I felt after I cracked a tough puzzle in Nihilumbra. The number of times I felt this emotion in the game is insane, only beaten by The Witness and Portal 2.

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That being said, there is a lot of repetition in some of the earlier puzzles. I get that the game has to cater to different players’ abilities, but it did start to get a little stale in my opinion. My experience would have been markedly better had the pacing been ever-so-slightly fine-tuned. The game is pretty short – I finished it in three hours – but that’s fine: you can pick this gem up for pretty cheap these days.

I’d recommend picking the game up on Wii U if you are one of the other two people who actually bought the damn console. Exclusive to the Wii U version of the game is an asymmetric cooperative multiplayer mode. One player controls Born (via a Wiimote or Pro Controller), while the other assists by painting colours into the world using the GamePad. There is undeniably some fun to be had in this mode, and it controls like a charm, but there’s a catch-22: the player chitter-chatter involved in playing cooperatively takes the focus off the ambient atmosphere that makes the game so great in the first place. I would suggest playing the game cooperatively on a second playthrough; although, you’d then know how to solve the game’s puzzles. Perhaps a unique, self-contained cooperative mode would have been better suited. No biggie – the game still rocks.

When it comes down to it, Nihilumbra is a game that must be played by indie aficionados and casual gamers alike. Its stellar atmosphere, its perplexing yet rewarding puzzles and its unexpectedly spellbinding story are plainly too good to pass on. It may look like Limbo with a lick of paint, but it’s much, much more than that. If you’re willing to overlook some minor issues regarding pacing and narration, Nihilumbra is a sinister and twisted tale that holds its own among the genre’s most celebrated titles. It’s a short game, but you won’t regret picking up this overlooked gem.


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