This paint-based puzzle platformer showcases a unique post-apocalyptic fantasy aesthetic
Indie games have a long and illustrious history of focusing their titles down to single word hybrids that give a feel for their game. Just look at the likes of The Machinarium or Botanicula for good examples. Packing two words into one gives double bonus, because it suggests the tone or aesthetic for the game, while simultaneously giving it a unique tag to make searches easier. Those with a hint of etymology might be interested in Nihilumbra simply from what the title suggests: “Nihil” representing ‘nothingness’, and “-umbra” referencing “a shadow”. It ends up being a very fitting title: in Nihilumbra, the player takes the role of a small drop of ‘nothingness’, a tiny sliver of existence that has extracted itself from “the Void”. As a tiny platforming blob of blackness, the player pushes to both explore the new world and escape the chasing Void.
Why dodge enemies when you can set them on fire?
The flagship mechanic of the game is the painting system. As you complete each ‘land’, you gain access to a new color of paint, which you can spread on most surfaces. Each color of paint grants a new basic surface ability. Green paint makes a surface bouncy, brown paint makes it sticky, white paint makes it slippery, red paint makes it hot, etc. The paint has a nice effect of splitting the gameplay between puzzle-platforming and action-platforming. Sometimes you’ll need to pause and think through a tricky situation, and sometimes you’ll need to simply run through as quickly as you can, using your paint to fend off enemies and traps.
Some areas of these game mechanics feel sadly underdeveloped. For example, whenever you expend some paint, you can see your ‘paint bar’ visibly drain down, as if your coloring is a limited resource that you must learn to use sparingly. However, this possible gameplay mechanic never takes effect: you can always cover every surface completely, even be deliberately wasteful, and you’ll never find yourself actually using up your reserves. In this vein, sometimes the basic mechanics provided by the paint simply don’t give any choice in the gameplay. The red paint has the ability to excite fireflies and provide light to a screen, for example, but every room that takes advantage of this is banally simple: you just paint the fireflies as soon as you step into a dark room, and voila, you’re finished. There’s a bit of a similar drop in complexity and design as you progress paint by paint: the first few paints (making surfaces slippery, bouncey, or sticky) provide some interesting combinations to try out. On the other hand, the red and yellow paints introduced near the end of the game are generally overly straightforward to use. Red kills enemies, and yellow connects electrical circuits, which essentially means that most puzzles are solved on the first try: simply put those colors in the obvious spots where they belong.
Some stickiness can really help with climbing walls
The best areas of Nihilumbra are the final levels in each environment, where a time-limit is introduced in the form of an ever-advancing death-wall. Having to run right ahead of a wall of doom is something we’ve seen done over and over again in platformers, but it’s still a surprisingly effective motivator, giving the mini-puzzles a great sense of urgency, and tantalizingly offering the player the challenge of beating the level in a single try.
The world-building in Nihilumbra is a mixed bag. On the plus side, having such an abstract protagonist is a fun idea, and has worked wonderfully in past titles. For that matter, the themes of the story, simple though they are, become more interesting as it continues. When the player travels through each pastel-colored land, with one environment per section, the ever-hungry Void chases after, destroying each area in turn. By the end of the game, the tiny blot of nothingness feels great remorse for all the destruction it has caused, and the player finds themselves having to buy their own existence by sacrificing the existence of their environment.
The Void hungers!
On the other hand, both the story and the gaming instructions are delivered via a narrator who gets very boring very quickly. This narrator addresses the player directly, telling them their reactions (“You are excited by what you see.” or “You are terrified of what is chasing you.”) Maybe it’s the writing, maybe the repetition, or maybe it’s the soft, young man’s voice that was used for this purpose, but the entire experience feels pithy and overplayed. It doesn’t help that the narrator’s presentation is tied rather awkwardly to gameplay: backtrack a little or reload from a savepoint, and you’ll hit the same melodramatic narrations with each new screen.
Nihilumbra’s gameplay and aesthetic have the same qualifications: they each hold some basic ideas that are interesting and hold some promise, but none of them are particularly noteworthy or effective. Puzzles are almost never challenging, but they are at least engaging and entertaining. The story and tone don’t feel particularly polished, but they’ll give you a few minutes of food for thought. It’s an indie title that doesn’t particularly stand out in the crowd, but at least it has its fundamentals well in place.