Nihilumbra – A Touching Narrative

Nihilumbra is a story-driven platformer with puzzle elements controlled by the touch screen. The goal is to “find yourself” by escaping the void, and proving to the game that you are good enough to exist. I knew I had no hope of finding myself, but at the very least I wanted find out if this was a good game.

It’s a really good game. As I took my first steps to the right, I expected the beautiful graphics to fall apart with a bad engine. Nope, the game is rock solid. It looks and feels like a highly polished Ubisoft game running on their 2D UbiArt engine. Probably the one Ubisoft engine that is actually good, but the comparison works. The graphics of Nihilumbra are legitimately beautiful, avoiding that cheap flash look of many modern platformers with busy animation and a consistent art style. It feels lively. This game manages to combine platforming with touch screen interaction, voice overs, and stunning backgrounds without any hit to the framerate. This might sound like an obvious, expected thing for a videogame, but so many multiplatform Indie games on Wii U are plagued with problems. Nihilumbra is highly optimised and refreshing.

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The movement is very basic platforming, but the touch screen opens up a whole world of creativity. An Indie game actually using the GamePad’s features heavily is another miracle, and this is partly because it was originally an iPad touch game. You get “powers” in this game, such as ice, fire and electricity to paint on the ground. Dragging ice on a surface will allow you to run faster, and gain speed for jumps and pushing objects. Fire can burn enemies and ignite fireflies, while electricity can connect platforms together and activate triggers. The game introduces a new power at the start of each world, and gets more interesting as you combine powers and experiment.

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Boing! Boing! This is the green power which makes surfaces bouncy. I’m not really sure what plant makes you bounce, but I had a lot of fun with this power. You bounce at the same height you descended from initially, so it’s important to keep bouncing to maintain that height. To allow this, you can draw surfaces while bouncing to keep going as far as you want. If you land, then jump back on, you’ll just bounce like a normal jump.

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Here’s a little example of the game allowing creativity. I think the intended way to get where I am was to wall jump. If I sprayed brown mud vertically, I could’ve stuck to them and jumped further upwards in a wall-jump pattern. Instead, I used the height I had from the previous screen to keep bouncing on that green surface. The second part is obviously meant for a big green bounce… but maybe I could also put ice under me and do a long jump? Nah, not quite enough space, but it’s fun to try things in this game anyway.

You can also use the mud power to get your head stuck on a roof, or stick stealthily to the ground in the wake of sleeping enemies or harsh wind. It’s a lot of fun figuring out which power you need to use in order to get through each screen, and each level ends with an auto-scrolling “Escape the Void” section that tests everything you learned under pressure.

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I am a gamer! The narrative part of this game comes with a voice that talks to you on every screen. Sometimes talking about your existence, sometimes dropping a hint, and sometimes reacting to what you just did. This guy annoyed me at first but I came to realise that was the whole point. This arsehole’s condescending remarks start to make sense as it contrasts with the gameplay. In a section where you are escaping the void, for example, you have to be fully focused on solving puzzles and manipulating the ground in front of you without stopping. The game is forcing you to ignore the voice right now. The one telling you it’s impossible to escape. It’s a good example of narrative actually enhancing the gameplay experience in a meaningful way. This almighty wanker is just another distraction, like an enemy, a switch, or gap you jump over. Take THAT, voice. I do what I want.

You have the option to turn off the voice, and just read text, so even if you don’t like the VO it’s not a legit complaint. I wanted the full experience so I left it on over the text. I think it’s essential to the game. The dialogue itself is pretty well written when it gets going, and you can tell it’s purposefully condescending, with the odd glimpse of hope. The voice does a great job fitting the tone, it’s very clear and emphasises the right words. I don’t want to spoil the story too much. Gameplay never stops in this game, so the flow is never interrupted, no matter how many words are on the screen. I actually found it amusing to walk through a screen really fast and cut the guy off mid-sentence. Talk to the void, mate.

The game took me about 3 hours to beat which is short, but expected for an iPad port. It has a lot of ideas compressed heavily into the main story, with almost a brand new mindset required for each screen. The design is further fleshed out in a “Void Mode” you unlock at the end, which is insanely difficult. While I have praised the controls in this game, Void Mode asks for pixel perfect precision in a lot of levels, and it feels more like an action game here than a puzzle game. I think it’s much better as a puzzle game, thinking at your own pace, but Void Mode is a nice option for hardcore puzzle nuts. I’ve seen a lot of people complain that the mode is impossible, but I don’t get it. Just don’t play that mode. I’m grateful it’s there, even if it’s a bit unorganised. From the moment you unlock it, you have access to every level on a select screen, with no indicator of which level is easiest or hardest. For some reason the first world has the hardest Void Mode levels which would have turned off a lot of people.

There’s a two player mode where someone can use the Wiimote. I think Void Mode would be much more playable with this setup, if you don’t have to stop moving to swipe. I don’t have any friends to try it though, they got swallowed by the void.

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I did not completely find myself, but I did awaken the part of me that enjoys a new game experience. I had fun with Nihilumbra and recommend it to anybody looking for something different that takes advantage of the Wii U. It’s refreshing to play a narrative-based game with such fun gameplay. Not just interesting puzzles, but fun movement and enemy interaction. The music is also really good, with some quality original compositions that suit each world and enhance the mood a lot. The story as a whole is not fantastic or anything, but there were a few moments that resonated with me. If a void opened up in the eShop and started deleting games forever, this one would definitely be worth saving.

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