Review: Nihilumbra (Wii U)

An engaging adventure through a dark, doomed world.

By Andy Hoover. Posted 05/21/2015 07:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Great art style and animation. Great gameplay that build upon one another brilliantly. Story, music, and visuals create an effective somber atmosphere. Entire game can be tackled with a friend. Large amount of challenging post-story content for the hardcore. Great use of the GamePad.
Poison Mushroom for...
Main story campaign is a little short. Difficulty jump going into the challenge levels might put off some players. Story falls a little short of its potential at the end.

Considering the number of bright and happy games currently on Wii U, it’s nice to occasionally take a moment to bring things down to a darker level. Games are an art form, capable of bringing out every imaginable emotion in gamers through a variety of visual styles, gameplay mechanics, music, and other, less tangible factors. Nihilumbra from BeautiFun Games embraces the more somber side of things, but also makes sure to back up its emotional journey with solid gameplay mechanics.

In Nihilumbra, you play as a dark figure born from an infinitely vast and powerful Void who is desperately trying to flee from the darkness from which he came. Your character travels across the land’s myriad landscapes as the Void follows him, consuming everything in its path. Along the way, a voice narrates the proceedings, offering an insight into your character’s thoughts on the world, the Void’s monstrous minions, and the general nature of the predicament. Yes, you are fleeing for your life, but by doing so you are damning every place you visit to the Void’s ever expanding darkness.

Overall, this concept is executed quite well. The narration really does quite a good job of serving both story and gameplay purposes. The dialogue works alongside the very good soundtrack to establish a mood of general hopelessness, because even though your growing abilities enhance your chance of survival, which the narration acknowledges, the voice frequently reminds you of how everything behind you is being consumed. In terms of gameplay, the narrator also provides slight hints about how to proceed at times, especially when you are faced with a new enemy. All this being said, I still had a few problems with the narration and the story in general. First of all, I found the narrator’s voice-over to be just a slight bit off and would have preferred a deeper voice and a more dramatic reading. Also, while the story does have a decent climax and catharsis at the end, the whole thing feels a little too blatant and never quite reaches the emotional heights as indie classics like Braid or Journey.

Thankfully, Nihilumbra’s artistic aspirations are supported by a very strong mechanical foundation. The game is a 2D platformer with a significant emphasis on puzzle solving that uses the GamePad in a very effective way. Running from left to right and jumping around is about what you would expect, but the real twist comes from the game’s color system. Each world presents a new color that can be drawn on the touch screen to give the ground different effects: blue turns the ground into slippery ice that lets you move faster and jump further, green creates bouncy patches of grass that let you jump faster, and red creates lava that can destroy certain enemies and objects. There are other colors, but I’d rather not spoil everything the game has to offer. Nihilumbra adds in these powers and finds ways to implement and combine them in consistently new and interesting ways.

The length and nature of the game’s content might be somewhat divisive. The main campaign is relatively short, clocking in at maybe three to four hours, but it really is expertly crafted. However, finishing the story unlocks an equal number of extra levels that will definitely take longer to complete because they can get very difficult. In each of these extra levels, you have access to all of your colors, so Nihilumbra continues to build on their uses from where it left off at the end of the story. The only real problem is that many of these levels are too harsh, at least for my liking. Some people might like the challenge, but I personally found the challenge to rely too heavily on frustratingly tight timing and pixel perfect use of colors. Also, switching between colors, which can done with the touch screen or the shoulder buttons, sometimes feels a little too cumbersome for the timing required in these levels.

As a nice bonus, the whole game can be played with a friend in a manner that is very similar to what Ubisoft did with Rayman Legends. In co-op, one player uses a Wii Remote and the TV to control your character while the other uses the GamePad to take charge of adding in the colors. This set-up works amazingly well and is a great option for people who might not have the coordination needed to control your character and the colors in the later levels where speed and precision become so important.

Lastly, I have to give Nihilumbra credit for its visuals. Though the game does follow the somewhat generic path of having ice worlds, desert worlds, lava worlds, and so on, the hand painted style makes each feel unique and beautiful in a somber, more repressed sort of way. Also, the animation and design of your characters and the enemies is phenomenal. Being products of the Void, they are made up of what looks like black and purple energy and have forms that are defined but seem to pulsate and undulate in interesting little ways. In short, you can tell that a great deal of attention and care was given to the animation; I especially like how your character reacts to the environment in subtle little ways, such as shivering in the snowy mountains or sweating in the lava filled volcanoes.

With its gorgeous visuals, moody story, and clever platforming gameplay, Nihilumbra is definitely trying its best to join the hallowed halls of indie greatness. However, I think it falls short, but not by much. Though they might seem contradictory, I would argue that the narrator needed a bit more gravitas while the story needed a little more subtlety to let the gamer decipher more of their own emotions. And while the gameplay is great, I really would have preferred a longer campaign that continued the brilliantly conceived difficulty curve and fewer post game levels that drastically up the difficulty. Of course, there are plenty of people who will probably adore the challenge, but I imagine that many will also be upset to find half of the game is overly frustrating. These problems, though, are actually quite small because the core package is so well executed and well worth just about any gamer’s time.

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