Artistic video games aren’t something you see all too often from major video game companies, but indie studios are quite the opposite, being far more daring and bold in their pursuits. Sometimes these artistic games are done in a meaningful way, like with Journey, and other times they don’t quite seem to reach what they were getting at, like with Nihilumbra. Though it’s earnest in how it guides the player through the experience, Nihilumbra ultimately amounts to a forgettable experience that isn’t that fun to play to begin with.
Nihilumbra starts with you, a small black orb with eyes, being born in a purple-tinged hellscape referred to as 'The Void'. Minutes after being born, you find a way to escape into the real world, which kicks off a long and devastating journey in which you get to experience the beauty of the world, but also indirectly destroy it because you’re being chased by an all-consuming Void that will stop at nothing to reclaim you. It’s a melancholy tale to be sure, but much of the emotional weight of it is lost in the poor narrative execution.
As you work your way through each screen, a disembodied voice will occasionally chime in to spout some mysterious philosophical nonsense, or to comment on the world around you. The issue with this is how hamfisted the voice can often be; it’s more of a distraction than it is something which adds to the narrative. It’s not that this style of narration can’t work – games like Bastion have pulled it off wonderfully – but it can be irritating when the narrator reminds you (yet again) that you belong to The Void and not to the world, or when it makes needless declarations such as, “This place is hot,” when you get to the desert. The narrator is like that friend who sits next to you when watching a movie and interjects his or her own thoughts or commentary every few minutes; it’s grating, and seldom does it add anything to your experience. Turning off the voice is possible to do in the options menu – and this does measurably help improve the experience, but the text still flashes on the screen all the same.
Gameplay in Nihilumbra takes the form of a puzzle platformer, with a unique twist that utilises the touchscreen. In each of the five zones you explore, you’ll eventually receive a flower that grants you a new ‘color’, which can be painted onto surfaces with your finger to imbue them with new properties. Blue, for example, makes the ground icy, allowing for longer jumps and faster movement, while brown makes things sticky, allowing you to wall jump or sneak past sleeping enemies. These new powers are introduced at a decently quick clip, but the puzzles they’re built around seldom feel creative.
Often the solution is blindingly obvious, and this can make for a rather shallow experience. Fortunately, there isn’t only one solution to every puzzle, which leaves some room for player creativity in choosing how to overcome an obstacle, but the puzzle design does leave something to be desired. This may have been intentional, however, as a 'Void Mode' is unlocked upon completion of the main game (which takes maybe two hours) and challenges the player with running through all the levels again to purge them of The Void. Void Mode is much harder and features puzzles designed around using all of your powers, but it feels like a case of too little, too late; not only is Void Mode still on the easy side, but it requires you to run through a rather boring campaign to get to it.
From a presentation perspective, Nihilumbra definitely hits the mark, combining beautiful painted backgrounds with a symphonic soundtrack to make for a great artistic experience. Although the world themes don’t stray from genre clichés (of course there’s a volcano world), the backgrounds feature gorgeous impressionistic paintings of environments, lending a wonderful feeling of authenticity and spirit to the game’s world. This is similarly backed by a soundtrack filled with piano notes and strings, and while nothing in particular stands out with the music, it does a great job of setting the reflective tone that the game (and that narrator) wants you to feel.
Now, something that bears mentioning is the cost of Nihilumbra, which comes off as being a little bit exploitative. At the time of writing, you can download an essentially identical version of the game on any smart device of your choosing for just three dollars, less than half the cost of the Switch version. This would be excusable if there were good reason for the premium price, but Nihilumbra on the Switch is just a straight port. You can’t even play the game in docked mode, due to the requirement for touch input in spreading colors. If you’re one of those people who simply must have the most robust and diverse Switch library, then perhaps it’s worth the punt, but there’s really no reason to buy this for your Switch other than the sake of having it.
Indeed, that premium price tag is even harder to justify given the small amount of content on offer. It takes about two hours to beat the main mode, another two to beat Void Mode, and that’s really it for playable content. There’s also an unlockable art gallery, featuring dozens of interesting concept art images, and a short in-game achievement list that has a few challenges you might not do in a natural run of the game. Altogether, there’s probably less than ten hours of content here, and given that it’s not the kind of game that you’ll likely want to replay over and over, that number comes off as being a little too low.
Nihilumbra is the kind of game that clearly has grand ambitions, but it seldom has the chops to properly pull things off. The ho-hum puzzle platforming doesn’t really have anything new to offer, and though the art direction is great, it can often be dragged down by that pesky narrator. Couple that with the low amount of content and generally low difficulty, and you’ve got a game that’s rather difficult to recommend, especially when a significantly cheaper and almost identical version is available on the device in your pocket. If you see this one on sale, or are looking for something that might make you think a little more than something like Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition, this one might be worth a go, but we’d otherwise advise you give this one a pass.