Nihilumbra is an existentialist platforming-fan's dream, with plenty of puzzles and unsettling presentation to make players feel isolated and challenged by their environment. Though the title's arrival is a tad late on Wii U, it is nonetheless admirable how much life developer Beautifun Games has breathed into this adventure centered around themes of death and darkness.
The story of Nihilumbra is presented unobtrusively through text that appears as players navigate across the landscapes. There is an impressive range of options for the voice that narrates this story, though we found that silencing this voice and reading the text ourselves made for a better experience (luckily this is an option). We follow a strange creature born from the "Void" who escapes his dark world to explore our own while on the run from the same Void which wants desperately to reclaim the part of it that escaped.
As the player clears levels the narrator laments how progressing through each area destroys it, since the void chases us relentlessly. During our journey, we are faced with the idea of our protagonist's own awakening as a living being versus the destruction we bring to our new home by simply existing in it. The themes here are not ever fully explored beyond much of an abstract level, but they do create a very uncomfortable backdrop that fleshes out the atmosphere and gives players an interesting impetus for making progress. Nihilumbra may at times take its protagonist's struggle with the meanings of life and death particularly seriously at times, but this doesn't distract from the methodical yet charming setting.
In most ways Nihilumbra is a standard puzzle-platformer, albeit one with a very grim atmosphere. The only actions our protagonist is capable of include running and jumping, as well as pushing boxes and activating switches. What makes this experience really stand out, however, is the ground physics mechanics. As players encounter a new area, they will find a flower which gives access to a new "color," or ability. This ability is utilized by touching the Wii U Gamepad and "painting" the walls, floors, or ceilings with a particular colour (which can switched between using the shoulder buttons). The first colour we came across was blue, which makes surfaces slippery. Applications for this particular colour include gaining enough momentum to jump a gap, or pushing an otherwise-immobile box.
There are five worlds in total, which means five colours (in addition to an "eraser"), and Beautifun has done a fantastic job of designing puzzles which make great use of all of these. There are sometimes multiple solutions to a puzzle, and often times using the brute force or the easiest thing that comes to mind will not suffice. The puzzles in Nihilumbra are designed to make players think, and they succeed to that end. Unfortunately, the credits roll somewhat abruptly; the positive is that there is more to do, so disappointed is quickly turned around.
The objectives in these latter stages are geared around clearing the world of the Void that our hero is responsible for spreading (accomplished by simply making it to the goal). These stages do not introduce any more colours, but are incredibly challenging (but never unfairly so). This is where the real meat of the game can be found, and where more advanced players can really challenge themselves.
Overall, the controls are tight and easy to pick up, even in situations where drawing and moving at the same time is necessary. There were just a couple of times when we felt that progressing was based on trial and error, which was frustrating, but fortunately these instances were few and far between. There's also a co-op mode that allows one player to simply focus on spreading colours with the GamePad, which is a neat way to share the experience. Additionally, a concept art gallery is gradually populated as players progress, but no guidance is provided for exactly how to unlock these. The art is beautiful to look at, but knowing exactly how to unlock it would help add some concrete replayability to the experience.
Nihilumbra's visuals are exceedingly engrossing. The protagonist's movements, as well as those of enemies, are detailed and charming, and the hand-drawn landscapes and backgrounds are gorgeous. The art style is a delightful mix of creepy and cute, and every single element feels perfectly in place. Though the atmosphere has much to do with the beautifully-directed art, it can also be attributed to the great sound design and music. The tunes are hauntingly pretty and fit every level well, and the sometimes-harsh sound effects of the environment and enemies serve as a sobering contrast to the fragility of our hero. The entire presentation is spot on, which is vital in atmospheric platformers like this.
For the price of entry, it's very easy to recommend Nihilumbra to players looking for a substantial and contemplative experience. The puzzles here are, on the whole, head-scratchers which require quick wits and quicker reflexes, though we did run into a couple of unfair scenarios. Fortunately as players come to grips with the environments, even the later super-hard levels become manageable. Using the GamePad to change the interactivity of surfaces works very well and also makes for a great variety of ways to play with the world. Nihilumbra is a beautiful, haunting, if not altogether philosophically poignant, romp through a world fully realized through a masterful marriage of gameplay and presentation.