Nihilumbra – PC
Developer: BeautiFun Games
Release Date: June 27, 2012
Nerd Rating: 9 out of 10
In the open video game market made possible by Steam and other gaming clients, indie platformers are a genre all their own. Hits such as Braid and FEZ have paved the way for many imitators, most of them following a similar grading scale. If you want an indie platformer that sits well in the minds of their players, you need to have an innovative and multifaceted central mechanic, a charming storyline, and many secrets to chase once the game is over, some of which could be a part of the story itself. Braid did this by allowing players to rewind time and hiding a metaphor for the atomic bomb in the otherwise innocuous storyline of a man seeking to save a princess, while FEZ did it by letting players look at a 2D world in three dimensions and using Tetris blocks and a cryptic in-game language to point players in the right direction. That said, making a good indie platformer in this style is just as much about the gameplay as it is the rich storytelling, so when you find one that’s both thematically beautiful and very fun to play, it deserves celebration. Such is the case with Nihilumbra, a game worth a lot more to me now than what I originally paid for it.
Nihilumbra is a puzzle platformer made by the appropriately-named Spanish independent game developer, BeautiFun Games. You are Born, a small piece of the endless Void that gains its own consciousness and escapes, and the story follows its desire to learn as much about the world around it as it can while evading the ever-encroaching Void that seeks to reclaim him. Along the way, the anomaly discovers new ideas and encounters new threats, but it’s not without help, as it finds colors along the way that give it the ability to change the world around it. However, as it continues through these new environments, it also wrestles with the question of its own existence and whether it deserves to be more than just a piece of the Void if its progress only destroys that which he left behind.
Unlike some indie platformers, the story of Nihilumbra is a very dynamic entity, actively leading you through every level with helpful hints and provocative questions. Most of this is made possible by the narration, with messages displayed sequentially on the screen and read by a deep-voiced narrator. As you play, you find yourself waiting to hear what the next thing he has to say is, and literally following his words as they appear. One moment, he tells you of a new creature that will pose a new challenge, another, he speaks the questions going through your mind as you witness this new landscape. Eventually, you become entirely reliant on the guidance of the narrator, who knows more about you than you do, and his words become a calming presence in the face of every challenge that lay before you.
The story isn’t just powerful in this sense, however: Nihilumbra‘s overarching theme is universally relevant and timelessly beautiful. Born is a tabula rasa entity, created with literally nothing in mind, so what it hears from the narrator is what we hear; what it feels, we feel. We want to see it survive long enough to learn the answers to the great questions that plague us, because in reality, when you close your eyes and ignore the black figure you’re controlling, the narration is talking about the struggle that you go through in your entire life. From the simple black and white world of the cradle to the lasting grey thoughts we have as we look back on the life we left behind and wonder if we could have done it better, this game is an in-depth quest of self-discovery crystallized in the journey of a single piece of nothingness. It’s absolutely breathtaking how deep this game’s theme runs and how it touches on our very sense of mortality, both terrible and wonderful in the same instant. For a simple indie platformer, I’d say its message is more impressive and more masterful than even its more successful competition.
The gameplay is simple and effective, using platforming augmented by the game’s central color mechanic. As Born progresses through the different environments of Nihilumbra, it picks up colors, which allows you to literally paint the environment around you with your mouse, each color with its own properties and applications. Blue makes the ground slick and icy, which helps you move heavy crates or set simple traps for the Void creatures that will pursue you. More colors come in as you proceed through a world of experience, each as varied as the environment it comes from, ultimately arming you with a variety of solutions to the problems that lay ahead, with your own little connection to the Void acting as an eraser. Each of the colors is introduced to you at a gradual pace, letting you master how to use one in a variety of situations before introducing another, and often you’ll encounter problems that require painting with multiple colors to get through. If you beat the story mode, you can also access Void Mode, which starts you out with all of the colors at your disposal and gives you more complicated puzzles and challenges.
The obstacles and challenges in Nihilumbra start off small and simple, but eventually become quite varied in number and style. Environmental hazards and mechanical obstacles can stand in your way, but most prevalent are the creatures that the Void spawns to stop you, each one with different behaviors and different ways of getting around them. Born isn’t violent by nature, so for the most part, you’ll avoid them whenever you can, or lead them into traps where they end up dying by circumstance, such as falling down a pit or being caught by another of the Void creatures (which can happen, the less intelligent ones don’t discriminate). And at the end of every series of levels, you have to escape the Void itself once more, using every ability at your disposal and quick thinking to outpace it until you can escape into another environment. The gameplay is very balanced, at the same time both comfortable and challenging, perfect for a game that tries to make you think, both mentally and emotionally.
As you could probably see from the pictures, Nihilumbra looks just as good as it plays. The art uses a definite storybook style, combining the picturesque backgrounds and sweetness of Born with the hideous and dangerous figures of the Void and its creations. The soundtrack is also a delight, with each environment having a theme unique to its levels. Frozen Cliffs is lonely and somber, matching the feeling of isolation Born has after escaping from the Void, lost in a cold, uncertain world. The Volcano is hostile and foreboding, befitting not only the landscape but the moment when Born is actually able to fight back against the creatures of the Void, and the loss of innocence caused by that, reflected in the militant drumline segments. The music matches the scene for every part of the living world, allowing the ambiance of every series of levels to tell a story all its own, for which Born is but a spectator. It drives home that world is so big and full of life, you’ll never be able to understand it all. You just have to witness and enjoy as much of it as you can.
As I conclude my analysis, I have to say that while it’s not one of the most groundbreaking games from a design standpoint, Nihilumbra is one of the strongest and most touching indie platformers I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. From the very beginning to the very end, I felt true sympathy for Born, and in listening to the narrator’s advice and pondering his questions, I became Born. I had no real thought of the depth and complexity of life’s majesty before playing this game, floating through it like a leaf on the wind, but after finishing it, I knew how precious it was and how every moment I spend should be cherished. If you’re looking for a fun game, I heartily recommend it. If you’re looking for an emotionally-cleansing piece of art, I strongly recommend it. And even if you don’t like playing games like this, watch someone play it. This is one of those games that can affect you regardless of your tastes, just by its message alone. Nihilumbra is available on Steam for $7.99, and every penny is worth it for this one, whether or not you want to wait for a sale. It’s a beautiful experience, and I’m happy to share it with you. A game like this is a hidden gem, and it deserves to be shared with everyone.
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