Nihilumbra is one of those games you know you’ll like even before you play it.
This indie gem was created by Spanish developer BeautiFun Games for iOS in 2012. It was eventually released for Microsoft Windows, Mac, Linux, Wii U, PS Vita and Android as well.
It’s a standard platform game with one single playable character: Born, a creation of the Void. You control Born as it explores the unknown and attempts to flee the Void whilst avoiding the many enemies scattered throughout the levels (or worlds). As you progress, you gain certain abilities (or colors) to solve puzzles and defeat your enemies.
At first, Nihilumbra is very easy. The puzzles are very intuitive and simple, and most have a very straight-forward way to go about them. The method is frequently the same, with similar outcomes, and generally accompanied by a feeling of safeness and being unopposed.
The game takes its time building up momentum. It instead focuses on its relationship with the player, casually adding bits of information about a seemingly uncomplicated plot, all the while teasing them to question what is happening. Most of what is said is either too vague or polysemic, yet it reveals a really engaging story with some really nice messages behind it.
When you’re playing Nihilumbra you’re looking at the artwork and thinking it’s beautiful in its own ominous, eerie kind of way. The soundtrack (by Álvaro Lafuente and Furius Music) evokes godforsaken lands roamed by dangerous, ethereal beings. It has a Tim Burtonesque quality to it, like most of the game, and creates a suspenseful atmosphere of near dread and despair.
Yet this sort of atmosphere is not meant to terrorize or frighten you; it’s meant to amaze you in very subtle ways. The game is bordering on the haunting Gothic Horror that seems to appeal to a specific audience, without, however, restricting it. Anyone can enjoy this game if given the opportunity and right mindset.
It’s relaxing and engaging and you’re just happy to tag along with Born in this magical (yet slightly unsettling, if one truly thinks about it) self-discovering journey. Yes, it will distress you on occasion whenever the Void gets near and you’re pulled from your merry walk into a run for your life. But aren’t most self-discovering journeys a sum of all those feelings bundled up and mixed into one giant, overwhelming mess?
Against all reason, the game doesn’t allow you to feel anything negative or unpleasant. Not for long. In fact, quite the opposite: it makes you (and your character) feel like wanting to go farther into the game in order to prove a point. Despite the narrator constantly trying to get you down and make you feel hopeless and unimportant, you barely have time to really dwell on his words. You need to go forward to complete the challenge; that’s all. You don’t have time to sit still and wonder about whether you can do it or not, whether you’re capable. You just do it. And that’s a really great metaphor for life itself.
Sometimes you just want something to have fun, but not the brainless, cute fun you can achieve with other casual games. You want to feel something deeper, more meaningful. You want to gaze at the screen and become fascinated with all the interesting elements in it, and how they work together to give you those emotions. You want to empathize with the main character and care for it as you bring it to a purpose. You want to want to bring it to that purpose.
How many games can really make you feel like that in the first few seconds of gameplay?
It works because Born is so relatable. From the beginning, we are told it is a creation from the Void and it escaped. It is now alone in the world, with no memories, no experiences, tabula rasa. It starts exploring, all the while running away from the Void that wants it back. Fear, panic, loneliness, desperation. Vulnerability.
This existential dilemma goes on for most of the game and makes up a big part of the story. It gives Born an identity much more significant than a set personality or a more corporeal design ever would, while also staying in tune with the game’s style. It’s interesting to see the evolution which the character went through in the first drafts and how it finally came to be – something resembling a shadowed scarecrow that still manages to capture our hearts at every turn.
I don’t have too many problems with the narration, but it took some time for me to get used to it. The narrator’s voice seems right for the atmosphere: deep and ominous, with the right amount of mocking and condescension in it. It lulls the player into a false state of tranquillity and peace, then reverts to its casual perverseness to unsettle them.
His identity is unknown: it could be the Void, Born’s inner voice or something else entirely. He’s extremely important in the game, being omniscient and intervening actively in Born’s decisions, either by trying to discourage it or by sharing unknown details about the past, future or present.
You don’t think of him as a friend or an adviser; you acknowledge his role as a sort of middle ground villain that enjoys mocking Born but also helps it overcome challenges at times. It’s as though he’s amused by Born’s efforts and despite wanting to antagonize it, he can’t really help being taken by its persevering spirit.
He wants it to fail but, at the same time, to succeed.
Sometimes the narrator is too slow for the gameplay and gets cut off mid-sentence so you have to either go back to find out what he was about to say or stay in the main frame until he finishes. If you can speed read, his lines are shown above in the background, but they disappear as soon as you cross the screen border into another part of the game.
This became a bit bothersome for me, as I like to keep going without milling around for long. But I learned to be patient and spend those few seconds admiring my surroundings. They are certainly beautiful to look at, and complex enough that you’ll find cool little details every time.
After playing Nihilumbra for a while and getting into further levels, you’ll realize the game gets more and more demanding. It’s no longer just nice little puzzles that you can solve with your eyes closed; it actually gets pretty difficult to progress into the next stage, because you’ll end up doing the same mistakes over and over again. It takes some time to adjust to this new level of game difficulty, and at first it will make you incredibly frustrated and inconsolable.
Speaking as a very casual gamer, I enjoyed the challenge, even when I wanted to pull my hair out by the roots. But it prompted me to keep trying and failing over and over until, finally, I understood exactly what I had to do and how I had to do it.
Nihilumbra’s narrator (and even the visuals) do give you clues and instruct you on what do to next, especially when you gain a new color or a new piece of knowledge. However, after that, you’re pretty much on your own.
Overall, my experience was pretty great and freeing. Even when the game got close to depressing (thanks to our lovely bipolar narrator), it felt strangely therapeutic.
The simplistic gameplay may deter some more experienced gamers, however. If you’re looking for a big challenge from the start, with crazy difficult levels and dying repeatedly before being able to master each of them, this is not it. But if you want something with a gradual build, some great emotional attachment to it and really beautiful art, then it’s perfect.
Now, I think that the creator of this game was a genius. Not a strategic, brilliantly inventive sort of genius, but more like an emotional and artistic one. Because this game is truly unique and charming. It perfectly captures human nature and all that’s in between. It does delve into the depths of the mind, touching all the doubts, insecurities and unexplored corners, tantalizing it to exceed the expectations settled by itself.
It made me feel good and engrossed and just excited to get back to it every time. Which is something I cannot say for a lot of best selling games out there.
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Tell me your thoughts on this game or, if you haven’t played it yet, whether this review has inspired you to try it. Happy gaming!