Platform puzzle games are a darling of the Indie development community for a good reason, among them being the nostalgia effect. They’re difficult to do well, however, and an improperly-implemented puzzle mechanic can come over as boring, fiddly, or even ostentatious. Does Nihilumbra (“nihil” from the latin word for “nothing”, and “umbra” from the latin word for “shadow”. Don’t say I never teach you anything) for the Wii U suffer any of these problems or does it bring a spot of colour to a dark world? Let’s find out.
Nihilumbra presents the story of Born, a blob from the Void who aspires to be more than just a blob. It breaks off from the Void to explore the world, and in the process learn more about itself. The entire story comes across as an existential philosophical argument—look up “nihilism” if you want to know more about the philosophy. As you continue to explore the world, the Void continually chases you, wishing to reclaim the part that became self aware and escaped. In doing so, the Void also destroys the world; though there’s the continual struggle of self existence over letting the Void destroy what your character comes to love, there’s no option to NOT let the world be destroyed (other than turning off the game and not going back to it, but where’s the fun in that?)
Nihilumbra’s unique puzzle mechanic is colour. Although you control Born much like you would any platformer character, you use the touch screen to spread colour on the ground, and the different colours affect not only your actions, but also the actions of foes and objects in the game. For example, painting blue on the ground makes it icy and therefore slippery, green makes it bouncy, and brown makes it sticky. There are five colours in all, six if you include the eraser, and five stages; one for each colour. However, by the second world, you’ll have to be mixing the way you use the colours on the landscape to solve the puzzles.
Naturally, having to draw on the screen means that you’re stuck with staring at the Gamepad instead of the TV, so while the TV does display the game, it’s far more difficult to play that way. The Gamepad itself makes an almost ideal controller for a game like Nihilumbra, since it contains a mix of both analog-stick gaming and touch-screen gaming; this is not a common mix, and for very good reasons. The puzzles in Nihilumbra, thankfully, are designed that you never need to be doing any insane juggling between the joystick and the touch screen. On the other hand, you DO need to juggle colours on the fly in later levels, so it’s something to watch out for. While it’s fairly easy to blaze through the five worlds, thankfully there is still some challenge to be had post-game.
The Wii U version has a unique co-op multiplayer mechanic, allowing one player control of Born on a compatible controller, and the other player on the Gamepad colouring the world. It makes for a different kind of game when played this way. I let my son take control of Born while I painted the world, and it seemed to work out well enough this way. When we switched controllers, it became a far more frustrating experience. With two similarly aged, similarly experienced players, however, I see it working well, and being a good amount of fun.
While the game is short, it’s still deeply interesting. The story doesn’t really delve too deeply into nihilism as a philosophical concept, but given it’s length and gameplay, it gets a good start into it. Enough that I was able to hold a decent discussion about it with my young son afterwards, so if that was the aim then I think it worked. Nihilumbra is one of those things that I think should definitely be experienced, because it’s INTERESTING fun, and not just fun for the sake of fun.
Final score: 7 nihilistic prawns out of 10
Developer: Beautifun Games
Publisher: Beautifun Games
Platforms: Nintendo Wii U (reviewed), Playstation Vita, iOS, Android, Steam, Desura
RRP: R115 (Nintendo eShop)
Age Rating: 7+