July 8th, 2012 | By Joe Grogan
Every so often, a developer will raise their head above the crowd of their peers, take a look around and say “I can do better.” When they do, we get some of the best titles the world has ever seen. Mixing gameplay and atmosphere near perfectly, these games climb atop the Call of Duty and Halos of the world, and though they may not be as popular in the mainstream, they achieve something most games never do: they’re remembered. We’ve seen it before with Final Fantasy VII and Dark Cloud, and we might just have another such title with Nihilumbra.
In Beautifun Games’ first iOS title, you are Born, in both name and action. Just another among the countless spawn of the mysterious nothingness that is the Void, Born decides that he wants to be more, and so he breaks free of the emptiness that has kept him imprisoned. Unfortunately for him, the Void doesn’t want to let him go, and so sets off in pursuit, intent on destroying the entire world if only to reclaim one of its own. You job is to guide Born on his journey of self discovery while avoiding the Void at all costs.
In terms of gameplay, Nihilumbra is, at its core, a traditional side-scrolling platformer. But while the ultimate goal may be to reach the end of each level, what’s more important is how you get there. Throughout the game, you will be introduced to five different colors which can be painted onto the landscape to change the properties of the earth. The colors are blue (slippery), green (bouncy), brown (sticky), red (fiery) and yellow (electric), and your freedom to use these colors however you want is what makes the gameplay itself stand apart from that of other platformers.
However, being able to use the colors however you want, without any exclusions on what can go where, can lead to some serious over-complications. More than once have I found myself on a stage thinking something along the lines of “Okay, so I’ll use some blue to pick up momentum and jump over this pit, and as soon as I land I’ll switch to brown to keep this enemy from reaching me too quickly. Then I’ll put some brown on the ceiling so I can jump up out of his reach while I wait for him to turn around. As soon as he does, I’ll paint the floor over with blue so that he’ll slide uncontrollably into the pit and I’ll be safe.” But for every time that one of these plans, Wile E. Coyote-esque in their complication, was necessary, there were five more when the game just wanted you to burn the bad guy with the red paint and call it a day. This is far from a bad feature. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a game that will hold your hand when you need it to, but has no problem with you taking it on a run for its money. Still, if you’ve got a strong send of pride, like myself, you’ll feel a twang of embarrassment every time you hand the game to your twelve-year-old brother who breezes through a level it took you ten minutes to perfect in a minute and a half.
While the gameplay itself is solid, if not revolutionary, the one place where Nihilumbra truly shines is in its atmosphere. Everybody who considers themselves a serious gamer has one title which, no matter how many times they play it, never fails to send a chill down their spine and a shiver through their soul. For me it’s Ico, and while no other game has ever matched its power, Nihilumbra comes pretty damn close. There’s just something about knowing that you’re up against insurmountable odds, fighting a mysteriously shadowy enemy in a land that isn’t yours. Knowing that you are fighting tooth and nail, not for a loved one or for personal accolades or to save the world, but just for the right to exist is at the same time refreshing and utterly frightening.
Of course, a large part of what makes games like Ico as moving as they are is their art style, and Nihilumbra is no different. The game features six distinct settings: the Void, a mountain range, a forest, a cave, a volcano and a city. Each is hand-drawn in an eerily faded manner, making use of both the fore- and background to truly immerse you in the world.
Complementing the visuals is the game’s musical score. Properly speaking, it must be called a score, because saying that it is a soundtrack is a serious understatement. Each of the tracks was created specifically for Nihilumbra by Álvaro Lafuente, and though you’ve likely never heard of him, you’ll no doubt see him as a master of his craft after playing through the game. However, if you really want to get the most out of the music, follow the game’s iTunes page and play with headphones. I was dubious at first, but I wanted to get the most from the game, so I gave it a shot with my Turtle Beaches. I was blown away and sucked right in, and I guarantee you’ll feel the same. Of course, playing anything on the iPhone with headphones plugged in for more than a few minutes is a serious pain in the fingers, but for the few moments before you get irritated, you’ll be in video-game-musical-score-bliss.
The atmosphere alone is so moving that I almost feel bad finding fault with it, but that’s my job. The only issue has to do with the text that appears on the screen while you play in order to narrate Born’s journey. The text itself isn’t the issue, and in fact strengthens the game. The issue is with the grammar of the text. Nihilumbra is so moving that it’s almost physically painful see an occasional “the” missing or a jumbled syntax. They’re far from game-breaking issues, and if gameplay is all you really care about then they aren’t issues at all. But if you’re really, truly trying to get immersed in the title, the errors in the text can be the thing that pushes you over the brink back into reality.
Still, Nihilumbra is far from broken by its poor English, and at the end of the day, that’s important, because the game’s feel can stay intact. I know I’ve praised the atmosphere a lot, but it’s still very important for one more reason: it compels you to finish the story. To be honest, the main portion of Nihilumbra’s gameplay is too easy. In fact, it almost feels like a tutorial, even at the very end. The reason for this is that, essentially, a tutorial is exactly what it is. Every time you earn a new color of paint, you spend five or six stages learning all about its applications and one stage testing yourself with it. However, all of this is merely to prepare you for what comes after the main body of the game.
Once you complete the narrative, you can go back and play each level again. This time, however, you aren’t simply running from the Void. You’re fighting back. Though the stages look the same as before, each is populated by new enemies, more obstacles and fewer checkpoints. This mode eschews the narrative in favor of hardcore gameplay, and let me tell you, you’ll be glad you had the time to master the mechanics beforehand. If you aren’t one for story and ambiance, this part of the game might be a chore to reach. Once you get to it, though, you’ll get a run for you money.
Ultimately, Nihilumbra isn’t one of the best iOS games I’ve ever played. It’s one of the best video games I’ve ever played. It blows most of its iFamily out of the water and eats them up. This shouldn’t discourage the competition, though. If anything it should inspire them. Mobile gaming has come a long way in recent years, and Nihilumbra just proves that they can go even further. It epitomizes everything the next generation should strive for and will forever be among the iOS elite.