If you were going to describe Nihilumbra in very nuts-and-bolts terms, writing the blurb for an App Store entry perhaps, you might say something like: "Nihilumbra is a side-scrolling platform adventure featuring unique gameplay elements, gorgeous graphics and a catchy soundtrack."
It would be a worthless description, because Nihilumbra isn't really about tricky jumpy, making frantic and daring escapes from enemies, or anything else you've been led to expect from the genre. It's about immersing yourself into a world that's confusing, beautiful, a little too grandiose in its storytelling, but ultimately mesmerizing. You are a blob. You escape an undefined void, and you travel through the surface of the world assuming the forms of objects you encounter, while the black tendrils of the void occasionally reach out to pull you back into the darkness.
There is a story to the game, and it's told in cryptic references to your origins, that void you were born in and now run from, the worthlessness of your retreat into the upper world's mountains, forests and snow-stormed valleys, and the assurances that your tiny form will ultimately return to the darkness. All you can do as the story unfolds is make the progress it allows you, jumping over gaps, solving basic platform challenges, and avoiding the meager offering of enemies whose slightest touch will send you back to the void.
It is a beautiful game, something we say quite often when we want to believe that our mobiles and tablets are pushing harder and harder against the prowess of their console counterparts. Nihilumbra, on the other hand, is beautiful, a breathtaking series of landscape oil-paintings overlaid with gentle weather effects.
On top of these wonderfully crafted landscapes, you add your own finishing touches through the "colors" that gradually become available to you. Adding a smear of green to a landscape turns it into a trampoline that pushes you to greater heights, while applying blue makes the floor slippery, allowing you to gain extra speed before leaping over a chasm. A smudge of brown will slow enemies, while at the same time slowing down your own character, so you can tread slowly, and fearfully, passed slumbering creatures.
In this sense the game is reminiscent of Portal's playfulness, where new elements are gradually introduced, elements which radically transform both the landscape of the game and the options for the player to traverse it. While the game occasionally works far too hard to tell its story, with scribblings that owe more to a bottle of wine too many, rather than measured and thoughtful narrative, its crime is simply to try too hard.
It's also a game that never challenges to a great degree, with the route forward often appearing transparent and unchallenging. It's simply a product of the game's basic platforming, as well as the limited pallet of colors at your disposal, and the designer's focus on aesthetics and atmosphere over mere acrobatics. What Nihilumbra offers gamers instead is a stunningly immersive experience, with some of the most beautiful and absorbing artwork we've ever enjoyed.
It's a triumph for those who favor experiential gaming over the challenge of eking out ever-smaller, incremental degrees of satisfaction from more skill-based titles. If you prefer to lose yourself in a world, rather than dominate it, then Nihilumbra will provide you with a perfect slice of unprecedented escapism.
What's Hot: Extraordinarily atmospheric, with exceptional artwork and some neat gameplay mechanics.
What's Not: The platforming challenge is basic, and the story is somewhat verbose.