Nihilumbra review: Nothingness never looked so good

Nihilism is the philosophy of “extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence.” This is an interesting concept to build a game around; Nihilumbra, by BeautiFun Games, does just that. As interesting a concept as it may be, does the title manage to propel itself into something greater?

Yikes, who woke up on the wrong side of bed?
Yikes, who woke up on the wrong side of bed?

Visuals – 9/10

Nihilumbra looks great. The 2D artwork works very well for this game, and flows very smoothly. There is a wide color palette used, from bleak grays to bright yellows, and they’re utilized well. The locales reflect this color usage, including – but not limited to – areas such as forests, deserts, and even cities. Another way the colors are used relates to the direct gameplay: there are different powers obtained as the player progresses through the story which help to get past obstacles, each with its own distinct color. This color usage enhances the actual gameplay, and highlights the art direction even more.

Speaking of locales, the level designs in Nihilumbra are visually pleasing, incorporating background and foreground aspects to help make this world have depth and reality. As you walk along (well, more like scoot along), backgrounds display beautiful lands, while the foreground provides depth to this world in the form of pieces of the land protruding out of the ground. All of this gives character, and helps the player to latch onto this world. This especially helps when the narrator, and general outlook found in the game, is rather bleak and feels emotionally heavy.

NU 2
“When I grow up, I wanna be a scarecrow!”

The nicely done color usage and exceptional level/area designs are joined with solid frame rates, which never dipped or lagged under stress. This title runs smoothly and looks great while doing so. The fluid animations and solid frame rates compliment the hand-drawn feel the game displays, adding to the character built into this world, though no life – outside hostile creatures, of course – seems to inhabit it.

One complaint I have was the enemy character designs; they weren’t bad by any means (some are rather neat, actually), but it didn’t seem varied enough. When there isn’t life or activity in the levels/areas to help keep the player engaged and drawn into the crafted world, the enemy designs have to be plentiful. Nihilumbra doesn’t have enough variety in this aspect.

Outside of this minor complaint, I couldn’t find much wrong with the visuals in Nihilumbra. I think it worked well with the nihilistic storyline and helped me to actually care about the world, especially the protagonist. Nihilumbra has smooth animations, solid frame rates, and very nice artwork.

Nihilumbra has excellent art direction and visual style
Nihilumbra has excellent art direction and visual style

Audio – 9/10
I greatly enjoyed the pieces in the game. Every composition, except the “chasing” scenes where the Void is after your little dark blob of a protagonist, has an ethereal and haunting feel to it. It fits the game content, and gives the player a sense of exploration of something new – and possibly terrifying.

Each area has a theme associated with it which plays through the levels within it; the compositions are very well done, standing apart from one another while maintaining continuity with the overall nihilistic theme. The only repetition I observed were the Void chase sequences I stated above. It didn’t feel cheap or overused, though, and gave a good sense of urgency as the Void hurries to swallow up the protagonist.

A narrator speaks to the protagonist throughout the game, sometimes enticing it to just fall back into the Void, while other times acting as a consciousness (speaking on how the protagonist may feel at the time). I found the narration to be a little cheesy, but overall enjoyable; the unique voice of the narrator and the well written dialogue truly help to add to the gaming experience in Nihilumbra, making the audio a more substantial foundation in the gameplay. Audio met visuals whenever narration arose, as the words from the narrator would appear on various parts of the screen in a rather artistic manner.

The narration is a little cheesy, but still very enjoyable and well done
The narration is a little cheesy, but still very enjoyable and well done

Audio cues also take part in making this hostile world seem more real. There were some nice cues, such as the screech from an enemy, the zap of electricity, or sizzle when the “red power” is spread on the ground beneath an enemy. Each cue gives personality to either the characters or the landscapes being explored.

I greatly enjoyed the compositions in Nihilumbra, as well as the narration. The audio cues helped to further the audio foundation, as well, making the overall audio experience in the title memorable and enjoyable.

Gameplay – 8.75/10
Where the audio and visuals excelled, the gameplay in Nihilumbra fell just a little short. The player navigates the protagonist through each level, with the first level usually introducing a new power to utilize upcoming puzzles. The left stick moves the character left and right, while pressing “B” triggers a jump. Either pressing “Y” or touching the little ball in the top right corner of the touch screen opens up the powers menu, where the player can select whichever power-up he or she wants. The mechanics are simple enough, catering to a platforming/puzzle type of game.

The player navigates through various areas, each with a certain amount of levels to get through before reaching the end of the area. To wrap up an area, there is a “chase” level, in which the player must quickly navigate the level while the Void is frantically attempting to engulf the protagonist. These help to break up the gameplay a little and add some urgency to the situation the character has found itself in; these become acts of self preservation, even at the cost of losing the area to the Void. I found them interesting, since the player has to capitalize on the newly found power in that area, along with previously obtained ones, in order to survive.

You use the colored powers to do various things via the touch screen on the GamePad
The player uses the colored powers to do various things via the touch screen on the GamePad

The concept of using powers to complete puzzles and progress past obstacles seems great, but it felt a little under-utilized. The puzzles began to get more challenging and hefty towards the end of the game; the rest of it was purely for story and aesthetics (which, honestly, I was more than okay with). The powers could amount to some very fun puzzles later on in the game – use the ice power (light blue) to help an enemy slide into a pit, then switch to the fire power (red) to light the ground up underneath the enemy, while using the bounce power (green) to jump over the pit. The mechanics flowed very well, but I had expected more troublesome puzzles to figure out and incorporate the powers acquired along the way.

The Void "chase" levels appear at the end of every area
The Void “chase” levels appear at the end of every area

Luckily, upon completing story mode, a new mode opens up that gave me just this. The unlockable mode is quite difficult, and it requires the player to hone his or her skills with powers to get past each section. I found this mode to be incredibly frustrating, but in a very good way. With the addition of this mode, it’s clear the game caters to multiple crowds: those who just want the story and general difficulties (story mode), and those who craved difficult gameplay mixed with nicely crafted puzzles (unlockable mode). I don’t want to give the name of the mode, nor the objective, since it happens after the main story, but just know this: the mode is quite difficult.

NU 6
The narrative in Nihilumbra isn’t a happy journey, but it is an enjoyable story

Nihilumbra is a very story-driven title, with solid gameplay mechanics and the nice addition of colored powers. I feel like I had the best of both worlds with this game: a story that kept me engaged until the very end, along with challenging puzzles afterward.

Later on, the puzzles get and gameplay get more difficult
Later on, the puzzles get and gameplay get more difficult

Entertainment Factor – 9/10
As stated above, Nihilumbra is very much a story-driven game. There is no online support, outside of Miiverse posting, but the game doesn’t need anything of the sort. I greatly enjoyed the story in Nihilumbra, and I found myself attached to the protagonist by the end of the game, though the character never spoke, nor displayed much emotion (when there was a little emotion, it was powerful).

I also found much enjoyment in the visual style and music. Everything fit together nicely to create a solid whole, giving a great overall experience. After completing much of the unlockable mode, I had put in about 6 hours of play time in the game, a few hours of which was due to the story mode. After beating story mode, I was enticed to move on, with the new mode actually progressing the story a little further, but much more focused on puzzles and gameplay.

NU 10

Nihilumbra is a somewhat depressing experience that is definitely worth taking. The story is told well, the visual style and art direction are great, and the gameplay gets difficult later on. Add in excellent compositions and decent GamePad usage, and there’s a game that I most definitely recommend. Nihilumbra is worth your time and money, and will be a memorable experience about nothingness.

Overall – 8.9/10

Nihilumbra is available now for $9.99 on the Wii U eShop.

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