Developer: Bishop Games
Publisher: Bishop Games
Played on: PS4
Release Date: April 26, 2018
Played with: Xbox 360 Controller
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
Challenging games are a pain to review, and not just for the obvious reasons. Sure, it can be difficult (and often frustrating) to throw yourself against the same obstacle repeatedly, solely because you want to see as much of a game as possible before reviewing it. What I find to be far more stressful, however, is when that challenge becomes insurmountable. With the recent controversies surrounding games like Cuphead, the notion of saying that a game is “unfairly difficult” is frequently regarded as taboo. It’s not that the game is hard; it’s just that you need to “git gud”.
As you’ve no doubt guessed by this point, Light Fall is tough. Despite starting out fairly straightforward, by the end it’s throwing you through arrays of tricky segments that combine puzzle solving with platforming. As you may have also guessed, not only did I not beat the game, I think that Light Fall frequently morphs from a tough-as-nails platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy into one whose difficulty is frequently unreasonable.
That being said, there’s a lot that I like about Light Fall, and that starts with the story. Told from the perspective of a wise old owl named Stryx, Light Fall follows the adventures of a young boy who can control a device called the Shadow Core. This relic enables him to create platforms out of thin air, launch attacks against opponents, and more. It’s also his only real aid (outside of Stryx’s combination of wisdom and condescension) as he journeys through the land of Numbra on a quest to reunite with his long-lost friend.
The story in Light Fall surprised me. Whereas most games tend to use their plot as mere window dressing, Light Fall’s feels like it matters. I grew attached to characters, was intrigued by mysteries, and felt shocked by revelations. Sure, it isn’t an award-winning narrative or anything, but it was compelling and kept me invested; a lot more than I can say for many of its contemporaries. There’s even a deep lore established for the world, with hidden collectibles unlocking diary entries that reveal what happened in the universe’s past. It’s solid stuff, despite the fact that its delivery method means you receive it in fragmented text dumps.
What also helps the story is its presentation. While relying on mostly static images to convey different scenarios, the artwork is beautifully stylized, with character designs that manage to be both minimalistic and expressive. Of course, this also carries over into the main game, which takes the “small shadow child in a big world” concept from Limbo and tricks it out with colourful, yet moody backdrops and fluid animations.
The audio deserves special mention, with Stryx’s voice actor delivering a surprisingly compelling performance. Sure, he can ham it up at times with the “crotchety old owl” voice, but it never got to the point of feeling cringeworthy or over the top. The biggest complaint I have is that you can’t move through levels too quickly while he’s talking; at least, not if you don’t want to risk cutting off his dialogue. Similarly, the music can feel a bit subdued and generic at times, but some of the epic anthems that kick in during the more hectic levels are genuinely head-bob inducing.
The catchy score definitely helps when dealing with some of Light Fall’s more egregious challenges, but that doesn’t make them any less so. The problem is that what works early on gameplay-wise gradually starts to fall apart as the challenge level ramps up. See, Light Fall’s movement system is centred around fluidity. Most notably, the platforms spawned from the Shadow Core maintain your momentum until you touch them. In other words, you can be sprinting through a map and building your own path as you go without ever having to slow down. The only thing you really have to worry about is the block limit – you can only place four before you must land on a pre-existing surface to instantaneously recharge.
However, a side effect of this movement system is that your motion in-game feels inherently slippery. Moving has associated acceleration and deceleration, and you can’t even turn around if you’ve built up enough velocity in the opposite direction. This is fine for some areas, but as soon as things get trickier, you’ll frequently find yourself overshooting, slipping off edges, or spawning blocks in the wrong places due to a delayed turnaround. Combine this with some frequently wonky collision detection that resulted in me succeeding where I thought I’d fail and dying when I thought I was safe, and you’ve got a recipe for an incredibly aggravating experience.
This all came to a head in two sections: a lengthy platforming segment requiring quick dashes between safe zones (and the evasion of a laser whose hitbox seemed to change with every respawn), and the final boss. The former involves navigating through the same frustrating section twice (once to reach a crystal, and once to backtrack to the place where the crystal belongs) all in the same life. If you die, you go back to a checkpoint and have to restart almost the entire process. Did I mention you die in one hit? Because you die in one hit, and the frequency with which that hit comes from an attack that seemed to barely brush a couple pixels on your character is maddening.
The final boss, though…this was where I gave up. There’s so much wrong with this fight that I’m just going to rapidly list some points off:
- There’s no checkpoint when you enter the boss fight, meaning that every time you die, you need to run through a completely empty plane to reach an elevator, get shuttled down to the battlefield, and listen to the exact same dialogue bits from the boss.
- The whole fight is reactive; success is solely about figuring out how to evade each of the boss’ attacks until his vulnerability is revealed. There’s effectively no strategy when it comes to where you position yourself, when you attack, and so forth.
- Despite being centred around pattern recognition, new attacks for the boss are introduced seemingly at random, and can combine in ways that make them almost impossible to dodge. After attempting the fight dozens of times, the boss suddenly came at me with something entirely new for no reason other than because it could.
- Weird collision problems are everywhere, with one assault being almost impossible to dodge unless you’re in just the right place, despite it appearing that you can survive in one of several areas. Plus, your attacks are also messed up, to the point where you don’t even have to hit the boss to damage him; simply attacking near him when he’s vulnerable will work.
So, here’s the deal: maybe you’re reading this and thinking I’m a wimp, or that I just suck at Light Fall; that’s entirely possible. However, I consider myself to be someone who enjoys challenging games, and I believe there’s a clear difference between a fair challenge and an unfair one. I don’t remember the last time a game made me physically get up and fume while livestreaming, but Light Fall succeeded in doing just that. If that sounds great to you, more power to you; however, don’t be surprised if Light Fall leaves you feeling more than a little lost in the dark.