There’s a specific scene you revisit a few times throughout Nihilumbra. It begins with you falling, the world having been twisted into something surreal, yet oddly soothing. You don’t stay here long, but it was within these brief moments that I was able to collect the scattered thoughts swirling around in my head that I had previously been unable to make sense of.
These scenes represented to me what Nihilumbra was on a conceptual level. They’re beautiful, empty, and meaningless. The reason I was finding it so hard to take something away from Nihilumbra was because there was nothing there. It’s a gorgeous experience filled with expression, but its aesthetics are simply a mask with nothing underneath.
Nihilumbra tries relentlessly to carve out a philosophical core within its narrative, but it comes across as venting the poorly formed ideas of someone who has given up on the world rather than something profound. The writing feels forced and lacks any impact, obnoxiously attempting to make you feel something – anything – by simply stating those feelings as if that is somehow enough to bring them into existence. Ultimately the constant reminders that I was supposed to feel guilty or scared only caused me to become despondent and annoyed.
The detached way in which Nihilumbra handles morality makes it feel as if it doesn’t really care. It wants to come across as deep without having anything to actually say, filling its world with empty words that bounced off me as quickly as they reappeared.
Eventually I simply tuned the writing out and attempted to focus on the puzzle designs instead, yet doing this only brought out how similarly hollow and disinteresting those elements were too. Controlling various elemental powers which can be painted on the environment should provide endless interesting applications, but Nihilumbra never even scratches that surface. It provides you new tools at a steady pace but never a creative way to use them.
Puzzle designs repeat the same basic ideas the entire way through, often requiring no forethought as the answer is simply a slightly altered version of the tutorial. Nihilumbra isn’t just easy, it’s numbingly repetitive and unstimulating. The only time I felt challenged was in navigating the interface, which while not terrible tended to feel awkward and more suited to its touch-based origins than a mouse and keyboard. But then as if to mock me, completing the game unlocks “void mode”, which far from the simplistic main game radically raises the difficulty with cheap trial and error level designs. This doesn’t in turn make them any more engaging however, as the only thing being tested is your patience and how quickly you can move your fingers, rather than your puzzle solving skills.
Nihilumbra is such an exquisite game to look at, that it’s disheartening to see such lovely artwork was wasted on an experience that only manages to dull the senses. It functions, but provides no incentive to spend even a few hours to complete it. Playing it felt almost like it was actively pushing me out, unintentionally but forcefully, as if despite having outrun the void pursuing me it had already devoured the game itself.