A Melburnian nerd of 27 years and counting. A podcaster, critic, writer and developer of games. Uncovering the hidden indie gems, and exposing the dark underside of the AAA industry.
February 21, 2020
Luminawesome Games Ltd.
Luminawesome Games Ltd.
Lumote is an incredibly vibrant game that doesn’t shy away from bright neon colours and adorable bioluminescent creatures. It’s a 3D puzzle platformer where you control Lumote on a quest to overthrow the “Mastermote” in this high-spirited, alien world. Whilst the game has so many great individual components, the experience as a whole didn’t completely fall into place for me in practice.
All credit where it’s due, Lumote does a good job on its puzzle-platformer loop. The controls are mostly standard fare for 3D platformers. There’s camera and player movement with a jump button. The one deviation is Lumote’s ability to “take control” of other life forms. Doing so fills them with Lumote’s blue energy. This is in opposition to the environment’s default red energy.
It’s in the balancing of these two competing forces that the game shines. See the changes in energy are reflected in a changing environment providing the necessary abilities to navigate your surroundings. Plants can extend up to allow you to reach new heights, or across gaps. Rectangular organisms (which like most of the game remained unnamed) act as batteries for storing either coloured energy. Each level has a simple goal, fill all the plugs (or whatever you choose to call them) with blue energy, opening the door to the next level. Throughout the campaign, we see a bit more biodiversity, as the game weaves increasingly complex circuitry through its levels.
The gameplay on this scope works fantastically. Whilst the game is ostensibly about marine life, it also reminds me of coding or circuitry. Like an ecosystem, the puzzle is alive and full of interactions. It’s all about understanding the relationship between all these creatures, and manipulating them to your ends.
There is a nice progression to the difficulty as well. The puzzles are very direct at the start, just make everything blue. However, this has to take a back seat as you get closer to the end. At this stage, it’s more about undoing the locks on the environment. It’s about repositioning and finding a strategic advantage above and around all the obstacles. This is exactly what a good game should be. Learning about and comprehending a complex system, making and breaking assumptions, and only then arriving at the answer.
For the most part, the visual communication of Lumote enhances everything offered by the gameplay. The competing energies are displayed with the two main colours, and all the lifeforms are visually distinct. In a game like Lumote, experimentation and feedback are key. As such this visual language is simple enough to show the cause and effect of all your actions. It does quite a bit to explain the systems, although I wish it just went ahead and explained them instead.
My first problem with the game is a fairly basic, and maybe a bit pedantic, but Lumote takes a light touch on tutorials. As a general trend, most games have moved away from overly explanatory tutorials of the past. The modern style of tutorial is on display here: give the player some really small hurdles to cross, and if they aren’t crossing them, only then drop the hints. For example, when I found a series of platforms that I was unable to jump high enough to clamber onto, up pops two space bars. Turns out there’s a double jump. My main issue is that this tutorialisation is limited to the start of the game. It can take a while to figure out new mechanics introduced after the tutorials stop, and added concepts had a much steeper learning curve. Being stuck because the game wasn’t effectively explaining its systems wasn’t fun. The easy answer to this problem would have been to go for the efficient, albeit inelegant, direct explanation method of tutorials. Instead Lumote decided to stick with ambiguity.
I suppose the main reason this is such a sore point is that it makes puzzle games a bit harder to follow. Am I failing to get over this hurdle because I’m making incorrect assumptions, or because I don’t understand how the pieces work together? Hell, it could even be a bug for all I know. And this game did have the occasional glitch too. Objects would hang perched on the edge of platforms with the slimmest edge holding it above an empty space. Characters and objects would seemingly get killed off for no reason too. Sure, it could be that I just did something wrong. But once again the ambiguity of the game creates a real issue when I’m unsure of why something happened.
On the subject of ambiguity, it also plagues the game’s aesthetic. The visuals boost the puzzle elements of the game, but frustrate the platforming sometimes. The pulled-back camera is great as it gives a wide scope of everything happening. Although it also makes platforming a pain. In order to line up a way forward across a gap, you sacrifice your depth perception. On so many occasions I found myself making leaps of faith, unaware of whether or not the jump would lead to failure or success.
I’d be willing to call the imprecise platforming a minor nuisance, if it weren’t for the fact that missing your mark has consequences. Every missed jump incurs a reset of the level. Of course, this isn’t a hefty price to pay at the start of the game. You’ll only lose a little bit of progress. However, by the end of the game, even if you know the direct route to the answer, it can take quite some time to execute. Pulling off a level’s puzzle can take several minutes. That may seem like a minor penalty but I can assure you that in my experience that stress and frustration stacks. It’s pretty maddening to have that all reset for what feels like no reason.
It’s been interesting playing Lumote so soon after my experiences with Lightmatter and Superliminal. It’s really helped me grasp why Lumote feels somewhat lacking. Apart from the raw challenge of the gameplay, I think puzzle games of this type can engage in other ways, including spectacle, danger and narrative.
Superliminal is probably one of the best examples of spectacle in a recent puzzle game, but Lumote doesn’t really dazzle in the same way. It has its nice moments for sure. I’ll confess a certain amount of awe after seeing that the entire campaign is on display. At all times you can see just how far you have come and how far there is to go. It’s impressive, although the lack of environmental changes throughout the game did make this aspect feel a little more dull.
“Whilst failures can be the building blocks of success, in Lumote they were penalties with no real value to the game itself.”
Lightmatter introduced a danger that demanded your attention. Whilst Lumote had its dangerous hurdles, I feel as though we need to delineate between “danger” and “ambiguous peril”. Danger is being constantly aware that things could go sideways. Ambiguous peril, such as having no idea if a jump will kill you, is not fun. It’s kind of just unnecessary stress, or at least that’s the case for Lumote. There was no thrill in knowing that my progress will arbitrarily be stripped from me. Lightmatter would reset your progress if you messed up, and yes it would frustrate, but very rarely did I feel unfairly turned around. Whilst failures can be the building blocks of success, in Lumote they were penalties with no real value to the game itself.
Whilst not many indie puzzle games introduce a groundbreaking plot, they usually still have a little something to hang on to. A small strand of plot or storytelling that props up the gameplay and gives a sense of purpose whilst playing can go a long way. Whether it’s to try and overcome something, or get closer to undoing an antagonist, a sense of something happening is always a positive. Lumote’s lack of storytelling however was dismaying. I’m not expecting an Oscar nominated narrative, but no story at all leaves things feeling a bit disconnected.
If I can recommend one thing about this game it’s to play at a nice slow pace. Honestly, I think this game should be a mobile title. It feels perfect for a dip-in dip-out play style. When you play for extended periods of time it can just get a little exhausting. The music, visuals and puzzles may have been engaging but it still didn’t stop me from getting fatigued and losing focus.
It’s never a fun thing for me to talk negatively about indie games, but Lumote did disappoint me overall. The puzzles are great, it looks and sounds superb, and the design work is so smart. I can assure you that so much work as been put into making Lumote’s moment-to-moment gameplay feel solid. But there’s no cohesion. The beautiful patches on this patchwork quilt have very little holding them together. So while I like it at times, I’m left feeling unsatisfied. More unsatisfied than a game has made me feel for quite some time.