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Lightmatter Review: An Illuminating Puzzle Game -BB

Video game developers have always loved the setting of a scientific disaster. From classics like Half-Life through to more recent examples like 2017’s excellent Prey, the concept of escaping from a ruined facility has proved fruitful ground for many developers over the years. Lightmatter, from Tunnel Vision Games, also delves into this story template.

Lightmatter is a first person puzzle game akin to Portal. The player is a silent, unnamed, unknown protagonist stuck in the ruined Lightmatter Technologies building. Waking up alone amid darkness and chaos, the player then has to make their way to safety, all the while guided by the barbed tongue of Lightmatter Technologies CEO Virgil.

Getting out of the building is easier said than done, though. There may not be the extra-dimensional creatures of Half-Life or the biomechanical horrors of System Shock to contend with, but that doesn’t make Lightmatter Technologies any less dangerous. Shadows themselves kill the player outright, making light sources the most vital resource to the player – think of it as ‚the floor is lava‘ taken to its extreme.

It’s a neat key concept, and Tunnel Vision Games executes it well. Lightmatter’s core gameplay revolves around its light mechanics, with players learning quickly that they have to be aware of their surroundings at all times. Testing knowledge of angles and logic, Lightmatter doesn’t shy away from asking its players to be creative with their solutions, as each different room and corridor acts as its own stage for the player to overcome.

Rather than just sticking to a single method of light, the game thankfully mixes things up as it goes along. At first, the player learns how to successfully avoid shadows through their movement, before Lightmatter introduces item uses. This starts with using portable lamps, before more ingenious solutions such as creating pathways through beams of light.

Lightmatter is not a ponderous, cerebral experience like The Witness, though. The game throws in tests of agility along the way, with jumping puzzles that ask for quick problem-solving as the player avoids those lethal shadows on the run. This is particularly true of the game’s finale, which tries to amp up the tension with a larger emphasis on movement.

Lightmatter finds success in its varied strands, even if it feels a little too close to its peers like Portal and Antichamber. In part this is down to the game’s tight design, never overcomplicating things with too many mechanics while at the same time offering up challenge through its testing puzzles. Without holding the player’s hand, Lightmatter manages to increase its difficulty with good pace as players get used to its rules.

This works well with the game’s cel-shaded design. The core color palette is muted, allowing the pure darkness of the shadows to be obvious to the player, while the game’s rare splashes of color pop against the eye. What’s more, these brighter elements point the player towards interesting items or goals; a green exit sign, the lighter tone of a ledge to jump to, or the blinding beam of a lamp.

Perhaps the best use of color comes from Lightmatter’s method of storytelling. The game’s levels are sparse, with a few signs of the people who used to inhabit the world around them. However, pockets of red warning lights often hint towards another audio recording to find, sharing a story of what happened at the institute before the disaster that left the player stranded.

The use of audio logs as a storytelling mechanic is not a new one, but it still functions well here. There’s a juxtaposition between the logs and the ongoing dialogue of Virgil, the hubristic CEO of Lightmatter Technologies who is so excellently voiced by David Bateson of Hitman fame. The player is a blank slate, at times called a health inspector, a journalist, an assistant, and a spy by Virgil as the game goes on, and so sits as an outsider as the wider plot unfurls.

Lightmatter’s story is a decent one, but much like its gameplay the game is not entirely original, leaning a little too strongly on its influences. After all, many players will have played another first person puzzle game with a silent protagonist and an omniscient voice mocking the player in a humorous way – particularly when that humor masks something much more gruesome at a contextual level.

That’s not to say that Lightmatter is not competent in its approach – indeed, it is an enjoyable, lovingly-crafted game. However, it could certainly do with a little more confidence in its own originality and concepts. The game’s creators clearly love Portal, even giving in-game mentions to Aperture Science with a handful of other Easter eggs, but there’s enough here for the game to have stood on its own without needing to stick so close to that (admittedly excellent) template.

Even so, those who enjoy puzzle games will find plenty to enjoy here. With well-crafted mechanics and a care for everything from art design through to the balance of overall game length, Lightmatter shines. Had it been a little bolder, it could have been a surprise classic.

Lightmatter is available on PC. Screen Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purposes of this review.

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