Saturday, July 4, 2015

NaissanceE Review

A stunning exploration game let down by occasionally frustrating platforming and incongruous puzzle sections, NaissanceE is nevertheless worth a look.

Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Limasse Five
Publisher: Limasse Five, through Steam Greenlight
Released: Feb 13, 2014
Copy gifted by a friend

Warning: game not recommended for people with epilepsy

Jumping in sight unseen, NaissanceE's intro sequence—being chased down rows of identical hallways by an abstract worm-like beast of light and shadow—promises an action-filled intrigue to be unraveled throughout the course of the game. After you gain control of the character, however, the game settles down into a decidedly unhurried experience while the questions raised by that first dramatic cutscene slowly fade into irrelevance.

The first fifteen minutes of game are unassuming; you follow orbs of light down tight hallways and cramped spaces while learning the basics of movement (crouching, jumping, sprinting) and simple puzzle mechanics (pieces of terrain that become solid only when illuminated). Only after NaissanceE sheds the illusion of a puzzle platformer and embraces its core as an exploration game does the experience become compelling.

Its first visual setpiece, an enormous vertical shaft dotted with building lights, passages and staircases, and sprawling industrial activity, capped with M.C. Escher-esque architectural imagery, provides for a breathtaking departure from its modest beginning and sets the pace for the rest of the game: witness a new visual installation, platform through it, maybe solve a puzzle, lather, rinse, repeat.

This formula should not be denigrated, however. Even in an untextured, mostly monochromatic world (but with tasteful use of light and shadow), the vistas are remarkably varied: from vast, moving, highly complex expanses to muted, stationary, very personal vignettes, often accompanied by a subtle soundscape of wind, lightning, buzzing, and bizarre, almost chatter-like noises from the objects you manipulate. The visual and auditory merge in a powerfully cohesive experience, and the increasingly aberrant and saccadic music punctuates the game's relentless degeneration into successively more maddening and disjointed scenes.

On the flip side, constantly advancing from setpiece to setpiece with little respite makes it difficult not to get visually saturated. As I was playing it, the feelings of wonder and novelty quickly gave way to a cynical deconstruction of the environment, trying to get as efficiently as possible from point A to point B instead of staying immersed in the scenery.

The occasionally clunky platforming and sparse save points don't help either—getting caught on a corner, missing a tricky jump, or being unsure of which areas are safe to touch can mean having to redo an entire section over and over again, and the regular recurrence of pure puzzle sections in the first half of the game grinds the exploration to a halt as you try and wrestle with challenges that are stylistically incongruent with the rest of the game.

Of particular note is the running mechanic. In order to keep sprinting (which you will be doing a lot of), you have to regularly click the left mouse button in a simulation of breathing. An additional action that is difficult to justify initially, the cadence of your breath can nevertheless make the experience more trance-like, forcing a sort of mental regularity that can immerse you back into the world as you navigate some of the larger environments. However, this is an entirely subjective view, and some gamers will quickly lament the fact that they cannot simply hold W throughout the walking sections.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the game is the shallowness of it all—the vistas are beautifully crafted and almost impeccably presented, but you still can't get away from the fact that, almost always, there is only one thing to see, only one thing to do, and only one way to go (a notable exception is a large expanse of desert that can be explored freeform, but even that is unnecessarily sparse). There is the occasional alternate path, but it invariably dead-ends into only one additional surprise to be seen and quickly forgotten.

The universe feels almost haunted by what it could have been—I want to walk deep inside the buildings, explore the interminable branches of staircases and walkways, get lost in the tunnels and passages, and emerge with the imagery of it all nagging at my subconscious long after I've put the game down. NaissanceE almost does all of these things, sometimes coming frustratingly close.

A short experience from start to finish, NaissanceE is as beautiful and delicate as a glass vase: to be handled with care, and not too many times, lest its world come falling apart in your hands, destroying whatever enjoyment that you might still have left out of it, as well as tainting any memories that you might have formed so far.