Recalling the primary colour steeped gaming era of the 1980’s, one of the most influential games to me as a young lad, other than the arguably seminal How to be a Complete Bas***d, was an effort called Head over Heels. An isometric puzzler that placed a premium on solving room-specific puzzles and old-school platforming, it seemed unlikely that anybody would want to commercially pick up the gauntlet of what seemed to be a lost genre some twenty-nine years on. Well, developer Gareth Noyce has done just that with Lumo; resurrecting the genre with the sort of verve and charm that makes it stand comfortably alongside the more contemporary efforts of today.
Lumo goes head-over-heels for classic design
Cast as a young boy or girl who on an outing to a classic games convention, gets sucked into a computer monitor Tron-style, Lumo begins in earnest thrusting the player into the first of roughly over four-hundred very different isometric chambers from which they must escape. As alluded to at the start, Lumo lovingly cribs from the isometric adventures of yesteryear and so if you’re familiar with those, then you’ll know *exactly* what to expect. For the rest though, fear not, Lumo’s puzzle platformer beats are as easy to grasp as they come. The added fact that Lumo is utterly free of combat and boasts a colourful vibrant visual presentation (not to mention it helps to get their logic bits working), also means that the game is highly suitable for the sprogs, too.
Just about every room that you walk into will have some sort of platforming or puzzle conundrum to solve, with more often than not a hybrid of the two popping up. You’ll be doing everything from pushing boxes about to climb up onto ledges, jumping across chasms, dodging traps, navigate moving boulders and more besides with the effects of the puzzles that you solve not always being limited to one room. Dropping a bar of soap into some dirty water in one room for instance, might result in bouncy, jump-friendly bubbles being produced in another that allow you to cross a previously impassable chasm.
Rather than just bringing an old concept kicking and screaming into 2016 with a few token bells and whistles, the much increased horsepower of today’s hardware has provided Noyce with ample scope to innovate with these conundrums in a way that was previously impossible. Collapsing slopes, rotating platforms and spinning jump pads all contribute to the impression that as much as Noyce is a student of the past, he also has the talent to meaningfully augment it for contemporary expectations as well.
There’s a real twee charm to how some of these puzzle mechanics are manifested, too. One good example being a lovely sentient crate who, with hearts playfully rising from its brow, is smitten with your character and will follow him/her around the room, stopping whenever the player character does to use them as a step up to a higher platform all the while making adorable little noises the whole time.
Further layering proceedings is a Metroidvania style progression system. At the beginning of the game you can’t even jump properly but gradually, new abilities are introduced such as leaping and swimming to name just two that allow you to navigate previously inaccessible areas. The real genius of course is in how Noyce deftly intertwines newly accrued abilities with those isometric puzzles, with Lumo gradually introducing new concepts, phasing out old ones and generally keeping the whole puzzle platforming shtick exceedingly fresh in the process. Further afield, mini-games such as a frantic mine-cart escape switch things up a bit from the standard template and stand as entertaining, though not ground-breaking distractions from the status quo.
Viewed from a forced isometric perspective, you can wiggle the camera just a little but otherwise you’re pretty much stuck with looking at things from a forty-five degree angle and it is here, when you start leaping about the place that things take a brief turn for the worse.
More often than not jumps into the background fall short, resulting in the death of your squeaky voiced wizard and adding a somewhat troublingly inconsistent ‘leap of faith’ dynamic in the process that fans of the old classics such as Head over Heels can readily attest to experiencing. This gets especially frustrating when you are forced to retrace your steps across multiple screens and while respawns after death are generously instantaneous, it all still feels unsettlingly imprecise in a game genre that would otherwise normally place a premium on pixel-perfect platforming.
Experience old-school difficulty
Before you even get the game going proper, Lumo offers up two very different difficulty levels for the player to choose from. The regular difficulty is pretty much the one that anybody with an interest in not dying of heart-rending stress will go for because it gives infinite lives, a save function for every room and a handy map that can be consulted whenever you get especially lost. The other ‘old-school’ difficulty mode though, is clearly meant for a stage of human evolution that we haven’t reached yet as it provides no save points, no maps and perhaps most crushingly of all, only dishes out a very finite number of lives for you to burn through.
Unfortunately, the higher difficulty doesn’t scale that well because whereas those older games from thirty years ago took place in much smaller levels and were much more brief experiences as a whole, stretching that sort of difficulty across Lumo’s much longer running time becomes a punishing chore rather than a satisfying challenge. Throw in the added frustration that the platforming can bring on owing to the isometric perspective and you’ve basically got a one-way trip to the loony bin on your hands, as they prize the shards of your DualShock 4 from your skull and lift your still drooling, prone form into the ambulance.
A visual blast from the past brought up to date
Still, the opportunity to choose a difficulty level reminiscent of Lumo’s classic inspiration is just one way in which Noyce reaches his hand back in time to snatch the essence of a bygone era of gaming; another is the broad visual and stylistic strokes that have been lovingly lavished throughout Lumo’s duration.
Clearly Lumo is meant for anybody who has ever experienced the joy/pain of gaming in the early 8-bit home computer era. Right from the initial start-up you’re greeted by the sounds of what appears to be a dial-up modem being strangled; a common audible cue for folks who remember the horrendously fallible tape loaders of years gone by. Elsewhere, the game continues to bleed a love for the 8-bit home computer gaming era of yesteryear as you find yourself collecting tapes, cheat cartridges and a whole host of other retro memorabilia that will all seem familiar to players from that time.
Beyond Noyce’s tremendous affection for nostalgia, Lumo fares well on a purely technical level too, because while the numerous chambers and character models are broadly simplistic, they are a colourful and thematically variable bunch that remains defined by pin-sharp, yet twee detail from start to finish.
In Finnish, the word Lumo means ‘illumination’; a fitting title then for an effort that while not without fault, does a grand job of casting a light on a very specific type of puzzle platform adventure that many of us assumed now only existed in memory. Boasting challenge and charm in spades, here’s hoping that Lumo’s championing of the isometric puzzle platformer genre leads to resurgence in its fortunes.