This review contains mild spoilers.
Lightmatter started as a university project, and then an overnight Reddit success. Developer Tunnel Vision Games decided to turn their project into a full commercial release. And now we have Lightmatter, a puzzle game that bills itself as a mix between Limbo and Portal and resulted in a “weird baby.” While I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment, Lightmatter is definitely inspired by titles like Portal and Talos Principle.
In Lightmatter you play as a person stuck inside a mysterious facility that has just undergone a horrible catastrophe which are causing shadows to kill. It’s not the darkness that kills, but rather the tar-like black substance that is left on the ground that kills you. As Virgil, CEO and narrative guide says, “think: ‘the floor is lava.’” When you attempt to exit, your elevator fails you, leaving you stranded.
It’s apparent that Lightmatter is a game put together by a small team. That’s not a bad thing, because Lightmatter cuts the fat, and leaves you with a pure puzzle experience. There are no NPCs besides those you hear in recordings (all two of them) and those who are referenced. It’s just you, light, and the shadows.
To get past most obstacles, you will need to cleverly stick to moving lights, or cleverly place light sources to guide your way. Most puzzles involve moving lamps, and adjusting them so the light falls where you want. There are moving platforms, and a few light sensitive switches thrown in to complicate things, but for the most part, the puzzles in Lightmatter just aren’t very difficult. I felt like I was able to cruise through Lightmatter, only finding myself “stuck” only a few times. But, as with any puzzle game, your mileage may vary.
Much of Lightmatter is moving around light sources so you can get past the deadly, tar-like shadows. Of course, as you can imagine, a handheld flashlight would probably solve a lot of the problems your character finds themselves in. There are lamps that are on tripods, but while they can be carried, you can’t jump with them. The light they emit is small up close, but a lot larger and more effective the further you get from what you are trying to illuminate, creating a lot of puzzles that reminded me of the perspective puzzles from Superliminal.
While you make your way through the facility, you’ll be helped along by CEO of Lightmatter Technologies, Virgil. While Virgil seems to be a helping hand, any CEO of a company that searches for the ‘ultimate energy source’ turns out to be evil, and Virgil is surprisingly no different. And while his brand of evil is mostly just dark, there is plenty of Portal-esque humor thrown in. Virgil, despite being expertly voiced by Hitman’s Agent 47 himself, David Bateson, is no GladOS.
The humor isn’t the only thing that Lightmatter shares with Portal. There were, surprisingly, even direct references to Aperture Science, and Aperture Science turrets and a super small companion cube make a cameo appearance.
While most of the beginning puzzles involve moving lamps around, later on you gain access to photonic connectors that shoot concentrated beams of light, and the puzzle mechanics get much more like Talos Principle, which heavily utilized laser connections and line-of-sight puzzles. There was some potential for great, fun puzzles—and while Lightmatter is fun, if never quite gets to the fun of zipping through portals or the complexity of some of Talos Principle’s harder challenges.
At some point in the game you undo some of the tar-like lightmatter shadows, and I was hoping that would become a new mechanic. Unfortunately, it does not, and once that scene happens, it leads into the end of the game which features some of the most exciting, but easiest, parts of the whole experience.
There are speedrunner stats hard-baked into Lightmatter, which is something I always appreciate. Players can bring stats that show you how long you’ve spent on a particular level, or the whole game, how many times you’ve died, steps you’ve taken, etc.
Lightmatter is a subdued game to look at. It’s not quite light and shadow like Limbo is, but it has a subtle cartoonish, almost cel-shaded appearance that provides a great, but subdued visual palette consisting of shades of greys, whites, and darkness. I really love the way Lightmatter looks. It’s minimalistic with higher polygon counts, but in a more “realistic” way that makes you occasionally forget that what you’re looking at is stylized.
If you’re on the fence about Lightmatter, it’s free to play for the first hour. Don’t let the “Free” price on Steam fool you though. After the first hour, you’ll have to fork over $19.99 to play the rest of the game.
Lightmatter will be available on January 15th on Steam.
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