To the same degree that light spreads out from the aperture it shines through, the creative energy seething from Valve’s The Orange Box permeated all levels of game development. The concept of the “hero shooter”, formalized by Team Fortress 2’s gradual and persistent popularity, went on to skyrocket through the 2010s. Grand capitalizers Activision and EA built subsequent empires on the backs of Overwatch and Apex Legends, so much that a trend initiated in the late ‘00s will likely set the pace for the 2020s. On the opposite end, Portal is a name brand in and of itself but shines most strongly through the indiesphere where the development of puzzle games is largely consigned. Year-by-year on the Steam market front, a first-person physics puzzler with a sleek but austere environment and an emphasis on platforming is always within reach.
Tunnel Vision Games, the developer of Lightmatter, would be the first to tell you that the game is a product of Portal’s influence. Visual and narrative easter eggs referencing the game pepper your exploration of Lightmatter Technologies. You will likely infer that the CEO facelessly commenting on your each and every move will turn antagonistic the instant he shows up. Puzzles operate as individual labrooms, gradually folding in new mechanics and requiring a greater number of logical steps for progression. On a purely aesthetic level, Lightmatter treads so close to Aperture Science’s territory that it’s tempting to discount the game as fan fiction. But inside a referential framework, Lightmatter boasts an inventive streak, evolving constantly across a tight, five-hour campaign.
The stark lighting in Lightmatter, where shadows best recall bottomless pits, does more than add a noirish flair to a common setting. The first principle you will learn as a captive of Lightmatter Technologies is that shadows now boast enough physical strength to kill you. A moment of contact with the black inklings strewn across the floor will force you to respawn. The core mechanic resembles maneuvering around as the light-resistant darkling in The Darkness games, only with the effects of light and shadows inverted. And what served as a clever detour in a predominantly action-oriented franchise is what Lightmatter’s gameplay revolves around.
Effectively a spelunker in the caverns of Lightmatter Technologies, avenues for success rest in the presence of lamps that can be moved across the three-dimensional space but are bulky enough to impede your ability to jump while holding them. Early on, lamps only operate from the stationary angle you set them at, a small sliver of salvation illuminating the distance. The pace is slow, even for a puzzle game, but it makes for a satisfying rhythm organizing your path to a level’s exit piece-by-piece. Movement feels a bit lumbering compared to other first-person physics puzzlers, but the controls are tight, and individual rooms are small enough to never make navigation outright tedious. It also helps that respawns are so quick and checkpoints so frequent that forcing yourself into a dead end and having to restart a puzzle is never an arduous process.
And thankfully, the ray of light has a large enough spread to offer a bit of leeway in setting its angle. …