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. Any concerns of pixel-hunting for one binary solution are soothed by the freedom to approach your destination from multiple routes, as long as you use your fleeting resources wisely. Being in first-person, the game isolates you from any part of the environment that is out of immediate vision, often placing the next step for your solution behind you and forcing you to constantly consider your environment as a whole.
The first leg of the game is heavily reliant on placing a lamp down, angling a second lamp at the first, and moving the first lamp ahead, but it applies that logic to twisty enough architecture to nudge puzzle design out of any sworn routine. Effects like a large fan blade spinning from a wall complicate matters, turning the shadows it casts into piercing blades in motion. Lightmatter’s premise puts you into a unique mindset, a refinement of the “floor is lava” game you played as a kid, where the threat is not just the floor but the protruding walls and appliances getting in your way. And the game adds new variables gleefully, though not always at an intuitive pace.
There didn’t always seem to be a rhyme or reason for the ordering of puzzles. In a few circumstances, puzzles reliant on the same mechanics would unfold in an order placing the more difficult labroom first, immediately followed by an easier variation. The latter serves as a nice reprieve but only after throwing players into the hellfires of a mechanic unapologetically, then backing away for some more passive repetitions. However, the logic grounding the game was never elusive to the point of frustration, enough experimentation makes Lightmatter Technology more navigable than its malevolent CEO Virgil would like you to think.
That CEO is the dominant voice you’ll hear throughout the game (alongside some exposition logs delivered by disgraced employee Ellen), and though his commentary is snider than it is witty, it mines some entertainment through delivery by Agent 47 himself. Virgil’s shadowy presence pairs perfectly with the dry mystique his performance carries, and it does a decent job infusing the dynamic between silent protagonist and clinical science overlord with more personality. Strange affiliates Arthur and James are mentioned repeatedly in the form of veiled, disciplinary threats, and though you never see more than a silhouette of either character, Virgil’s self-serving anecdotes about Arthur’s betrayal and James’s ineptitude reveal plenty about him.
Virgil’s condescension is not as amusing as GLaDOS’s, though it does a sufficient job of establishing him as a credible threat. His dissatisfaction with your progress never becomes incessant to the point of annoyance. Story details also creep in gradually, adding a sense of discovery to an ordinary tale of power struggles and greed. But Lightmatter mines the majority of its intrigue from the technology it introduces throughout its campaign.
Almost exactly halfway through, the parameters of Lightmatter’s rulebook expand. The introduction of an orb-shaped unit allows you to connect light passages into right-angles and triangle shapes and move while doing so. Now the light comes to you, trailing your orb across denser-and-denser labyrinths. It adds a much-appreciated sense of mobility to the game and proves integral to Lightmatter’s most difficult puzzles. Naturally, Lightmatter later leverages both tools of light manipulation at once, forcing you to mesh the limited use of regular lamps with the vast possibilities of the reflecting orb. It brings the game’s promise into focus, transcending the orb’s initial resemblance to the lasers in Portal. Arcing limited resources of light around winding bits of architecture legitimizes itself as an untapped focal point for a game.
Amidst its likable but far from unprecedented premise and aesthetic, Lightmatter stands on the strength of its puzzle design and its surprising variety. There’s even a section devoted to urgent first-person platforming that folds quicker but no less imposing puzzles into the mix, where shadows possess their own motion, eager to gain up on you. The environment adheres closely to foreboding lab design staples: cursory grates to climb through and arbitrarily moving platforms to jump across. Yet the nocturnal color scheme distinguishes the game’s art design where the environments do not, and ensures that the difference between light and shadow is never ambiguous enough to hinder gameplay.
With such a darkened palette, Lightmatter’s atmosphere and smart mechanics shine through. Tunnel Vision Games have a knack for comprehensive puzzle design, and though Lightmatter doesn’t differentiate itself from the pack in every regard, it shrewdly tweaks the formula on a mechanical level. For fans of physics puzzlers, you can have faith that Lightmatter Technologies will send your brain down new territory, even thirteen years after Portal set the new standard.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review copy was provided by the publisher, Aspyr.
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