Reviews

Light Review – One Foot Still In The Shadows

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Platforms: PC, Mac
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Just A Pixel
Publisher: Team 17
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Usually I like to begin reviews by talking about the game’s narrative, as I find that sets up the rest of the review nicely, providing context for just about everything else. But with Light what really needs to be tackled first  are the graphics. The game is presented with a minimal style. As the player you tackle the entire game from a top-down view, with your avatar shown as a simple cube attempting to navigate a world of glowing walls and red enemy squares. Like the name implies, it’s a world made of light.  As with any art-style that doesn’t conform to the norm it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but to me the game has a nice, simple, sleek look that’s pleasing to the eye.

It comes at a cost, though. The story’s biggest problem isn’t actually the clumsy writing. No, the true problem is that it’s damn near impossible to form a connection to the narrative through the minimal graphical style and the fact that you’re a mere square. It’s hard to become invested in the tale of amnesia and suspicious corporations when everything is presented through text. It’s hard to care when there’s no characters or even sense of place given that one level looks much like another.

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The story setup is that you wake up in a strange facility with no memories of your life. Naturally aforementioned facility is actually the headquarters of an evil company who are experimenting with implanting information into people’s heads, and it’s up to you to put a stop to it all. Everything is explained through plain text at the beginning of the level and documents discovered during play. To say that the plot is barebones would perhaps be generous. It’s paper thin, presumably written like that in order to match the minimalistic visuals but still ultimately boring.

The goal is to sneak through each small level, planting evidence or stealing certain items as you progress. From the top-down perspective you can see your surroundings with ease, and holding down the right mouse button lets you drag the camera around a little in order to further take in your surroundings. Both guards and security cameras have their range of vision clearly displayed as cones of light that cut through the darker surroundings, and naturally being spotted is bad news for you. A single hit from a guard’s weapon will kill you, although it’s actually very possible to dance around them and use your own melee move to kill them. A muted blast of bass and shower of particles is your reward for killing a guard, and proves so satisfying that it’s tempting just to massacre everyone rather than sneak through. However, not only are bonus points awarded for never killing a soul, but murdering a guard also results in a timer appearing on screen which counts down to the arrival of reinforcements.

Yet killing undermines the gameplay in another way, making it easier to get through a level. You can steal the uniform of a dead guard which cuts down the range of enemy’s vision by near half. At two minutes the reinforcement timer is actually quite generous because of the small level designs, and thus after killing an enemy and stealing his costume levels become less about carefully timing your movements and more about dancing around cones of vision. Two minutes may not sound like long, but I found it was usually long enough to get through a level, provided the guard I murdered wasn’t the first one I came across. It’s also surprisingly easy to take down guards searching for you by dancing around them and whacking them out one by one. Hide behind a door and ambushing is also an effective tactic for slimming the opposition.

Resist the temptation to tip-toe up to a guard and slit his throat, however, and what you’ve got is a solid, albeit very basic stealth game. The controls are generally fast and responsive, but there is a strange drift to your little avatar. Let go of the forward button, for example, and instead of stopping completely he/she/it drift for just a tiny bit. It’s not much, but in games like this which demand precision it’s just a little annoying. Doors open automatically when you get near, and thus there were a few occasions when I accidentally opened a door because my little square went a bit further than I wanted. Thankfully you can bump into guards without ever alerting them. Aside from this little problem, the game works well and is smooth when in motion. There’s no noise to worry about, shadows to hide in, gadgets to use or anything else. It’s simple stuff: avoid the cones of vision at all costs. The game’s lighting will let you know when you’re perfectly hidden from view, and you never have to worry about a chair or table only partially obscuring you from the enemy. There’s a certain satisfaction to be had from such a simplistic approach to stealth, an essence that recent games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist have somewhat lost under all their gadgets and complications.

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Aside from sneaking around your other primary tool is hacking, though any images of being a suave, black coat wearing techno-wizard hammering away at a keyboard should be abandoned. Find a terminal and you can hack into by simply holding down the correct key. Once you’ve done that you can press Q to pause the game and bring up a small panel on the right which allows you to simply click cameras on and off and unlock doors. Hacking never becomes more complex that reaching a terminal and then clicking on everything in the list, because there’s never a need to turn cameras back on, though locking doors can be quite useful in the right circumstances. Bafflingly the list entries are all blank until you click on them, like the developers thought it would somehow make the process more interesting, but really it’s pointless.

There’s some other odd design choices. Disguises can occasionally be snagged from lockers within the environment, but mostly they are acquired through either killing a guard or civilian. Again, it’s like the game wants me to murder people, but the points system would prefer me not to as some of my score will be removed for every death. It might have been nice for disguises to be more available, but hidden away in the environment, requiring extra effort to grab but their power making it worthwhile.

There’s also the question of why hiding bodies is a thing. Once you’ve killed someone you can grab their carcass and drag them to a cupboard where a quick tap of a key stores them away. But here’s the thing: whenever you kill someone a timer begins anyway, and even if somebody stumbles across a body it doesn’t seem to affect the timer or result in more guards entering the fray, so what’s the actual point of hiding corpses? As it turns out the point is to earn back the points lost by committing initial death, a system similar to that of Hitman: Absolution. Yet it’s a system that only works if you actually care about your end of level score. Furthermore dragging a body around is quite slow, and eats into time left on the reinforcement timer. In fairness, though, stuffing a dead body into a cupboard and walking quietly back out the door does at least fit the overall theme neatly, and has the added benefit of making you feel like a badass.

One important thing to know is that once you’re discovered there’s no hiding in a spot until everybody stops running around looking for you. No matter how long you cower behind a couch guards don’t simply go back to their standard patrol routes, an admirable decision from the developers as it means a screw-up is truly penalised, whereas in many other stealth titles much of the tension is lost when you know you can hide under a desk until the scary people with guns forget about your existence. The downside, though, is that watching guards scurry around reveals their stupidity. They kind of suck at actually searching the environment, a fact that became most apparent when I figured out that even when a guard witnessed me entering a room with no other exits, he/she/it would just hop in the door, spin right around and leave again.

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The bad news is you’ll blast through the game’s available levels in under an hour. Level scores awarded for never being seen, not killing anyone, time completed and more, and a desire to more smoothly sneak through a level, do give you  reasons to go back and play again, but naturally the more you play a level the quicker you’re liable to be able to complete it. Thus even if you replay a single level numerous times, Light is not a game that will last you very long. The style of gameplay doesn’t call for hours upon hours of content, but two or even three times the amount of available levels would have been most welcome. The story could have been wrapped up, and more levels added in a simple mode that just lets you play.

Just as you’ve sunk your teeth into the simple yet  effective gameplay, it’s all over, leaving you feeling unsatisfied and demanding more. I’ve offered this view before, but in this review it warrants talking about once more: I’m an advocate of quality over quantity. Some of the best experiences I’ve ever had stems from short games, but they’ve been perfectly formed, their length matching the gameplay and concept. Light isn’t perfectly formed. It’s far from it, to tell the truth. As soon as you’re really digging the game, it ends. It needs more levels, and a few more mechanics introduced.

There’s a few problems that need to be mentioned, too. I encountered several areas where guards managed to spot me despite their view seemingly being blocked by something. Likewise they managed to shoot through some objects as well, resulting in a frustrating death. There’s no controller support, which is odd seeing as how well the controls would be suited to an Xbox 360 pad. At the moment you can control movement using a pad, but all other functions remain mapped to the keyboard.

The short length also comes at a high price of £10. As always in my reviews the cost of the game won’t affect the final score, because value is a purely subjective topic and one that varies wildly from person to person. Yet it’s hard to reconcile such a high asking price with just an hour or two of gameplay.

Yet let it be noted that on the Steam forums the developers have already announced that they are working hard on a free update to bring more content to the game in order to combat the criticism that Light is so short. Naturally such promises don’t affect the game here and now, thus when trying to form what I view as a fair score I cannot take the developer’s promise into account, but it’s a credit that they’ve already said more content is coming  at no extra cost.

Brimming with potential it never manages to fulfill, Light is an interesting minimal title that feels great to play for the limited time it lasts. Should more content be added to the game then this could be a cracking title. Perhaps most importantly it serves as a great foundation for the developer’s future, a bright spark that makes me incredibly hopeful for their future titles.

The Good:
+ Looks purdy.
+ Gracefully sneaking through a tough area.
+ Simple, elegant gameplay.

The Bad:
– Too short.
– Design decisions that don’t make much sense.
– Bland storyline.

The Verdict: 2.5/5 – Okay, bordering on being good.
An interesting title with a few problems that undermine the entire concept.  

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