The Infuriating Puzzler
Many developers have taken cracks at the newest style of puzzle game, which combines innovative gameplay with quirky art, low-key music, and often a Tim Burton inspired feel. Braid, World of Goo – the list goes on, and many of the titles on it are terrific.
With Lucidity, LucasArts wades into this deep, crowded, indie-dominated pool. The title certainly has its charms, but it lacks the addictive edge that makes the genre’s best entries so compelling. At $10 it’s not a bad buy, but its various flaws will keep it off of year-end best-of lists.
The levels in Lucidity are dreams. The main character, Sofi, moves through the 2-D platform levels from left to right, and at the end of each she finds a postcard from her lost grandmother, at whose house she’s staying. The plot has much to say about the way children see the world, and is quite arguably the game’s best attribute.
The graphics compete for that honor as well. They’re beautiful, with dreary but somehow enchanting colors, parallax scrolling, and a wonderful art style that evokes children’s books. Given what games like this do with ’90s-era two-dimensional technology, one almost pines for the days of Super Nintendo. Who needs all those polygons? The music also does its job in creating the game’s mood, splitting the difference between Braid’s soothing, lonely sounds and the lively, quirky, and spooky tunes from World of Goo.
Like Braid, Lucidity presents itself as a puzzle-oriented reimagining of the platformer genre. Unlike Braid, Lucidity’s idea has been done before; the gameplay essentially remakes that of 1991’s Lemmings. Sofi seems to be sleepwalking more than dreaming; she simply walks forward, no matter what hazard lies in her path. She’ll walk off cliffs and into monsters. Your job, of course, is to keep her from getting hurt.
For this task you’re given a random selection of objects, which, using the cursor, you place in her path. You’re allowed to “hold” one item at a time for future use, and you’re shown the next item on the list. Items include everything from simple blocks for her to walk on to slingshots that propel her across chasms to bombs that eliminate hostile creatures. If she falls into a pit or touches too many dangerous things, she returns to the start of the level. If she doesn’t, there’s a mailbox at the end (a sort of tribute to the flagpoles from Super Mario Bros.) with her new postcard.
The level design is superb and surprisingly vertical. If you can lift Sofi onto the higher platforms and keep her there, any given level will be almost completely different than the one you’d play closer to the ground. Also, the game gradually introduces new backgrounds, new items, and new obstacles, keeping both the mood and the gameplay fresh as you advance.
There are two goals in each level. The first, of course, is simply to make it to the end. The second is to capture all the fireflies, which is usually impossible to do in a single pass (some of the fireflies are on mutually exclusive paths). This offers replay value, provides a challenge for hardcore gamers, and opens up bonus levels.
Unfortunately, there are some features to this game that make it needlessly frustrating. It’s so frustrating, in fact, that many to most players probably won’t stick it out until the end.
One of these problems is the camera. Sofi moves slowly, which in theory should give you plenty of time to work ahead, placing items far in front of her. However, the camera keeps her in the center of the screen, making your TV’s borders the limits of your building space. This is especially frustrating when Sofi is on a high ledge, because there’s no way to tell what she’ll fall into if you let her walk off the edge.
The fact that the blocks disappear after a short time doesn’t help, either, forcing you to stay focused on where Sofi is right now and reacting as quickly as possible when she’s threatened. As the game wears on, the levels get progressively longer, harder, and more complicated, and as you unlock more item types, it becomes less likely you’ll get the item you need at the right time. Without the ability to work ahead, it feels like playing Pipe Dream one piece of pipe at a time; you have to just scroll through the items the game spews out until you get to the one you need. On the harder levels, it feels like the random pieces, rather than your skills, determine whether you finish.
Obviously, anyone who owns both an Xbox 360 and a gaming PC will want to buy this game for the latter (make sure to check the system requirements, though, because they’re pretty demanding for a 2-D game). Whenever you get into a jam, you need to move the cursor quickly and precisely, and there’s no better way to do this than with a mouse. That’s not to say the console controls are clumsy or badly implemented; they’re just, by their very nature, not quite as handy. The Wii-mote’s pointer function might put up more of a fight, but thus far there’s no promise of a port to Nintendo’s console.
Another contributor to this game’s frustration factor is its lack of checkpoints. Each time you beat a level, the game saves, but within the levels themselves, each death equals a do-over. This is a tough game, and without checkpoints you end up playing the beginning stretches of some levels many, many times. Many gamers will find themselves hurling words at Sofi that someone her age shouldn’t even know (we plead the Fifth on that).
[UPDATE: LucasArts listened, and recently announced an update that adds checkpoints. As of Nov. 27, 2009, the update is available for PC and will take effect “in the coming weeks” on XBLA.]
Lucidity has great graphics, a wonderfully moody story, and enjoyable (if derivative) gameplay. There are plenty of levels containing tons of fireflies, though an initial play-through only takes a few hours. Unfortunately, when a game makes you want to smash your controller, it becomes a lot harder to recommend. Hardcore puzzle fans should pick this up, and some platforming devotees might get a kick out of it. Everyone else, however, should bear in mind that they might not finish what they start.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.4 Graphics
The visuals here are simple and hand-drawn, but carefully crafted. 3.3 Control
The Xbox controller limits your ability to act quickly, but otherwise everything’s fine. 4.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music does its job contributing to the surreal mood of the game. 2.4 Play Value
There’s a lot of replay value, but it’s ridiculously frustrating to get through this game the first time. 3.0 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.