Platforms: PC
Developer: Limasse Five
Publisher: Digital Distribution (Steam)
Review copy provided by Limasse Five

We think of platformers as being relatively uncomplicated things – colourful, cheery and casual. NaissanceE goes against the grain of that tradition to deliver something altogether different – even unique. In its striking aesthetic and its tricky, thoughtful gameplay it presents one of the reasons why indie games excel at choosing taken-for-granted genres and doing unusual things with them. While there are some gameplay points to iron out, NaissanceE is a truly odd and compelling experience fully worthy of the time put into it.

Normally, when writing a review, you might begin with the background or story. In NaissanceE we don’t have that. All we know is that you “are lost”. What at first appears to be a small room is lightened by the presence of a blurry, shining jolt of energy that hovers above you. It guides you from that room and through the unfolding of a gigantic and peculiar architectural structure, with no sense of why you are here or how you got there. Lights strobe and hum and flash, doorways blink open and closed, and objects hover and move in their own trajectories. As the game progresses, you will encounter things – beings, machines? – that live within the structure, leading to the question of what your relationship to them is, or was.

In fairness, most platformers have little in the way of complex story – rescue the princess, stop the evil professor, save the dragon eggs. NaissanceE takes that fact and boils it down to its simplest point – it makes the questions of “why”, “where” and “who” central, blank voids at the centre of the gameplay. These questions reverberate and echo with the strangeness of the environment through which you jump, crouch, dodge and puzzle. It pairs everything back to an almost existential – “who am I?”.

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Philosophy aside – for now -, and the actual meat of the gameplay is accessible and challenging. Your basic actions include running, walking, jumping and crouching, which must be combined in a variety of ways to overcome obstacles and to move through the widening, mystifying structure. This aspect of the gameplay can be a little bothersome in places, as I found that some of the mapping was difficult to adjust to, and that I would easily miscalculate simple jumps and thud to the bottom of a section – having – frustratingly – to repeat my ascent. What I was hoping for was a slightly weightier, more physical sensation – a heaviness of movement to convey that you play within, or as, a body. As it was, I was occasionally snagged by the feeling that I was simply a camera lens hovering through the structure, rather than a person, which was less well suited for the faster-paced “action” segments of the game. But this was only an occasional feeling, and one that slipped away as the game’s levels and experiences opened up.

Interspersed throughout the game are active puzzles which require responsiveness and speed to overcome them. In these sequences the player controls their breathing by making use of mouse button clicks, paying close attention to a fluctuating circular indicator that appears at the centre of the screen, displaying how winded you are. This adds a level of extra tricky attention to what are reasonably straightforward sequences, but weren’t necessarily enjoyable as such. Some sequences and levels can be frustratingly tough for this (an issue which the developers have aimed to fix with a new patch).

This experience, however, is helped along in no small way by the music and sound effects – your breath pulses and heaves, your footsteps echo chillingly in the empty spaces. The ambient score is a delight to listen to, perfectly matching the sense of wonder and unknowing that the structure represents, though some of the sound samples, such as footsteps, sound a little tinny and not as deep as I would have expected. It also looks wonderful – the lighting is full and radiant, the shadows blurred with depth. When you encounter the beings – or machines? – later in the levels you really appreciate their shade and shape and movement. A lot of attention has been paid to how the game looks, and of how this creates impressions (and expressions) in the player. It is a lovely and curiously imaginative looking and finely rendered game.

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We have seen this use of simple mechanics and complex philosophies across a number of recent indie titles – Journey, of course, but also the quirky and unsettling Nihilumbra. Gone are the days of collecting mushrooms, eggs and fruit while jumping over (and into) pipes. This is a harder-edged environment where the developers want us to think, even if that thinking produces only greater uncertainties. In this sense, when you read the scores at the bottom, this is why I’ve given a high score to “story” when the game doesn’t have a conventional narrative – its story comes at you through a different approach; opening up your capacity to think and response. It’s literally a brain as well as eye opener, part of a generation of games where the description of them as a game is often less important than in describing them as “interactive experiences”, or impressions.

NaissanceE struck me on a number of levels. It reminded me that games – as architecture, as spaces – are also experiences, and that one of the great strengths of the indie scene is its ability to really probe and open up that possibility. It shows us that “play” can be evocative and memorable, anxious and imaginative, and that it doesn’t have to be about collecting points or trophies – familiar old friends that have a firm grip on how we go about defining games as games. NaissanceE is – ultimately – a rather successful experiment and meditation on gaming. It has its faults, in places where its mechanics are not always quite right and fitting. More attention could be paid to movement, weight and interaction – to really engaging with the idea of how the character encounters things, spaces and places within the unusual architecture of the game. But it does herald something exciting and new.