Before we start, lets get one thing straight about NaissanceE. It’s one of those games that inspires a lot of poetry from writers, using words like “soliloquy” or “meditative”. They’ll go off on wordy tangents, verbalising about emotions and using a whole load of ten-dollar words. I am not going to do that to you, because I like you all too much. I’m going to try and make this review understandable to someone who doesn’t have a degree in English Literature. Besides, the poetic metaphors get a bit shaky when you’ve been stuck on the same section for half an hour.
NaissanceE is a first person, exploration based puzzle platformer, devoid of combat. Indie games, am I right? It’s got shades of Portal, QUBE and Dear Esther, with much of the gameplay being focused on exploration over action. Progress is made by moving through areas, solving the odd puzzle, but the challenge is mostly in working out where you are supposed to go. You can run, jump and crouch, but thats about the only interaction you really get.
While that might sound simple, NaissanceE relies on it’s environments to keep your jaw firmly dropped. The environments are minimalist, with the entire game being rendered from simple shapes, almost Lego-like in places. They are also rendered entirely in black and white, with some occasional coloured lighting mixing it up. Again, this sounds simple, but the scale of the world you explore is what makes it stand out.
Frankly, the scale is staggering. Environments stretch off into the distance, impossibly far away, but yet, seeming reachable. One section, titled “Going Down” has you traversing a deep, open landscape, full of machinery and buildings, almost like a city constructed in a pipe. You’ll head across a dark bridge, only to see lightning illuminate a monstrous building opposite you, visually reminiscent of the Death Star. The places you visit are constructed of the simplest of shapes, but arranged beautifully, giving each area its own identity and feel.
The lighting helps this too, with many cool tricks performed with shadows. An early area has you chasing a moving point of light, having it be the only thing illuminating a dark series of tunnels. Lights move around, creating the appearance of the world moving around you, and disorienting you in otherwise simple areas. Lights are used to conceal doorways, and sometimes used as puzzle pieces, with the presence of light causing intangible blocks to become solid. The bloom and blur are used terrifically too, with hazes coming over your vision from time to time.
NaissanceE works best when it ramps up the atmosphere of loneliness. You really are the only sentient being here, but it’s clear that you are not the only person to come here. The world is full of little touches of humanity, bedrooms, tables, chairs, and in one hidden corner, a bar with a stripper pole. People were here, and people built this place, but then they left. The mind reels with ideas about what could have happened, and actually increases the almost survival horror feel the game sometimes gives off.
For the first two hours, Naissance is wonderful, with great atmosphere and some cracking world design. Sadly, once you reach the turbine tunnels, the whole thing falls apart. The game has you navigate moving platforms and spinning turbine puzzles, with death drops all around. This would be fine, if not for the godawful physics, throwing your character off ledges for what appears to be no reason. It’s no exaggeration that I spent over half an hour on a single section, infuriated by the sudden punishing gameplay.
This happens a couple of times over the second half of the game, and is maddening each time it happens. All the goodwill that the game builds up is smashed away in an instant, and had me resenting it all the harder. One particular incident has you enter an infinite stairwell, endlessly repeating up and down. The kicker? Once you enter, the doorway out vanishes, and there seems to be no way out of it. I had to reload my save, after spending ten minutes running round in circles, only to find that it wasn’t even the way to go to progress. It felt like a dirty trick, totally out of the blue, and breaks the flow recklessly. Frankly, I expected far better.
Further killing the flow is the fact that the game has no real plot, or motivating factor outside of your own curiosity. You are greeted with a short “Lucy is lost” at the beginning, and that’s all you get. The rest of the game relies on the players own interest in seeing the next cool thing to keep it moving. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, but with the touches of humanity you find around the place, the absence of plot is noticeable and jarring. The ending is a bit of a damp squib too, as the game just ends, with no real “victory”.
NaissanceE seems destined to be one of those games that people point to as proof that games are art. It leaves all meaning up to the player, and is full of the grandiose level design that makes your jaw drop. I’m not sure if it deserves it though, as the gameplay sometimes kills the whole experience. Imagine if Journey suddenly had a precision jumping section with moving platforms and wind physics two thirds of the way through, and you’ll get an idea of how foolish these parts of NaissanceE feel.
Sadly, the games frustrations weigh heavily on it, earning it several black marks. It should have been a wondrous journey, the kind of game you have to tell people to play for themselves. Busted jumping physics and occasionally dumb gameplay design choices have severely hampered this curious title, and it drives me potty. I should be giving this game an amazing score, because when it works, it really works. We should be heralding this as the next Journey, the next Dear Esther, but instead, it’s simply going to be remembered as that cool game that fell on its arse halfway through.