While utilizing light in a puzzle game is hardly a unique concept, I can’t recall the last time a developer focused on shadows as a puzzle-solving mechanic. Some games like Escape Plan and Limbo have used shadows as an effective atmospheric component, but One Upon Light takes a more direct approach: In this effort from the Singapore University of Technology and Design Game Lab, players must use the puzzle-solving power of shadow to create traversable paths. Darkness, a common foe in the world of video games, becomes a friend that you must embrace if you wish to progress. It’s an interesting idea and while the production needs some polish and fine-tuning, it’s still worthy of some recognition.
As you might expect, the graphics don’t exactly step to the forefront, nor do they dominate the experience. Because shadow is a driving force behind the game, there is indeed a lot of darkness and therefore, not much will leap off the screen. But as is the case with most puzzle games, you care far more about the design than the quality of the visual presentation. If the puzzles are beautifully designed, it matters little that the graphics aren’t exactly photorealistic. Now, I will say that some of the design here is inspired but there are times when certain puzzles feel somewhat unbalanced (an ongoing issue in the adventure, by the way). But at the very least, the visual uniqueness and effort is intriguing.
The sound, another technical category, also takes a back seat to the concept and core gameplay. Which isn’t to say the audio is bad or unimportant; the sound is a big part of just about any interactive experience. It’s just that this subtle, downplayed sound is simultaneously expected and effective. As they did with the graphics, the developers take a minimalist approach to the audio, and it works because the game retains its emphasis on puzzle-solving and progression. It also helps that we’re supposed to feel some sense of anxiety and urgency, as we’re working our way through a dark, creepy laboratory. In other words, while there isn’t much to actually analyze in the realm of sound, I can say it bolsters the experience in certain ways. It just won’t stand out, that’s all.
You are a scientist and you wake up one day to find yourself in the middle of an abandoned lab. Nobody is around but some strange experiment has gone terribly wrong, and now you just can’t handle light. If you’re caught in it for even an instant, you will die. Perhaps they turned you into a vampire or something, I don’t know; what I do know is that you must stick to the shadows if you wish to remain alive and escape the lab that has frankly gone haywire. As I said above, we’ve often played games that force us to stick to light, or to use light as a helpful tool of some kind. So, it’s interesting to see the flip side, to consider how to create shadow and avoid light. There were times when I felt like I was playing an old school Metal Gear Solid and I was just trying to avoid the searchlights on a battlefield, but that’s a personal peculiarity, I’m sure.
Anyway, the maze of a laboratory is filled with all sorts of obstacles and light constantly threatens your every move. Like with most puzzle games, the farther you go, the more complex and intricate the challenges become. For instance, while you start off flipping a few switches, you’ll eventually move boxes to create shadows and at one point, you’ll receive the handy-dandy Shadow Echo glove. This lets you slow down time, select the shadow of some object, and just hold it in place. When time resumes, the object may disappear but the shadow remains, giving you another safe haven. This opens up previously impassable areas but be wary, because the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly. With incessantly moving lights and plenty of traps to worry about, you’ll have to tread on eggshells later in the game.
And this leads me to one of my biggest gripes: The erratic pacing. Some early puzzles require very little thought but suddenly, you might come across one that’s a real bear. On top of which, some puzzles just last way too long; it’s as if the designers didn’t know when to stop building the level. As a result, the experience either feels suddenly unfair or strangely tedious at various intervals. Another downside is that the control isn’t refined enough and as timing is always critical, the team would’ve been well advised to fine-tune that movement. If I fail, it should only be due to my error; if I fail and I can attribute a portion of that mistake to unreliable control, that’s a gameplay flaw. It’s not a critical drawback, but the scientist just needed to have a smoother and more responsive movement scheme.
On the good side, the developers don’t fall into a common puzzle trap, which is recycling the same solutions in different formats. In other words, if you have a puzzle that’s solved in very much the same way as a previous puzzle, but you only have to do it faster, that’s a recycled challenge. But here, it really feels as if each new level features a fresh way to solve a puzzle, which works to keep the player involved. There are all sorts of tasks and objectives you’ll have to complete if you want to finish the game, and given the length of some of the levels, it’s impressive to see fresh solution possibilities. However, as I stated above, the length of some of those levels is simply overblown and unnecessary; it sometimes adds frustration as opposed to more inspired content.
I suppose another issue could involve the demanding nature of the game. You die in an instant and some of the later levels require a ton of trial-and-error. Now, personally, I don’t have a big problem with this, as I’ve never been as annoyed by trial-and-error gameplay as other people. Perhaps it’s my more meticulous nature, I'm not sure. I was a little irritated at the spiking difficulty and the merely average control screwed me over a few times, and these are definite shortcomings. That being said, the trial-and-error parts didn’t bother me and really, if you’re a puzzle connoisseur, you likely have no trouble with this particular gameplay style, either. I like figuring everything out so I can perform the perfect run-through; I like it in stealth games and I often like it in puzzle games. That is quite subjective, of course.
One Upon Light is a pretty solid effort. It’s found lacking in certain important areas, such as overall pacing, basic control, and general refinement, but its originality and challenge should be applauded. The story actually isn’t half-bad (for a puzzle game, at any rate), there’s inspired freshness in the myriad of ways we eventually solve certain puzzles, and the design is good without being especially great. When playing, I kept thinking that had the team in question had more time, a lot of the issues would’ve been ironed out and we would’ve ended up with a singularly great puzzle experience. And although that didn’t happen, I think this game will appeal to big fans of the genre and if you’re looking for a decent – and often stiff – challenge in your spare time, I recommend giving it a try.
The Good: Interesting and unique concept. Minimalist technical approach puts the emphasis on the gameplay. Some darn good puzzle design. Does a great job avoiding tedious recycling. Satisfying and rewarding when everything is working properly.
The Bad: Control isn’t refined enough. Erratic pacing and spiking difficulty take one out of the experience. Some puzzles are just too long. Trial-and-error gameplay can grate for some.
The Ugly: “No ‘ugly’ here unless you’re the impatient, easily frustrated type.”