Lightmatter is a gratifying puzzle game with a simple premise. It plays, looks, and sounds fantastic, but could do with fewer Portal references and a more robust story.
It’s been 13 years since Portal came out and blew us all away with its mind-bending puzzles and insanely good writing. Ever since then, we occasionally get a new Portal-like that follows the same formula to varying degrees of success; games like Quantum Conundrum, The Turing Test, and The Talos Principle.
Now, we have Lightmatter, a new indie puzzle game that wears its Portal influence with so much pride, it just won’t shut up about it.
Stay in the Light
When you wake up in the Lightmatter Technologies research facility, you aren’t really sure what’s going on. You’re not even sure who you are – an employee? A visitor? A journalist? A spy? What you do know is that the place is crumbling around you, so you should get the heck out of there.
Unfortunately for you, making it out alive isn’t as easy as taking the elevator. The place is falling apart, and weird shadows keep blocking your path.
That’s when you come across Lightmatter’s hook – shadows kill, light is life. Stepping into a shadow means instant death, so the whole game revolves around navigating large, barely lit rooms and not dying. Luckily, the game treats death as nothing more than a minor inconvenience, and the level never fully resets when you die, so you can experiment and try new solutions without much risk.
Lightmatter’s premise is pretty cool and provokes childhood fears as well as fun pop-culture references (I immediately thought about the terrifying Vashta Nerada from Doctor Who). My only issue with it is that it never really evolves into anything more than a gimmick. Shadows kill you. Why? It doesn’t really matter, just deal with it.
Now You’re Thinking With… Lamps?
How do you deal with deadly shadows? With light, of course. Throughout the game, you’ll hop between flickering pools of light, or carry around projectors that can dispel the “shadow anomalies.”
I have to say it’s a bit underwhelming. You don’t defy physics, or operate some sort of powerful yet elegant science gun. You just point a big lamp at the black, oily darkness and voilà – you’re free to pass. Well, it’s more complicated than that, as the puzzles themselves are pretty challenging, but that’s what it boils down to.
The mechanics may be simple and somewhat mundane, but using to overcome the obstacles in your way is admittedly pretty satisfying.
Lightmatter keeps finding new ways to use darkness against you, and slowly teaches you how to fight it off with the few tools you have. I’ve felt that precious “Take that game – I’m smarter than you!” feeling multiple times during my playthrough. That’s really all you can want from a puzzle game, even if you are just moving around giant lamps.
I did start to get annoyed with the puzzles right towards the end, but it was then that the game shifted into a fast-pace puzzle platformer. The exhilarating music, together with a more open level-design, made me wish there were more moments like that throughout the game to break the puzzle-solving. It’s really one of the highlights that shows the kind of talent Tunnel Vision Games has at their disposal.
In the Shadow of Giants
But no first-person puzzle game would be complete without a megalomaniac voice chattering in your ear all the way through. In Lightmatter, this voice is Virgil, the CEO of Lightmatter Technologies. Virgil is a Cave Johnson type, meaning he’ll yammer on and on about his genius, his vision, and how everyone else just doesn’t understand them. He even mentions Johnson by name during the game, as well as makes multiple references to Aperture Science, to the delight the Portal fans this game is aimed at, I’d imagine.
Thankfully, Virgil is voiced by the talented David Bateson, who you may know as the voice of Agent 47 of the Hitman franchise. Bateson does an incredible job as Virgil, bringing light humor, sarcasm, and an ever-present condescending tone to every line of dialogue.
While Virgil is the main driving force of the narrative, we also get to hear the story from another point of view via secret recordings of one of the employees, and you can probably already tell where this is going.
Sadly, the story isn’t as memorable or as gripping as that of the game it keeps referencing. I know it’s really not fair comparing the two, but the constant Portal callbacks only made me wish I was playing that game again.
It is Bateson’s delivery that carries the story, but the minute the game is over – you completely forget about it. It would have been nice if Lightmatter was a little more original with its story, instead of just the “love letter to the genre” (i.e., to Portal) the developers intended it to be.
The overall package that is Lightmatter is a gratifying puzzle game that plays, looks, and sounds excellent. It manages to take a rather simple premise and run with it for about three hours without getting repetitive or frustrating. Quite the contrary – some of its best moments are right at the end, so you’re left wanting more when the credits roll. Hopefully, developer Tunnel Vision Games is listening.
The best part is that the game is “free-to-try.” You can play the first hour or so for free, and if you like what you see (and if you like first-person puzzle games – you will), you can then purchase the rest. I love this model, especially for an indie studio’s debut title. It sure made my decision to play the rest of the game much easier.
So if you’re into first-person puzzle games with more Portal references than you can tolerate – give Lightmatter a try. You’ll be happy you did; at the very least, it will put the spotlight on a promising indie game studio you definitely should watch out for.
Developer: Tunnel Vision Games
Release Date: Jan. 15, 2020
Available On: PC
Reviewed On: PC
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