We fans of Lucasarts have long been clamouring for some sort of return to the inspired creativity that fuelled their development teams in the '90s. On the other hand, it's clear that they are a very different company from what they were before. While it's one thing to recapture the feel of those classics, it's quite another to rebuild it from scratch.
Lucidity, then, felt like a shrewd move. Free from the pressure and risk of being a big-budget title, this small downloadable game appears a perfect opportunity for the developers or ‘The Great New Hope,’ as I like to call them, learn to walk before they run.
The main character of Lucidity is a little girl named Sofi. While you have no control over her as she skips through the dream-like 2D environments, you can help her get around. This is done by placing one of a handful of different objects that are given to you at random about the environment - for example a platform to act as a bridge or a fan to blow Sofi up high. You can also keep one object in reserve, to use strategically at a later point in the level.
The result is what I found to be a surprisingly fast paced game in parts. If you've ever played Tetris and let's face it, you have, then you'll be familiar with the feeling towards the end of your game of desperately needing the right shape to get you out of trouble. Lucidity sometimes feels like this, too, and by far the most enjoyable moments in the game spring from improvising your way out of a situation with an inspired (or desperate, more likely) series of object placements.
The most immediate draw of Lucidity however is, of course, the presentation. The papercraft, storybook visual style and sparsely arranged but surprisingly diverse music really do work together to create a wonderful dark fairytale atmosphere.
It's especially good to see the animators having a chance to stretch their legs after being limited by The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Editions's limited number of frames; there is some excellent work here. While it's arguable that the animation of the various creatures while playing is not as impressive as in the all-too-few cutscenes, Sofi herself is consistently wonderful. This is especially noticeable in the latter two-thirds of the game where she will react with increasing panic as a deadly wall of, er, death relentlessly chases her through the levels.
It's rather a shame, then, that most of the game's sparse plot is told through a static shot of Sofi's diary at the start of each level and a rather pithy postcard at the end. This method doesn't seem to play to the strengths of the excellent art direction, both visual and aural.
Much more of a shame is that several significant gameplay flaws hamper what is otherwise a promising concept. While the occasionally frantic gameplay might seem somewhat at odds with the dreamy aesthetic, it's nothing compared to the amount of frustration Lucidity is capable of generating. Most of this frustration stems from the number of different ways Sofi can die that just don't seem to be the player's fault.
Collision detection is a major culprit here. It's remarkably unforgiving; you will often find Sofi colliding with an enemy which appeared to be out of her way. While she is able to take a couple of hits and heal by collecting fireflies, there is no period of immunity after being hit - so if she gets stuck next to an enemy, it's frequently game over. There is also some inconsistency in the way that Sofi reacts to the environment. While she is usually quite happy to hop a short distance to the next platform, if she's walking on a platform placed by the player she will just fall off the edge and there's no reason why the two should be treated as different.
Worse is the camera control - or lack thereof. Often it would be useful to look ahead, particularly if you want Sofi to fall down to a lower area, so that you know what she is falling into. However, there is no way of doing so, bizarrely - especially since the right thumbstick on the Xbox 360 controls are unused and would be more than up to the task. The camera takes a moment to catch up with Sofi when she is falling, meaning that you have no time to react to what is in her path by the time it has done so.
With all these problems and no checkpoints in the level, it is all too easy to get sent right back to the beginning especially when you are by design at the mercy of some sort of mischievous object-assigning god. This is not to say that it's a particularly difficult game - I blew through the main story in under three hours - but it does seem rather arbitrary in the way it deals out death. I'd restart one level a dozen times before succeeding out of luck rather than skill, then complete the next in one try despite making a plethora of mistakes.
What I hoped for most of all was that there would be as much imagination in the design of the game itself as there obviously is in the art direction. Instead the design is timid and almost seems to be apologising for getting in the way of the aesthetic. What begins as quite a good game mechanic never develops beyond the first act, so all the levels begin to blur into one.
Frustratingly, the game does offer up a few more unique-if-unspectacular challenges in the form of bonus levels which you unlock by collecting enough fireflies - for example, one has you using only bombs to dig your way through. It would have been far more interesting if the level designers had done more in this direction, thought of more ways that the game mechanics could present different challenges to the player and incorporated this into the main game. The final (proper) level does present a different challenge of sorts but one so unimaginative and obnoxious in its unfairness that I was still seething and sweary through what was otherwise a well-animated and touching end game sequence. I'm fairly sure this is not how the designers wanted me to feel.
All that said, I refuse to end this review without acknowledging once again how refreshing it is to see Lucasarts trying something like this. If they find the right game, I am very confident that they have an extremely talented set of artists and musicians to help bring that vision to life. If the game designers can be equally bold and hold themselves to similar standards, we'll certainly see a great game out of them yet.
9th October, 2009
Pros: Great art direction, animation and music, decent basic mechanics.
Cons: Frustrating deaths, unimaginative levels, disappointing story exposition.