It’s not often that you review a game, complete it, and immediately skip back to the Microsoft Store to see how much it cost. Gleamlight costs £14.99. Heads up that, for that amount of money, you are buying an hour of gameplay, and – a guarantee – you will be cursing pretty much every one of those 60 minutes.
Where to start? Let’s get the positive out of the way. Gleamlight looks, initially, lovely. It imagines a world made almost entirely out of stained glass and then gives you a big old sword to chop through it. There’s a wonderfully satisfying crunch and shatter as you do so. It’s reminiscent of the Glass Masquerade games, and just as vibrant, with bold colours and heavy black contrasts.
In an alternate (shattered?) dimension, there’s a platformer that realises the potential of this stained glass world. But in Gleamlight the glass is just dressing. It’s about as valuable to the plot and gameplay as the grass in a Legend of Zelda game: you cut it, it disappears, and then you get on with something more important. You’ll soon forget it’s there as background decoration and stop bothering to interact with it. It could have been cheese or styrofoam and had a near identical effect to the gameplay or story.
Ah, the gameplay. The controls are unfinished or broken, or both. An example: after a jump, the game seems to flip a coin to decide which way you end up facing. It doesn’t matter if you jumped from left-to-right; you may well emerge facing left. When you are jumping into a pile of enemies with a sword drawn, which is pretty regularly, then this becomes a teeth-gritter.
Another example: an upgrade that’s unlocked at 20 minutes will allow you to surge, but to a predetermined distance. When you’re looking to reach a platform that’s the width of your character, you’ll experience the joy of surging beyond it over and over again.
I’ve got notes with seven or eight examples of these control niggles, and they really stack up, but we should move on as there’s more to warn about!
Levels are regularly designed to be vertically downwards, with large gaps between platforms, so you often can’t see where you’re jumping. However, the game is dense with enemies and spikes, so you’ll take leaps of faith, only to pinball between threats and emerge – if you’re lucky – with your life and a vastly diminished health bar. Die, and you’ll curse the gods of RNG – and the developers, of course.
The levels also feel like they are procedurally generated rather than designed. They’re plain and repetitive, which is an impressive feat in such a short game, and you can bypass vast swathes of them by simply falling in the right direction. Unlike almost every other Metroidvania game that is superficially like it, Gleamlight is entirely linear and offers no reason or opportunities to explore. There is no map because you won’t need one, and there is no story or plot development, so you likely wouldn’t have wanted to anyway.
The litany of issues continue. In a fascinating but ill-fated move, the devs have chosen a system where you regain health whenever you carve chunks out of an opponent. Red globs fly out and get absorbed by your player, bringing you back to full health. While it might sound good on paper, it’s bonkers in reality. Stand your ground and attack, and the health you regain will outpace the damage the enemy deals. Now toss in three boss battles where at least two of them can be cheesed in this manner, and you are left with – well – not many challenges at all.
Your life is reflected in the degree of colour on your character model. Get hit and the colour will drain to grey, then death. It’s an Isaac Clarke-like attempt to rid the game of UI, but it means you’re never quite sure of how many more hits you can take. When you’re gaining health as often as you are losing it, thanks to the HP-hoover mechanic, it can make your health impossible to plan and track. You just wade in and hope.
Then there’s the length of the game. I’d love to know what times speedrunners get up to, but I was done within the hour. You could argue that a slightly harder reverse mode unlocks on completion, but that’s all it offers in terms of differentiation. I can’t imagine many people wanting to wade through a lazy regurgitation of the game. Genuinely, I thought someone was yanking my plank when the credits rolled. It feels cruel to dig into a game to this degree, but it’s an undeniably attractive game that could tempt someone to stump up the cash and give it a go.
It would have been difficult to make a case for this lightweight, unfinished game at a budget price point, but £14.99 for a game that’s a painful fart in the wind makes it a hard ‘no’. Find a copy of Bloodstained, Dead Cells, Hollow Knight or anything else, really, and you will have dodged an hour-long headache with Gleamlight on Xbox One.