2016 has seen a long line of puzzle titles arriving on console, and whilst that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it certainly doesn’t mean they are all intellectual mind-benders you’ll want to be jumping into any time soon. So with the arrival of Nebulous on Xbox marking the latest addition to the already crowded puzzle genre, I stepped in for a bout of light brain teasing to see if it had what it takes to stand out as a promising puzzle solver, or if it would simply be another puzzling nuisance.
Being a puzzler, Nebulous was never going to be too strong on the story side of things, after all, the focus should be on the gameplay, but that’s not to say there isn’t a story there. It’s just exceptionally dull.
The game follows Astronaut and Commander Dash Johnson, as he is pulled away from his crew whilst on a spacewalk and whisked into a wormhole that has appeared out of nowhere, hurtling him into another dimension. Now, whilst this would usually be an engaging moment in any story – if 2014’s Interstellar is anything to go by – when it happens to Johnson just mere seconds into the game, it’s already hard not to wish for this to be his demise. It’s quickly apparent that Commander Johnson is a rather smug and arrogant individual with his first words being insults of his accompanying crew. This is something that can usually be brushed off in most games, with some life-saving heroics or a nice turnaround in personality later on. Nebulous though is one game in which things tend to be the same with Johnson throughout the entire game, even though he’s now far away in an entirely different dimension in a difficult predicament. Admittedly a few parts can be slightly humorous, and at a vast stretch, I dare say that I may have laughed once, but believe me when I say a few is being extremely generous. Putting up with the constant needless babble whilst traversing the tragically designed levels, simply saw me turn down the volume for a bit of peace and quiet before I was done.
As for the gameplay, I’m not sure what exactly to tell you. Sure, this is easily recognisable as a puzzle platformer, but it’s certainly no smooth ride with issues present from the start.
First let me tell you about the layout, as this was the first problem I noticed with my time with the game. After the opening sequence of Johnson being gobbled by an unannounced space anomaly, the camera makes itself available for the players use. However, unlike most games, the cameras use in Nebulous is very much like the experience seen in most of the VR games and demos that populate the gaming market. Whilst controlling it is a rather simple process, with a quick swish of the right stick taking you on a tour of the parts of a screen you would never need to pay any attention to whatsoever, there is no denying that it feels very out of place. Whilst some players would simply shrug this off and keep the camera centred in the play area of the screen, which is nothing more than a few boxed areas in the centre of the screen, the mere ugliness of the feature is not the only issue as my gameplay was affected several times because of it.
Throughout the game players are required to guide Commander Johnson, who now resides in a see-through bubble, through several puzzles, forty to be precise, across four galaxies in a point to point fashion. This is done by using pre-set objects both fixed and movable, such as curved and flat platforms, conveyor belts and fan-like systems amongst various others, in order to avoid the many lasers and electrical floors that seem to be populating this new dimension. With these in place, Dash can then bounce and somersault between and off each object in order to make it to the exit wormhole at the end of each level. If this was a game with no issues then that would be it. But for those not turned away by the dulling prospect of constant dribble from Commander Johnson and unnecessary camera angles, it will be issues in the gameplay that will have you heading back to your games library in order to find something that works a little better.
The first issues start to arise when you’ve figured out just how to complete your level. Given that each level awards up to three stars, dependant on stars collected and the time taken to do so, it would make sense that finding that eureka moment in which you know just how to finish your level will see you rapidly placing your objects in position in order to gain the quickest time. Due to the camera being able to focus on other unused areas of the screen however, should you accidentally flick the sticks to far in one direction you can quickly find the object you wish to place is now stuck outside the barriers of the level. Play takes place inside boxed play areas. This means each of the boxes have barriers and,p due to gameplay rules, should Johnson touch any of these he will simply disintegrate and need to start again. Placing platforms around the edge of the screen is the only way to ensure this doesn’t happen and this means every level turns into a fight to keep your objects, not just ‘saving’ Johnson.
The next issue however is the worst one for me and was one that really ruined any chance of fun that I may have ever had. There will be a time, like the previously mentioned one, in which the answer to the puzzle becomes obvious and you realise just what you need to do. However, due to poor level design this doesn’t mean you’re actually any closer to beating the level. Too many times I found myself getting infuriated due to the way objects needed to be placed. Whilst most puzzle games can often be picky about how you do things – they are puzzle games after all – the need to place everything in the level to the exact millimetre can become bad enough to warrant turning Nebulous off and heading out for a massage to relieve all the tension it causes.
Many times, even on the very first galaxy, I found myself restarting levels ten or even 20 times just because the objects weren’t in the exact position needed. What made this worse was Johnson’s path doesn’t always go the exact same way every time, meaning you can often be stuck placing things in the near exact position over and over, until the bobbling nuisance finally reaches the end.
Finally what really brings everything down is the simplicity of each level; whilst the level design can often make things more repetitive than it needs to be, the levels themselves are rather simple to figure out and the variation is only made different by the added hazards found throughout. On top of its several issues, this makes Nebulous a rather boring affair. That said, those looking for a light brain stormer will be happy to find the levels that are included are simple enough to follow, and whilst the challenge included won’t be enough to satisfy gamers looking for a true challenge, those looking to get the 100% will be required to do their fair share of backtracking for each of the three stars needed to fully master each level.
It’s not completely doom and gloom however, and while it’s true that the levels could certainly do with more to keep the player engaged, the pre-set objects that are included with each do require the need to think about object placement and how to utilise each of the movable platforms to be best used with those already in place.
Overall and whilst the mass of puzzle titles available on Xbox One will mean there will always be something on hand to cure that puzzling itch one might have, there is no denying that Nebulous is, at best, an average title that will quickly find itself being one of the year’s forgotten titles.