There is something to be said for finding brilliance in minimalism. From an art movement to digital architecture, and even in the gaming sphere, to see those creating within narrow constraints is admirable – using only the fewest tools to express a story. Games like Parallel Circles’ excellent minimalist platformer Flat Heroes illustrate how even seemingly small games can open up with a lot of complexity later on just by steadily introducing components that can stack in complex ways.
That concept of scaling complexity within a set of simple systems and mechanics is the driving force behind Alexandr Bondarenko’s side-scroller The Explorer of Night, in which as a cat-type creature you must venture into a forest to obtain a flower capable of curing a family member from a nondescript illness. As we see with this very brief plot description, the minimalist approach isn’t just taken in one component; it feels like The Explorer of Night is intrinsically minimalist. This is both a good and bad thing.
Bondarenko’s final product certainly has much to be admired, at least when it comes down to the actual gameplay. Side-scrolling platformers and puzzlers are perfect for this minimalist approach as the genre is all about taking basic abilities and items and combining them in ever increasingly difficult situations. This approach plays out wonderfully here, with levels steadily introducing enemies such as spiders and birds, and usable items such as stones and dynamite. All these are used really well, never breaking the gameplay’s internal logic and combining with some good level design to create nicely built multi-stage puzzles and platforming. Whilst some stages do feel slightly long and use some very tried-and-true set pieces (Crash Bandicoot’s boulder has found a way in), the level design does a nice job of freshening up the gameplay, particularly later in the game with some developed water puzzles. In this sense, this side-scrolling adventure excels at being built on solid foundations and principles.
This extends into the game’s boss fights – all being the best parts of the experience. Each of them present a worthwhile challenge whilst all have a logical path to success that prevents the player from getting easily frustrated. In particular, the game’s final boss is an extremely memorable encounter, packed with a great sense of bombast and spectacle to conclude everything, with numerous platforms flying everywhere and deadly spikes to keep track of. The Explorer of Night really understands how to make simplistic boss fights engaging by laying out the challenge quickly and visually communicating the tools available to achieve victory, showcasing understanding of boss design and how to do it on a small scale.
The inherent visual sensibilities of the game also apply to the narrative – a simple story that is told almost entirely through short cutscenes between the game’s larger areas and before and after boss battles. What there is to say is that the story is fine. Of course, no one is expecting a nuanced twist on a classic forest adventure that transcends all of fiction, but the story here is perfectly satisfactory for what it is, a simple adventure with an unknown forest as its backdrop. The story does have an heir of mystery in order to drive it along, with strange happenings and secret societies that unfold over the game’s relatively short runtime. It works well enough to at least be satisfying.
However, where minimalism aids The Explorer of Night, it also detracts from it in a few ways. Whilst the gameplay in principle is well thought out, it does occasionally suffer. Firstly, the movement of the protagonist on the controller is very slidey. This can help in situations where the surface is flat and mainly involves moving quickly. However, it also means that small precision movements are unnecessarily tricky, resulting in frustrating deaths through slight missteps that can build frustration in regular levels.
The minimalistic approach to the game’s visuals and audio also present a problem, and the variations to gameplay sadly don’t extend to the visual design. The art direction within The Explorer of Night isn’t ugly by any means, with the forest floor and many structures built out of various polygonal shapes resulting in an angular looking forest and cave setting. However, in spite of some later river sections, the visual design never really looks to significantly change, leading to a visual repetitiveness that hurts artistically. There is also a slight auditory repetitiveness that feels jarring as the score, whilst good in reinforcing a slightly creepy tone in areas, again lacks variety or development aside from the final boss fight.
Whilst on the subject of things lacking, the only other real problem is a lack of accessibility options for this console adaptation. Whilst the option of the Xbox Adaptive Controller is there, basic ideas and systems such as colour-blind options aren’t present. Given some items such as bounce pads and enemies such as fish standout primarily for their colour, with shades of red and blue contrasting the darkness of the night background, a lack of a colour-blind option may hurt players in this regard.
Ultimately, The Explorer of Night on Xbox One is a fundamentally solid adventure with its fair share of issues that prevent it from standing out. But as mentioned, there is plenty to admire in minimalism. Within the technical and artistic restrictions lies a short adventure that can satisfy those looking for a sound cheap bargain, for within the night lies plenty of decent platforming, even if it lacks elsewhere.