As a fan of the indie puzzle-platforming genre, I was excited to see what Candleman: The Complete Journey had to offer. However, it left me feeling rather disappointed at its lack of charm, bland level design, and questionably implemented a collectible system. Spotlightor Interactive’s Candleman: The Complete Journey quickly lost my interest.
The player takes the role of a walking candle in the search of meaning in a lonely, dark world. Our small, sentient candle explores a variety of levels filled with platforming and puzzles. It’s a strange premise that lacks any ground in realism, but it works if you think of it as a children’s storybook. The game features a narrator that sounds as if she were in a documentary. Her delivery sounds stilted and it heavily contrasts with the childlike tone the game is going for.
The game is played with the analog stick and two buttons. There's a jump button and an ignite button. With ten seconds of wax, the player should only remain lit for short amounts of time. The game is coupled with an archaic life system providing ten lives per level. Levels are exploration heavy as there are both collectible and checkpoint candles the player can light up. Most of the areas are often drowning in darkness. This makes them impossible to navigate without lighting up our candle protagonist. Candleman is the first game to use darkness in such a unique way, at least from the games I've experienced. This is a good start, but it’s certainly not enough to keep the game interesting. I primarily enjoyed only around a third of the levels, and that's being very generous with the definition of the word "enjoyed."
Instead of calling levels after what they are, the developers decided to name their levels after the events occurring within the story. Candleman’s level design is often times bland in a way that made it difficult for me to continue. Lighting up all the collectible candles in a level rewards players with a response to each level name. The responses add a very light degree of detail to the story, while trying to rhyme in what seems to be a poor attempt at adding whimsy. The candle’s slow movement speed makes the experience rather tedious, but it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the collectible system.
The levels have a strong degree of variety in their mechanics. They keep the game from feeling stale. There are always new levels that experiment with distinct obstacles and puzzles. The developers try out different ideas and once it’s well established, they move on to the next new idea. They certainly succeed at variety from level to level, but there seems to be a lack of substance in the levels themselves. It often felt like a drag to traverse through most levels.
Despite the level design being on the boring side, the developers succeeded at teaching players new mechanics over time. It reminded me of how the old Mega Man games would present new mechanics in safe environments before testing the player on said mechanics. Teaching the player in such an organic approach is commendable. The game doesn’t really handhold the player and it works to the game’s favor. It was a highlight in the design of the game, but it didn’t really improve my opinion of the gameplay all that much.
One of my biggest gripes with the gameplay is the camera. The game is angled in a way that reminds me of Crash Bandicoot. The game is in 3D, but it has some 2.5D moments that feel off to me. I prefer my games to be either fully 2D or fully 3D. At times, I found it difficult to fully comprehend my location. The problem was made even worse with the overwhelming darkness surrounding most levels.
If you complete a level without lighting all the collectible candles, you can simply restart and the ones you previously lit will remain lit. Unfortunately, you need to reach the end of the level again to keep any newly lit candles. It’s unintuitive as the player has already proven that they’re capable of completing the level. There were many times I’d have to continuously replay levels just to find those last candles hidden in the worse of places. This was due to the fact that leaving the level resets the area as it was by default. Such a system incentivizes the player to continuously replay the level in search of the remaining candles if they don’t want to start from scratch later.
I lit every single candle in the game. Disappointingly, there didn’t seem to be any real reward for doing so. The levels lack challenge and I didn’t enjoy controlling the candle. The simplicity of movement keeps the game accessible. However, when you’ve played the same level five times in a row in search of the last candle hidden in a dark corner of a huge area, it gets very dull.
The game’s story would fit well within a storybook. It aims to appeal to a wide audience due to the very common issues that the candle faces. Despite all the attempts at evoking emotion, Candleman falls flat in being anywhere close to emotionally resonant. It’s hard to care about the protagonist due to its lack of physical human traits besides its legs. A game like Thomas was Alone breaks through this barrier using vibrant narration and a great cast with colorful personalities. All we have in Candleman is a monotone narrator and a candle that’s sad most of the time.
The narrative starts off in a light, existential mood, but it never goes beyond that. Near the climax, the story pans out quite predictably. Surprisingly, the last three chapters weren’t provided in the original Microsoft Xbox One release. The meaning of the story changes with these last three chapters, so it left me rather conflicted. Essentially, the developers added free downloadable chapters that resolved the conflict at the end of the main game.
My issue with the story lies in the lack of creativity. It has such a conventional story that leaves a lot to be desired. Some events that take place in the story did surprise me, but it didn’t carry much emotional weight for me. Even during the high points of the story, I didn’t really care about what was going on. The game also lacks depth in its story as I was never left pondering after playing the game. It had none of the qualities that make up a great story for me.
The graphical quality initially drew me in. It's one of the game's strong points, but it doesn't impress me as much in the aesthetics department. In fact, when the two combine, the visuals as a whole are underwhelming. In motion it often looks drab, especially in the unlit environments. From my eight hours of playing, I was never truly impressed by the visuals.
Progressing through the levels felt way too slow, finding collectible candles frustrated me, and I wasn’t particularly fond of the camera. The story failed to grab my attention due to the bland protagonist and the boring narrative. The gameplay mechanics stay somewhat interesting throughout, but the level design, platforming, and puzzles hold it back from greatness. Candleman is a decent experience, but it’s not a game I’d recommend without a few warnings.