The isometric viewpoint in video games dates back to the 1980's. Once a popular method of simulating 3D space on a 2D plane, the visual technique that brought us games like Q*bert, Wasteland and Baldur’s Gate, has since been scrapped in favor of modern 3D technology. However, every now and then a game embraces its isometric heritage and pays homage to classics from a bygone era. Lumo, developed by Gareth Noyce and published by Rising Star Games, is a recent attempt to replicate the magic of old isometric games. Initially released in 2016 for Windows PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita, Lumo has made its way to the Nintendo Switch.
Lumo’s premise is as basic as they come. While visiting a neighborhood exposition of classic video games, a young boy gets sucked into a malfunctioning computer terminal. Transported to a strange void, the boy is materialized inside the game as a wizard baby. From there, the player must navigate a labyrinth of rooms filled with puzzles and clear each of the game’s fourteen floors. Along the way, players can find dungeon maps to show floor layouts and collect a variety of collectibles ranging from ducks to cassette tapes.
Much of Lumo’s charm lies in its simplicity. Each floor in the game is divided into smaller rooms, offering bite-sized puzzles for the game’s tiny protagonist to conquer. As the nameless baby evades dangerous traps and leaps across the treacherous hazards, the camera remains static, always maintaining its diagonal, isometric perspective. At the same time, a mix of moody music, scuffling footsteps, and occasional silence creates a soothing backdrop. As Lumo proves, less is often more, and there’s a certain tranquility in exploring the game’s sprawling labyrinths in search of its teasers and secrets.
Complementing the simplicity of Lumo is the variety of its gameplay. The initial puzzles are relatively straightforward, tasking players with well-timed jumps or pushing crates in a certain order. However, the game quickly introduces new mechanics as players descend farther into the dungeon. Be it illuminating hidden platforms with a wand or using a cannon to complete a shooting gallery, Lumo keeps players expecting the unexpected.
The element of surprise carries over to the humor. While the game doesn’t have much of a story, it manages to sneak in a plethora of lighthearted gags throughout. From infomercial-like camera pans of the game’s primarily collectibles to paying a certain homage to the wizard Gandalf that Lord of the Rings fans are sure to enjoy, Lumo never takes itself too seriously. After all, it’s a game starring a baby.
Where Lumo seriously stumbles, however, is difficulty and pacing. While the game strikes a nice balance between puzzle solving and finding collectibles, doing the former can be particularly frustrating due to, ironically, the game’s isometric viewpoint. Without ability to rotate the camera, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the foreground and background of any given room. Early puzzles are easy enough to make this initially only a minor hindrance, but many of the later puzzles hinge on precise platforming and meticulous navigation. Add to this an unforgiving hitbox that won’t hesitate to kill you when in proximity of enemies or spikes, and Lumo’s once tranquil gameplay becomes an effort in patience and perseverance.
This wall of frustration came for me about two-thirds of the way through the game, and persisted until the closing credits. Puzzles that should have been simple to complete required tens of retries, few of which actually felt earned by the game’s challenge itself. An act as straightforward as pushing a group of icy blocks into a stair-like position took far longer than it had any rights. Suffice to say, this final stretch ends Lumo on a particularly sour note, and it simply isn’t much fun to play.
To add insult to injury, the game is incredibly short. It takes up to three hours to complete it, depending upon how much or how little players explore for optional secrets. With so many interesting ideas on display, it’s a shame that Lumo spends two hours building up momentum, only to fizzle out during the final act.
Lumo is a disappointing example of good intentions leading to bad results. While it pays admirable homage to the old-school, fixed-camera video games, Lumo falls victim to frustrating difficulty spikes and unwieldy movement. A short run-time coupled with a lack of depth perception spoils the fun, ensuring that Lumo is best left for those craving old-school puzzle games. The game isn’t without its charms, but it's hard to recommend it. Those interested in an old-school take on puzzle platforming may be willing to overcome its flaws, but modern gamers will want to reconsider their options before doubling down on Lumo.