Wot I Think: NaissancE

By Jim Rossignol on March 6th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

NaissancE is first-person platforming in an exquisitely beautiful abstract world. I’ll say this: it’s a recipe for conflict within Old Jim Rossignol.

This is an architecturally adventurous monochrome first-person action game, where the action is all jumping and activating triggers. This means two things. The first is that it is precisely the kind of game I love to explore: a digital rabbit hole of design, and the abstract outpourings of someone’s spatial imaginings. It’s akin to wandering around one of those ultra high concept design pieces that architects occasionally spew out, but never build. It is at once claustrophobic and vertiginous, and it focuses on the possibilities of space within a game world. Heady stuff.

More importantly, it’s inventive within that: whenever I thought I was done with this game, it threw another extraordinary space at me – usually a stark, pale set piece, like something out of a German expressionist film from the ’20s – and I continued. Which brings us to the second, less palatable thing. The reason I kept thinking I was done with NaissancE is because the game’s main challenge is leaping around platforms, often in near darkness. It’s regularly frustrating to the point of just-need-some-air keyboard quitting. Yes, there’s a steep challenge here, and although the developers have patched in a bunch more help post release, the plain fact of it is that I just can’t stand tricky 3D jumping. NaissancE has some of the worst of it.

This is, in some sense, a good thing. NaissancE isn’t just wandering around a beautiful or strange place, and so can’t be accused of lazily washing up the shores of The Walking Simulator genre, as a number of games in recent times have done. There is something to master in here, even if it’s not exactly my cup of tea, and, indeed, not all consistent. Some of the puzzles are pretty good, while others are weak guesswork. It’s a little confused at times, but at least it offers brainwork.

The problem – and I realise this is specific and subjective – is that it’s exactly the kind of thing I personally loathe being expected to master: jumping puzzles. Fuck these things. Specifically 3D jumping puzzles with loads of trial and error, loads of falling to your death and resetting to checkpoint, and even more falling back down somewhere that is inconvenient and having to ascend a series of platforms and ramps once again. It makes me roar.

It’s as if the very core of NaissancE itself were conflicted. The incredible moving light sources that make the game so supremely evocative also make the platform puzzles tortuous. At one point I got to the top of a hugely difficulty running and jumping sequence, only for the guide light to reset. I couldn’t see what I was doing. Guesswork saw me through, but I was howling at my monitor, howling at the developers: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?

And yet: it’s so, so beautiful. For a game with no characters, no clear story, no dialogue, no weapons or tools, a few fragments of text, and little else, well, there’s an awful lot going on. It’s just light and simply geometry and plain textures, but it’s nevertheless a gorgeous thing to go through. Less really is more. And on the occasions when it delivers an incredible space, you have to stop and take it in for a moment.

The audio too blooms with threat and awe and wonder, giving the game an alluring filmic quality, despite having nothing “cinematic” about in any traditional sense you might understand when that word gets dragged out to rest, carcass-like next to games. NaissancE breathes a sort of expressionist atmosphere, and I love it.

Breathing. Yes, that’s the other near trick. NaissancE asks you to control your breath, and this allows you to run greater distances – sustained running and jumping is critical at certain times. A flashing ring materialises in front of you, and you have to click to breathe at the right time. Mess it up and you begin to falter and white out. Having written that down I realise that it sounds like that might be annoying, or that it’s a silly extra task, but in play it’s second nature, and adds a compelling sort of rhythm to the game. It’s a genuinely neat piece of design. A extra thin layer of activity, that somehow imparts a great deal to the sum of the game.

That’s not to say that NaissancE rivals titans such as Portal or Antichamber in the world of first-person puzzlers, because it doesn’t. It’s lightweight, despite some clever switch-based puzzles and spatial foolery. But it is also a lot more interesting (at least to someone with my tastes) than a lot of the other contenders in this sort of area. It’s an unusual, singular game that uses the normal tools of first-person shooter design (UDK) to make something plainly weird. I’d give it some kind of gold star for just being different.

And so I like NaissancE a great deal. Its problems are undeniable, and I don’t want to gloss over them. I found the game a task, and I expect others will, too. Fortunately the oozing (yet markedly unpretentious) atmosphere, the sense of mystery, and the occasionally exquisite vistas provide enough of a reward to make it worth seeing, even if you will squirm at bloodying your patience, and grinding it against brutal jumping puzzles.

NaissancE is out now on Steam.

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45 Comments »

  1. sub-program 32 says:

    This is pretty much spot on with my opinion on the game. I really want to explore the world it portrays, but the jumping puzzles are so tricksy that they actually break my suspension of disbelief. After all, immersion is hard when you have died and come back loads of times and all sense of curiosity has been replaced by frustration.

  2. RobinOttens says:

    I’ll have to check this out sometime.

    Also, NaissanceE is spelled with two E’s at the end. Making it unpronounceable. I never noticed until I saw someone mention it. There’s some clever (or accidental) logo design trickery going on to make you brain overlook the first E.

  3. Alien426 says:

    Would you kindly stop linking to Steam when the game has an official web site (http://www.naissancee.com)?

    It’s a bit partisan to link to only one store, when (in the future) the game might be available elsewhere.

    • Spider Jerusalem says:

      it’s not really partisan if steam is the only place the game is currently for sale (with no mention of other impending ways to acquire).

      • Alien426 says:

        What you mean to say is “it’s not really partisan at the moment“. And I already acknowledged that. There’s still people to whom Steam is not the best thing since sliced bread. Even people who like Steam will probably agree that its quasi-monopoly status is not so good.

        Look, how much trouble is it for an interested party to go to the game’s site and find a place to buy it there?

        The best solution would be to not put a link in the beginning, have the lower NaissanceE link go to its site and turn the text “Steam” into a link… to Steam.

        Options, people! You like’em in your games, have them in your reviews!

        • P7uen says:

          I would normally agree, and I think they usually do don’t they?

          But if I was a dev I would want people to go to the place they can give me money and find info, rather than the place they can only find info. Jim’s a dev too don’t forget, HE KNOWS THESE THINGS.

    • Urthman says:

      Amen. The first mention of a game’s name in a review should link to the game’s homepage, not a particular store that’s selling the game.

  4. RogB says:

    interesting look, some parts remind me of the vast, bleak landscape (cityscape?) of Tsutomu Nihai’s ‘Blame’

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-j3dY0THWQyI/TW1JsOzcXNI/AAAAAAAAAOQ/NWTld85D2TY/s1600/BLAME%2521_splash_page.jpg

    • Ravenholme says:

      That’s because it is heavily inspired by Tsutomu Nihei’s work, especially Blame! (It was acknowledged on their website in the ‘About’ Section)

      So this:
      “And yet: it’s so, so beautiful. For a game with no characters, no clear story, no dialogue, no weapons or tools, a few fragments of text, and little else, well, there’s an awful lot going on. It’s just light and simply geometry and plain textures, but it’s nevertheless a gorgeous thing to go through. Less really is more. And on the occasions when it delivers an incredible space, you have to stop and take it in for a moment”

      Is really it just cribbing the atmospheric tricks that Blame! itself used. A pity that Jim hasn’t read it, clearly.

      Also, I’m not sure “Cityscape” accurately describes the structure in Blame, “Megascape”, might be closer (Considering the point where he wanders into a vast, spherical space and it’s heavily implied that it was where Saturn/Jupiter used to be before the Builders cannibalised it)

      • RogB says:

        oh wow, didnt realise that it was actually one of their inspirations.

        I’ve often wanted a game that evoked the same mystery and scale of those environments.
        But it shouldn’t really be an action game, more of a meaningless exploration (like Proteus)

        (edit) ‘Meaningless’ is not the right word (sounds derogatory, but I dont mean it that way)

        • Ravenholme says:

          Agreed

        • ChrisGWaine says:

          I also really want to see a project that tries to go in that direction. One possible advantage of not making environments pose gaming challenges is that it would mean there was less in the way of allowing them to be designed more as plausible places, with the interest for the player being in exploring in order to form ideas about what they could be, instead of thinking about how to progress.

          • Jigowatt says:

            I’ve been dreaming about a genre of games like that for ages. I’d love to have an alien environment (perhaps Lovecraft’s forgotten Antarctic city, or the inside of Arthur C Clarke’s Rama) just *there* for me to explore, without any derivative, tiresome gameplay mechanics shoehorned in. I want to enter an underground chamber and activate a glowing symbol on an ornately carved column – causing tremors underfoot and white light to emit from cracks in the walls – and not immediately (or ever) understand what purpose that ancient switch served. Unfortunately, this kind of mystery and exploration for the sake of it probably isn’t enough to keep the majority of people interested, and so from a commercial point of view, it’s understandable why games like this don’t really get made.

          • Pliqu3011 says:

            @Jigowatt
            Yes. Yes. Yes. You’re describing the game I’ve been dreaming about for years (albeit in a bit different setting). In fact I’ve thought and written so much about it that it’s my secret, hopelessly ambitious project to turn it into reality someday. I’m probably far too lazy to ever succeed, but hey, a man can dream, can’t he?

        • morbid_chicken says:

          I guess none of you have actually played this game, but what you are describing (a game simply about exploring mysterious architecture/places) is exactly what this game is. I have also wanted a game like this for a long time and finally got it. Yes, there are a few sections where you need to go through some tiresome gameplay mechanics, but so far (a few hours in) the vast majority of the game is simply exploration of a stunningly strange and beautiful environment, with the “gameplay” taking up very little actual time.

      • kronpas says:

        logged in just to reply to your comment: yes, finally someone read the manga! I love Tsutomu Nihei’s works, if anything just for the vast, devoid of people atmospheric feeling he draws.

        But $20? Sorry I ll wait till it comes down to at least $5, then I ll consider >.>

  5. Kein says:

    Review pretty much sums it up. It is an interesting piece of game but honestly? It not worth the price that set for it. Must buy during the sale with 66-75% discount, but right now I’d advise only if you are really hungry for such kind of “unusual” games (Dear Esther, Antichamber) and have lots of monah to throw out.

    • FailX says:

      Or if you want to support the developers? I would happily pay full price or more (and let’s be honest, it’s not very expensive) for this game to support its developers instead of buying another sequel to a sequel for triple the price… Sales are good for many reasons but they also skew the perception people have of the value of things in general.

      • Jalan says:

        “Not very expensive”… Maybe your financial situation affords you the luxury of saying that but not everyone else is so fortunate, Kein may be among those less so.

        • joa says:

          So the price of goods should be set to whatever people can afford? Not sure that would work

  6. Felixader says:

    I am two hours into it, and it really makes my mind wander and inspires lots of “probably this and that could have happened here”. Then i found structures wich strongly suggested that lots of people once lived here and my imagination went wild.

    I really miss games doing this to me the last ten years barely had games that inspired such imagination in me.
    Dark Souls beeing one of them.

  7. particlese says:

    Ooo, thanks! I had forgotten about this one…and that I need to make time for Kairo.

    I’ll be interested to see how my opinion of it compares, as I don’t mind 1st-person jumping puzzles nearly as much as you, by the sounds of it. My closest point of reference is Mario Galaxy (and whatever portion of its sequel I managed to choke down), which I might haved enjoyed more had the camera not gone out to lunch every five seconds.

  8. Gigglsmythe says:

    Sadly, two things seem to be true: 1) The game mechanics of NaissancE are annoying enuff to keep me from playing the game, and yet it is a title designed for a gamer like me who enjoys exploratory and non-standard game xps. And 2) an interesting, interactive, aesthetically titillating piece of software can easily be ruined by a dev’s fears that their game might be labeled as a “walking sim” because they didn’t throw some hackneyed jumping mechanics into a game (so that people might feel comfortable calling a piece of interesting, interactive, aesthetically titillating piece of software a “game”). Yeah, I know we’re all so scared of being bored (“walking?!? I don’t even do that shit in meatspace…”), but I think the main reason that games are becoming so exciting is that many (often indie) devs are starting to break the traditional rules of what a game can be, or should be.

    • dcalogue says:

      maybe the developer could add an observation mode (like a museum tour), where you could just wander around taking in the scenery? that would mean delivering two games in one, the mirrors edge 1st person platformer and the walking sim for those who just want to appreciate the art

  9. bill says:

    i like jumping puzzles and I think FPS games were much more interesting when they included them. I miss them.

  10. Messofanego says:

    Good write up, although I obviously disagree about hating first person platforming puzzles. Every critic (Yahtzee, Patrick Klepek, dozens more) seems to hate them :P

    I get it though, there are not enough first person platformers or too many bad platforming sections so critics don’t have as easy a task acclimatizing to the timing required and in a review deadline, it can get on their nerves. Doing this chase (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYXi7JMG2UU) was so gratifying to accomplish though when you have to do it in one go and breathing during jumps, even if I failed 4 or 5 times.

    • Muzman says:

      A lot of such people will assert that first person platforming is impossible, which is wrong. But it’s a really interesting thing. Some cite that it’s because you can’t see your feet sometimes or other things. It seems this isn’t really true either, even though it might help.
      More and more it seems that it’s just that people’s brains are slightly different. Some are better at offsetting their centre of gravity to the ingame one and some simply cannot do it and have a great deal of trouble learning (Yahtzee is one of these).
      I’m one of those that never has a problem with it, since the very first FPS jumping exercise.

      It doesn’t mean anything really. It’s not like it’s a quirk of any real use (maybe we’ll come in handy piloting drones in the future). The question of whether or not you should do FP platforming at all because a large segment of the population will have a fundamental problem with it is an interesting one.

  11. Michael Fogg says:

    More like “nonsense”.

  12. webwielder says:

    The similarities between this review and Alec’s impressions of Lifeless Planet are striking. I think it’s time for everyone to admit that people in general are just a lot better at creating beautiful imagery than they are at crafting compelling gameplay (or interesting writing). Bring on the age of walking simulators, leave the game games to the elites who know what they’re doing.

    • Gigglsmythe says:

      Not to be a d-bag, but “game games” means what? And “elite” means what in this context? Perhaps by “elite” you are referring to All those mid-level elite studios that have been going out of business of late? I definitely agree that it seems (I say “seems”) to be the case that it is easier for devs to create a stirring visual experience than a compelling narrative, but this doesn’t have anything to do (imho) with something qualifying as a “game game” (whatever that may be) or the fact that games with compelling narratives are always or even often created by elites (which if by “elite” you mean triple A devs, who by any measure have at best a mixed success at implementing narrative effectively). Of course, if by “elites” you meant anyone who makes “good games”, then of course, you got yosef a meaningless tautology…

  13. CelticPixel says:

    Spot on, Jim. I usually argue that it wouldn’t hurt ambient exploration games (walking sim’s a bit derogatory, isn’t it?) to have a few puzzles or a bit more world interaction, but if only one game could just be walking from A to B it should be NaissancE. Simply descending through the massive structures made me feel like I was embarking on an epic hero’s journey and for once that was enough for me. The music and ambient fx are top notch too. The game is hampered by awful checkpoints, infuriating first person platforming and poor player sign-posting, but it does scale like no other games. There were moments where I felt awe, which is quite an achievement for a game.

  14. qmishery says:

    Am i the only one who knows Pauline Oliveros? Dont dissapoint me guys(

  15. Pliqu3011 says:

    “This is, in some sense, a good thing. NaissancE isn’t just wandering around a beautiful or strange place, and so can’t be accused of lazily washing up the shores of The Walking Simulator genre, as a number of games in recent times have done.”
    What exactly is wrong with “Walking Simulator” games, and why are they “lazy”? Am I the only one who likes to just explore in a game?

    The jumping bits are actually what turned me off of NaissenceE. I just want to explore the fantastic scenery, at my own pace without any pressure. If I wanted to play a “game-y” game I’d go play Super Meat Boy or something.

    • MrUnimport says:

      Yeah, how dare action games be atmospheric! If I wanted skill-based challenges, I’d play Pong!

      Shadow of the Colossus is a crime against video games!

      • Pliqu3011 says:

        Way to completely misinterpret my comment.

        I’d say it’s fairly obvious that the “center”, the main feature of NaissenceE is its architecture, and not its “action”, and I don’t think anyone would buy it for the platforming TBH. On the contrary, I’m sure a lot of people will buy it despite the platforming sections. I would certainly not call it an action game (the same with SotC btw). Just because it has some “action” in it doesn’t mean that’s the entire focus.
        Secondly, I’m just stating my opinion and I don’t pretend otherwise. You seem to take my opinions as if I’m pushing for them to become law or something. Am I not allowed to be a bit disappointed that a game is not the way I’d prefer it to be? Why the hostility?

        That last part hurt my feelings, because SotC is probably my favorite game of all time. :(

  16. DickSocrates says:

    Jim Sterling summed up my opinion of it: “It’s one of THOSE games”.

  17. bill says:

    I rather like jumping puzzles in FPS games, although it does depend on how they (and the checkpoints/quicksaves) are implemented. Many of my favorite FPS games of the past invloved quite a lot of jumping / exploration. (I did hate Xen though, which seems to be where the jumping puzzle hate comes from).

    Jedi Knight is my all time fave FPS and it has quite a bit of jumping… but that jumping makes exploration more interesting, and makes the levels much more open and vertical.
    Modern FPS levels are all so flat, partly due to controllers and partly due to avoiding jumping.

    I do however find it strange that no one really noticed that Sands of Time essentially solved the jumping puzzles problem (for games that have long sequences of them). Just put in a rewind button. Mirror’s Edge (2) could really have done with a rewind button.

  18. morbid_chicken says:

    “It’s akin to wandering around one of those ultra high concept design pieces that architects occasionally spew out, but never build.”

    Where can I find some of these concept design pieces to wander around in? Please somebody tell me!

  19. Geebs says:

    This game is actually pretty great, and anybody who enjoyed the atmosphere and running action of Mirror’s Edge should give it a try.

    The atmosphere is very effectively conveyed, and the jumping action both helps to give sense of scale and also allows the player to express themselves – the environment feels intimidating if not actually hostile, and so you want to be able to run to try to get away from it. Also, running enables those great moments when you run through a door and stop on a hunch – and your toes are hanging over the edge of a bottomless pit.

    It probably isn’t really for those people who are getting upset that it isn’t a walking simulator though; the running action needs to be there to reinforce the atmosphere and the heart-in-mouth moments make the times when you can just stop and admire the landscape that much better.

  20. mandaya says:

    No word about the fantastic, utterly brilliant soundtrack? I think it’s one of the most overlooked aspects of this game that the game was built AROUND these haunting pieces of experimental music by a few of the world’s most ambitious avantgarde musicians. The dev asked the musicians to allow them the use of their tracks and built the levels to fit with these haunting, atmospheric ambient tracks. NaissanceE is a feast visually, but the music is really spectacular IMHO.