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Wot I Think: NaissancE

Breathe

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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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Jim Rossignol

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