Wot I Think: Albino Lullaby – Episode One

Ape Law’s first game, Albino Lullaby [official site], intrigued us when a demo of its twisted peculiarity appeared in February this year. Packed with potential, we couldn’t wait to see where it was going, and how it would all come together. Has it worked? Here’s wot I think?

Albino Lullaby’s demo suggested something very exciting. An enormously atmospheric exploration game, with a unique hand-scribbled art style, and some really quite horrendously creepy creatures. Exploring strange buildings capable of rearranging rooms, walls and floors around you via enormous mechanical constructions, you would piece together the deeply odd tale of monstrous tubular worm-things and their devotion to an unseen figure called Grandmother – I couldn’t wait to see how it would all come together. Unfortunately, it seems the answer is – technically – rather poorly.

The atmosphere is there. And the art is amazing. The buildings in which you crouch, panic, and sprint are quite remarkably designed, creating foreboding dingy hallways, then suddenly ludicrous architecture or the best toilet in gaming history. (If that’s not a quote on their Steam page, I’ll be distraught.) The design is undeniably Unreal 4, but with a fantastic hand-drawn look to the shading and textures. While too much is too often too dark, it’s never not a pleasure to look at. And good grief, the “grandchildren”, as they’re called. Imagine if a marshmallow grew taller, and then the sort of face that you’d wake up screaming after dreaming into existence. They sludge around, leaving behind a trail of green ooze, and when they spot you, only a load point or strange glowing blue light will stop their creepy shuffly chase. Yup, atmosphere is nailed.

Unfortunately, an awful lot else is not. It begins quite simply, just having you move about the peculiar main house, picking up poorly written notes (I can’t tell how much is deliberate, and how much is just bad writing) that allude to the twisted family of worm-things who live there, and pressing buttons because there are buttons to press. Soon, and rather splendidly, the Grandchildren reveal themselves, first in little glimpses, and then in full-blown just stood there in front of you being just the most awful things. The instinct to turn and run is exactly right – if they touch you, you die.

Or if you fall off a roof, you die. Or if you go near a wall that hasn’t moved before but moves and kills you, you die. Or sometimes there’s no clue in which direction to go and eventually your random running has you cornered by Grandchildren, you die. Or when you jump into an area that it looks like you’re supposed to jump but is in fact a dead end, you have to die by loading the previous checkpoint.

And those checkpoints are beyond awful. Hugely far apart, with no quicksave on offer, surprise deaths often come accompanied by surprise ‘having to replay a huge amount of the level again’ (and again). I traversed the same section of rooftops perhaps seven times because it was absolutely not clear where I was supposed to go, and experimentally dropping to a place below was sometimes the right thing to do, and sometimes not. Sometimes you should jump to a nearby platform, sometimes it’s blocked by an invisible barrier and you fall off and die.

What’s enormously obvious is Ape Law didn’t sit enough people down in front of the game and watch them play. There are a number of points where the “correct” direction is not obvious, and any other leads to inescapable locations or punitive deaths. At one point, completely bemused about where I should be going, I gave in and watched a very promptly uploaded Let’s Play. I watched that guy wandering around in circles for ten minutes in the same place. I finally spotted the way forward just before he did. That’s the sort of thing that’s easy to realise and fix, if you only watch people play your game during development.

The other huge leg of the game that’s far too wobbly is stealth. As you progress you gain equipment that allows you to fend off the Grandchildren, but ideally you want to go unspotted for as long as possible. The game very nearly gets that balance of stealth-stealth-stealth-PANIC right, letting you adapt from sneaking to freaking out and sprinting. It might work just fine but for the frequent lack of knowing where it is you should be sprinting to.

And indeed, it’d help if it were possible to have a better understanding of what triggers detection. At some points you can crouch right past a worm-thing, inches from him, and he won’t notice. At others, they’ll spot you from fifty metres away with their backs turned. A musical sting warns you you’re in trouble, but it remains frustrating that the rules seem to keep changing. And while I’m listing concerns, I had some performance issues in the game’s final section, framerates dropping very badly, however it ran smoothly everywhere else – it’s hard to be sure if that’s an issue for everyone.

Albino Lullaby delivers all the atmosphere we were hoping for, but then fails to have a sturdy enough game beneath it. Failure is so easily come by, and invariably means replaying a chunk of game that becomes increasingly banal the more times you see it. And yet get past whatever moment, and something extraordinary will likely happen, riveting you once more into this peculiar and disturbing world. The voice acting is amazing, and really deeply fucked up. The whole thing is an experiment in oddness, and in that it succeeds enormously well, if taking some rather large cues from The Stanley Parable. But sadly, as a technical production, it’s often more frustrating than interesting.

(Unfortunately, due to a Fraps-based disaster, all my screenshots for this game proved to be of Tweetdeck, so we’ve used press shots. Oops.)

8 Comments

  1. noodlecake says:

    I always wonder if artists who have worked on games that are visually beautiful and unique but not successful in terms of gameplay suffer by putting the game on their CV. I guess the assets they created still stand up on their own as part of a portfolio.

    • Jose.D says:

      Well, I think that if an asset looks beautiful and is technically “correct” it doesn’t matter if the game was bad. Recruiters and supervisors are going to judge you according to your game art abilities.
      On Polycount or Gameartisans’ forums you’ll notice that a lot of threads are about amazing asset sculpts or texturing, you’ll read other artists praising the hard work behind a chair, a sword, a glass or a full armored character, even when those assets are from bad games.
      This might sound a bit cliche, but when you start sculpting an asset, you feel like that -let’s say… crate box- is your child and it deserves all the attention you can give it (within the awful deadlines :P ).
      So, I agree with you, an asset stand up as a portfolio piece if it’s beautiful, and the artistic community is definitely going to notice all the effort you’re putting on it.

  2. ZIGS says:

    So, what a shame?

  3. Jalan says:

    The look of it is so distinct that I dare to say I’d buy it based on that alone, whether it was absolute rubbish to play or not. I guess that’s a sign I need to learn to manage my finances a bit more responsibly than I often do.

  4. Bugamn says:

    I went to check if they were going to quote this article on their Steam page and I have found that they quoted the two previous articles, where the second quote is:
    “2015’s smartest horror game…”
    — Adam Smith. Rock, Paper, Shotgun
    While in the original article (which is linked there) it says: “Albino Lullaby [official site] could be 2015’s smartest horror game.”

    • Nixitur says:

      Wow, that… borders on dishonest. Even though that quote technically appears in the article, that is intentionally misleading.

      • Serenegoose says:

        I think to say it ‘borders’ on dishonest is to make very generous excuses for someone who has just been caught lying to you.

  5. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Please developers, give us back the old option of quicksave. If I don’t want to use it, and play the game as you want by using your checkpoints, OK, that’s an option. Its my loss if I somehow miss out on an experience you meant for me to have. But I’d like for that to be my choice. Perhaps it adds an extra complexity to PC ports because of save file creation and size, I don’t know. I also understand the balance of challenge to reward – if I beat this whole hard section, rather than save-scumming, I feel good. That’s fine.

    But if I have to repeat a not-very interesting, or just badly designed section of it again and again; if I have to lose progress because life intervened and required me to go and do something else; if I have to sit through exposition or cutscene for the fifth time – that makes for a less enjoyable and sometimes outright infuriating experience. Please give us the choice.