Reviewed on Nintendo SwitchAlso available on Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch
Growing up in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the main resource for young gamers eager to catch glimpses of upcoming titles came in the form of magazines. You couldn’t log on and see the latest trailer or see a streamer playing the newest title, you were restricted to pictures in magazines and if you were lucky, a demo-disc. Without any social media to speak of, this meant that as a kid, it was hard to get caught up in the hype for a game, only to be let down by the finished product. I distinctly remember reading a copy of Gamesmaster (my go-to along with the Official Nintendo Magazine) at some screenshots of Dragon Ball Z: Budokai – and I was hyped. I’d been a fan of the anime since I was old enough to understand why all those long-haired guys were screaming, and to be able to fight in 3D with my favourite characters; it went straight to the top of my Christmas wish list. Sitting there on Christmas Day, Gamecube hooked up to the TV in the lounge, I didn’t know what to expect. All I had to base my expectation on were the screenshots and information from my magazine – I wasn’t disappointed. Could I easily fire off Kamehamas? Yup. Could I re-live classic moments from the franchise? Damn right I could.
In the pre-social media age, before we had instant access to the newest trailer or gameplay footage, we could manage our expectations a little better. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in whirlwind of hype sometimes.
I’m saying all of this because Gleamlight does not live up that trailer we saw last year, in my expectations at least. You only need to glance at the Youtube comments to that trailer to see what most people thought about the game – specifically the comparisions it to a similar-looking title released a few years back, Hollow Knight. On paper, you could argue the games are similar. They’re both 2D action-platformers that are tough, they both have stories that you could miss and they’re both set in dark worlds but lit with some vivid colours. That’s where the similarities end though, on paper.
That trailer showed off a stained-glass world that looked genuinely beautiful. Colours were popping, you could see the sharp edges of shards of glass; I wanted to explore that world. But that world isn’t there to explore, the whole experience is linear – this is no Metroidvania. You run through rooms trying to find switches, killing enemies in your path, and then turn around and run the other way. The first time the credits roll, you probably won’t have been playing much longer than an hour. It’s an odd choice for a game that’s launched on the Eshop for £20 – many people won’t come back to Gleamlight after that first credits screen rolls.
By the time the credits roll for the first time, you've only beaten three of the twelve bosses you can come across; 75% of the games bosses won't be attempted by a lot of people. And it's a real shame since these fights are where Gleamlight shines brightest. Here, the confined spaces and the need to avoid getting hit require different strategies depending on the foe you're facing. I found myself struggling on a flying robot bird (the more I think of it, it was Ridley-esque) for a few hours until I discovered a dash-attack that I didn't realise I had gained earlier.
I felt triumphant and eager to press on through to the next biome for my next challenge, but I'm not sure how many people will progress to that point. The things that will bring you back to carry on playing this game, are hidden from you until later on. There's no real sense of a story being told here, you're left to figure out why these machines are alive and why you can steal their energy. In that first run, you'll go through the three biomes that the game has to offer, darting from left to right, up to down, before reversing and following the same path.
The game is full of these kinds of slightly curious decisions, you can see what the developers were trying to achieve, but it doesn’t quite work.
Take the decision to dispense with a traditional UI. Normally, when you lose health in a game, something on your UI will reflect this. Whether it’s less health in Zelda, losing coins in Mario, or just a bar showing how long you’ve got until you gotta hit restart.
In Gleamlight, the more vibrant and colourful you are, the more health you have. As you start turning a shade of grey, you’re pretty much on your last legs. I love this idea, stripping away what we see on screen to immerse us more into the experience – I’m all for it. But when the world you’re exploring is scarcely lit to start with, it makes it impossible to keep track of what’s going on.
And it means that we don’t really get to see that glass-stained world, what we get is robotic enemies who appear out of the dark frequently. Rather than create a sense of suspense or suspense, it just creates frustration. I don’t mind games that present a challenge as long as that challenge is fair. Gleamlight never felt fair, I rarely knew what I had done wrong because you get told nothing.
Dropped into the game, the only bits of information you receive come from the achievements section of the menu, here called Memories. If you find yourself not knowing where to go, chances are you’ve got a new power and didn’t realise you acquired it. Whenever I beat a boss I would mash all the buttons on my Pro controller to see if I could do anything new, a double-jump or the ability to dash upwards kept me alive more than once.
Trying to avoid enemies before you’ve cleared an area is already hard enough in the dark corridors, but when you add in how the platforming in this game handles, it becomes harder than some of the boss fights. Avoiding getting hit is everything in this game, with the vampiric nature to how health works, so you want precise controls. You can probably guess where this is going. When you jump in this game, you can end up facing any direction. I don’t know how to counter this, or whether you can, but not knowing where you’ll end up makes avoiding random spikes or enemies in the dark impossible.
I never really felt like I mastered anything in Gleamlight, all my successes relied on trial-and-error rather than any increased skill on my part.
Letting the player figure everything out and not holding their hand are welcome, but you need to design the game to reflect this. It’s another of those decisions that would’ve been avoided had a demo been released, rather than a trailer last year (see what I did there). In all seriousness, I’ve seen several people online who are completely stuck with what they need to do to progress. From not knowing how to start the game (there’s no input text when you start, you have to press Y on Switch) to being stuck with what to do once the credits roll.
Ultimately, Gleamlight doesn’t stack up to some of the 2D action games we’ve seen in the last few years or that trailer we saw last year when the game was first announced. Some people will call this a poor imitation of Hollow Knight especially, but this Gleamlight had the potential to forge its own identity. Bogged down by problems cause by some of the design decisions, it fails to live up to the hype and is hard to recommend at its current price point of £20.