Cinematic or “step-based” platformers were popularized by Another World and Prince of Persia (1989). These kinds of games were a mix of platformers and point-and-click adventure games. Gameplay was less focused on reflexes or momentum and emphasized fluid animation systems.
Gamers could always expect cinematic platformers to have puzzles and involve many steps to negotiate any situation. Inputs in these kinds of games are typically drawn out and delayed. This usually is a barrier for some gamers, but anyone willing to adapt to this playstyle would eventually find the immersive experience.
lunark is a cinematic platformer that homages Flashback: Quest for Identityy (1992) and also replicates its unusual control scheme and handling. To copy such an esoteric and specific title is very bold, but even more so is the virtuoso art and animation. Can this improve upon what Flashback established? Find out in this lunark review!
Developer: Canary Games
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release Date: March 30, 2023
lunark expects its players to be familiar with cinematic platformers. The controls will take a little getting used to and even copy many of the same inputs from Flashback. This means that there are several different ways to jump and they all have a fixed distance and height.
Jumping isn’t just a simple press of the X button; it executes Leo’s long jump which is for clearing gaps. Want to jump up to grab a ledge? Better make sure Leo is standing on the correct tile and tap up on the D-pad.
The long-high jump is especially tricky to execute. At first, most gamers will likely be put off by this unusual input method, since most cinematic platformers moving forward streamlined their controls.
The greatest innovation Lunark contributes is smooth screen transitions. Traditionally in cinematic platformers, each screen was shown without the levels scrolling. In lunark, making it to one end of the screen triggers a very quick wooshing pan. This helps keep the setting feel more cohesive than if it was just a series of static backgrounds.
lunark wants to be like Flashback. Copying the controls and its visual style wasn’t enough; lunark also cribs a lot of the narrative from the old Delphine game. Not that Flashback wasoriginal; it did rip its scenario from Total Recall (1990), but now it just feels like lunark is a copy of a copy of a copy.
The story revolves around Leo, who gets caught up in a mysterious conspiracy that somehow all connects back to him and his mysterious past. He follows clues that lead him from place to place, meeting allies and enemies along the way. The plot isn’t interesting in the slightest and the ham-fisted, overly expository dialogue does not help its presentation.
One of the best aspects of the cinematic-platformer sub-genre is how effective it can be to tell a story with its visuals. Another World was the grand champion of telling a complex sci-fi story through visuals alone and while Flashback did rely on some text, it was used sparingly. There is far too much “as you know” style of dialogue that it feels like the writer didn’t have faith in the player.
lunark has a lot more text than most cinematic platformers. It does not reach visual novel levels of reading, but there are a lot of characters to speak to and regretfully, they don’t offer anything that enriches the game’s world. Most of the optional NPC dialogue is uninteresting flavor text that is used to fulfill some of the backer rewards from its Kickstarter.
There are a lot of unique and one-time character portraits throughout the game. It is impressive that the artists made every piece distinct, they clash with the more stylized art style. One minute Leo will be talking with a supporting character and the next minute an NPC with a weirdly realistic portrait will make players do a doubletake. It’s distracting enough to break immersion.
If the tedious dialogue wasn’t bad enough, the flavor text investigating when the world is wasted. It seems like every piece of optional interactable point of interest is a list of names of the backers. Leo will rarely say anything that explains the state of the world or gives any hint of his personality.
The story and writing do leave a lot to be desired, but lunark just so happens to be a very engaging cinematic platformer despite the story’s shortcomings. The level design and stage gimmicks are varied and follow through a consistent theme. Environmental puzzles are very cleverly executed and hidden power-ups that are just out of reach will keep players experimenting.
There is some element of trial-and-error with games like this and lunark is no different. The checkpoints do feel a bit too far apart, which means gamers will have to replay significant chunks after dying. Worse yet, continuing a save file restarts the entire chapter instead of resuming from the checkpoint.
Leo will find himself using lifts to get around, kiting killer drones, and getting into battles with sword droids. Other times he will have to solve puzzles and navigate complex 2D labyrinths.
There are visual cues that nudge the player on what to do and it is a shame that this kind of clever directing was not applied to the narrative. lunark may not be efficient with its story or have one that is worthwhile, but it’s a very impressive effort at what Flashback achieved.
Much like the games that inspired it, there are extensive rotoscoped animated sequences that push the action forward and give a sense of weight to actions. Some can be as simple as Leo putting a key item on a pedestal or as complex as him ziplining down from a building.
These vignettes look incredible and showcase the granular details of lunark‘s world because the in-game graphics go for a very chunky pixel look. There is not a lot of room for fine detail in the gameplay’s visuals. Characters are only a couple of pixels tall and their heads are maybe four dots at most.
The use of color and bold contrast does a lot of the heavy lifting in lunark‘s deliberately minimalistic art style. Key lighting is connected on to give a convincing impression of depth and even though objects are rendered with the bare minimum amount of pixels, everything is readable.
The standout feature of lunark‘s visuals is the character animation. Leo has countless frames that give his sprite weight and fluid movement. It is one of the most striking aspects of the game.
When Leo jumps and barely grabs onto a ledge, the physicality of the movement is felt. Throughout the entire game, the journey Leo takes feels visceral and brutal and it is because of the care put into his animation.
lunark won’t supplant Flashback any time soon. It’s held back by its derivative story and lame dialogue. However, the visuals and animation are truly an artistic achievement. It does manage to improve on the subgenre’s conventions in a minor way and the overall challenge is worthwhile for any fan of Flashback.
Lunark was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a copy provided by WayForward. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. lunark is now available for Windows PC (via Steam) and Nintendo Switch.