Version tested: PC
There's death in videogames, and then there's death in videogames. The way to tell the two apart is enduringly simple. The first kind causes minor - if occasionally stinging - irritation: a brief round trip through the liminal world of the loading screen and back into the thick of it that happens, for the most part, only to you.
The second variety is permanent, however, and it generally happens to somebody else. Somebody like Aeris, for example, or the endless waves of chirpy grunts you might chew into during a quick round of Cannon Fodder.
With Lucidity, LucasArts' new platform puzzler, it's Nana's turn to meet her maker. Bun-haired, chubby and handy with the knitting needles, she's off to that Werthers' Original wholesalers in the sky. Nana's death sets in motion a journey that will lead her young granddaughter Sofi through a series of bizarre and perilous dream spaces as she struggles to come to terms with the loss.
Lucidity is a game about grief, then. It's a game about grief in the way Super Mario Bros. is a game about rescuing princesses - but perhaps in the way that it's a game about jumping on mushrooms, too. In this game, grief breaks free of narrative to take on physical form, and sorrow creates a tangible terrain all of its own.
It's a fairly grim journey at times. Within seconds of pressing the start button misery, self-pity and fear begin seeping into Sofi's world, poisoning forests and filling swamps with the rustle and chirp of monsters. The path to gradual acceptance leads from the very bottom of the ocean to the outer reaches of the solar system.
Behind all of that stuff, though, Lucidity's sort of like Lemmings - a stripped-down, dour Lemmings that's been knocked about a bit and had most of its toys stolen. Each level pits Sofi against a hazardous landscape that scrolls steadily onwards, marching to the determined stomp of her little feet and swaying arms. The player's job is to baby-sit, helping the tiny adventurer past whichever obstacles present themselves, shepherding her over chasms filled with poisonous thorns, steering her around menacing snails and floating wisps of dangerous vapor.
Luckily, you have a decent amount of equipment to help you with all of this: a bottomless toolbox filled with a carefully chosen handful of objects you can drop into Sofi's path. These range from staircases and ledges that allow you to piece together your own platforms to springs, fans and catapults which send Sofi sailing across gorges. There are also bombs to take out wandering nasties and bust through walls.
All of this would be straightforward enough, but the twist comes with the realisation that your toolbox aspires to being a fruit machine as well. The gadgets at your disposal are presented to you randomly, one by one, and you quickly have to learn to work with what you're given.
As with late-model Tetris games, there's also a hold slot which allows you to keep one of your items in reserve - bringing a little method to your strategy - but you're always taking a risk whatever you pick. Squirreling a bomb away for an unexpected encounter with a nasty squid might seem like a sound idea but then Lucidity will fling a gaping canyon at you, and you're left with nothing to get across with.
Luckily the game's smallish arsenal has been pieced together with a thrifty sense of ingenuity, and the levels almost never paint you into a corner you can't get out of if you act quickly enough. It's a world of experimentation, where a well-placed bomb provides just enough lift to double as a staircase if you use it correctly.
As the adventure progresses, you constantly discover interesting new combinations for old objects - you can use a fan to cast Sofi up into the range of a catapult, say, or spring her into the distance and catch her with a simple ledge. Eventually, as your delicate charge plods onwards through forests, farmlands and fields of ice while you keep an eye on the road ahead, you genuinely might start to feel a bit like her guardian.
Randomising the objects mean you won't be able to slowly reduce each level to its ultimate racing line, however: this is an open-ended puzzle game, more Columns than Braid. It's built for tinkerers rather than perfectionists, with frenzied improvisation taking precedence over feats of memory and timing.
Most of the levels are surprisingly roomy, meaning you can explore the vertical space further than you might initially think if you've got the steps to get you up and down and enough bombs to break through barriers. To tempt you into heading back in again once the game's three acts are over, each area is scattered with clusters of fireflies to collect - either because you want to unlock extra challenges, or just because they're fireflies and it's that kind of game.
Sofi's entire adventure takes place against an arts-and-crafts backdrop that mixes nursery imagery with rustic menace. It's a papery fantasy world of diffused ink and misty chalk, where the shadows are pitch black and filled with staring eyes. Lucidity looks like a children's book, then, but possibly one of those weird Scandinavian ones that seem designed to scare and unnerve young minds: a Tove Jansson rather than a Rev. W. Awdry. For all its sprightly fir trees and twinkling Christmas card stars, Lucidity isn't particularly interested in comforting you. And why should it? Nana's dead, after all, and she won't be coming back.
But she has left some postcards - lovely sepia fragments waiting for Sofi at the end of each level, with messages on the back to suggest that, prior to shuffling off into the ether, the old dear could have made a decent wedge writing copy for Hallmark. They lend the game a neat structure - and the little post boxes they lurk inside are possibly the game's most inspired visual signature - but they also highlight a crucial weakness.
Lucidity, with its dreamy double-word-score title and tinkly, wafting soundtrack, can be a little self-conscious with its downbeat charms, a little calculated in its regular lunges at your heart. Years spent under the yoke of Luke Skywalker means Lucasarts may have lost a little confidence in its own storytelling abilities.
Elsewhere, on a more structural level, the company that never harmed a single hair on your head when you were poking around in the gruesome corners of Melee Island now kills you dead at every opportunity - dropping Sofi off cliffs or sending in swarms of toothy fish to bite her in half. Restarting after a nasty fall is hardly a crime in a platformer the same way it is in an adventure game, but the lack of any mid-level checkpoints can make some of Lucidity's more elaborate stages a bit of a trudge.
The blend of emotions and puzzle mechanics in Lucidity invites more than a few comparisons with Braid. But while the melancholic tone and understated delivery suggests a good match, in truth, Lucasart's game is neither as complex or as original.
Not that it matters, really. So much here comes down to the simplest of tests: the gap between an annoying death and your own willingness to get on with the life beyond, the length of time separating a fail from a restart. With Lucidity you may find that, no matter how many times you drop off the screen, you're ready to wade back in again and again with little obvious bitterness.
It's a sign, in other words, that while Sofi may be lost and confused, her creators know exactly where they are, and exactly what they're doing.
8 / 10