STAFF REVIEW of Nebulous (Xbox One)

Monday, December 12, 2016.
by Adam Dileva

Nebulous Box art I love me some puzzle games, and if it’s physics based, even better. Sometimes I grow tiresome of the same shooters and “big” games out there and I simply want to unwind by challenging my mind instead. Enter Nebulous, created by Namazu Studios. With a simple setup and premise, Nebulous will throw one puzzle at you after another, as fast as you can solve them. Be warned though, some of the puzzles become quite challenging, and simply understanding everything you need to do in succession is only half of the solution, as you’ll still need to actually solve it afterwards.

The story begins as Dash Johnson is minding his own business during a routine spacewalk, when suddenly he gets sucked into a black hole of some sort. This black hole warps him to some far distant region in space where he’s now powerless to do anything and has to rely on you, the player, to get him home back safely somehow. To do so you’ll need to ensure that he gets from point A to point B, but only with the specific tools you’re given in each puzzle, all of which are physics and gravity based.

You play as some sort of God figure, placing and moving pieces so that Dash can be guided to the next checkpoint, thus moving onto the next puzzle. You’ll need to pay special attention to the direction of gravity, momentum, and the tools at your disposal to guide him safely, albeit with many bumps and bruises along the way, hopefully finding a way home in the end. But Dash has a sense of humor and will mock you when you mess up, sometimes a little too much, though some of the lines are worth a good chuckle.

Even though you’re in space, the playfield takes place in a cube-like structure. Think of the sides of dice, but only a singular one. Early Levels are somewhat easy, only having you playing on a single face of that cube, but eventually the sides will link together as you solve up to 5 different sides for a single level. For example, if Dash falls into a yellow wormhole he’ll come out the other end, which is usually on a completely different side of the cube. In this playspace you need to make it to a different colored wormhole, which will bring you to yet another side to solve. Eventually it becomes incredibly challenging even to simply figure out where Dash will exit once he enters one of the worm holes.

The first thing that came to mind when playing Nebulous was that this game would be amazing in VR, and oddly enough, it was designed with that in mind, but alas the Xbox One version has no support for this. On each puzzle you are given specific items that you can place wherever you like, such as conveyor belts, rocks, blocks, gravity fields, and other things. You’ll want to note which way the gravity is ‘flowing’ on each play field too, as it’s always from top down in the beginning, but it can be any direction in the later stages making for some “why didn’t I see that before” moments.

Whenever you think you’ve placed your items in a way to guide Dash to the exit, you'll let him out of his box and watch him fall and bounce, hopefully to the end. And when, not should, you make a mistake, you can instantly cancel his freefall and move any pieces you wish before trying again. Also, when you fail, Dash will let you know about it, not pulling any punches about your intelligence, or a lack of such.

A good puzzle game needs a steady difficulty curve, one that teaches you as you go and allows you to learn and adapt to the new mechanics that are introduced. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case here as you’ll be randomly thrown new objects without any idea how they work. There’s one stage where switches are introduced, and it took me a good half hour to figure out why I couldn’t beat the stage, only to learn I needed Dash to fly over the switches in a specific order first. My problem was that I thought they were mines, so I avoided them until I became frustrated at why I wasn’t able to figure it out.

Once you learn a new mechanic you would think that things become easier with your newfound knowledge, but wow, Nebulous doesn’t like to hold anything back, and the challenge just increases exponentially as you progress. Factor in that you’ll eventually be playing stages on 5 different 'cube walls', it can become overwhelming quite quickly if you’re new to the genre. The addition of a fast forward is very welcome, so that you don’t have to wait and watch Dash bump and fall over again for the twentieth try.

As Nebulous a physics based game you can simply 'brute force' your way to a solution if you want, trying a specific placement of items, see how Dash reacts, then adjust over and over, but the levels rank you with a star system, and if you use a lot of time and attempts, you won’t receive many stars. Granted, these stars aren’t tied to any progress, but getting more than a single star on levels requires some serious problem solving skills along with incredibly fast thinking.

Sure the premise is silly (gravity in space?), but Dash’s constant insults make what could have made a very dull puzzle game into a somewhat interesting one. There’s barely any audio, playing into the space theme I assume, so prepare for a very tranquil experience, that is as long as you can hold your rage back during the umpteenth attempt at a level. Nebulous is hard, quite challenging in fact, that you may want to break your controller at times. While it never feels unfair, it does a great job at making you feel stupid, which actually is half of its charm. Overall it's not a bad game, just be prepared for a challenge as you need to really think many of the included puzzles through.

Overall: 6.3 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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