17 Oct 2018

The Light Keeps Us Safe Preview

I have done two playthroughs of Big Robot's The Light Keeps Us Safe and I still have little idea about what's going on. This isn't suggesting the game is bad at communicating its goals to me, but rather that it likes to keep players in the dark about the world it's building or the objectives it wants you to complete. Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth after deadly machines have taken over the planet, the faceless protagonist has been holed up in a bunker, but due to a critical lack of food and power, they must venture out into the twisted landscape above in search of any supplies that can be brought back.

As you probe the land, you'll come across blue monolithic crates that house rare materials. Finding enough allows you to return to the bunker and upgrade your flashlight with additional features. For example, the first one gives you a blue beam that can activate switches and cause enemies to flee. Another is a purple light that will reveal hidden paths. With each upgrade, a new portion of the world becomes available to explore. As the title of the game infers, light is a necessary tool to survive. You must keep an eye on your battery throughout your journey, which can be charged at various points, as well as using environmental light to defeat enemies.
Procedural generation is used to build the areas that appear throughout your playthrough. As explained last month in my article on Murder Mystery Machine, procedural generation is a method of creating a world in-game using an algorithm or set of rules rather than having developers craft it by hand. In the context of Light, this means buildings, enemy and item spawns are randomised, as well as events that unfold differently to other players' games. This creates a unique experience every time one starts a new game, allowing the replay value to be extended beyond its initial playtime.

A lot of the game's storytelling is often assigned to hints littered throughout the environment. The explanation on whether the machines are human-engineered or alien in origin is never detailed explicitly, nor does it inform you much on how to deal with different threats. By being kept in the dark on these matters, the game instead induces the fear of the unknown, in the sense that it's an environment you have to adjust to rather than prepare for.

While the dark, warped environment is a core source of horror this game offers, it was also this sense of unknowingness that drove most of the fear in me. Over time, I learned how to use the main flashlight to stun enemies while also using the blue beam to cause them to retreat. The Light Keeps Us Safe isn't necessarily a game you can prepare for as a lot of the experience is about encountering a diverse group of enemies and learning their patterns, as well as improvising when something unexpected happens.
One of my more terrifying experiences came in the form of a giant floating structure that managed to 'lock on' to me once I got close enough. After attempting to escape, something soon dawned on me. While the behemoth was moving at a snail's pace, it was following me. Even when I had ventured across to the other side of the map, the machine was still in pursuit. It was a new kind of terror. There was this omnipresent threat looming over me. A slow enemy that was always following and no matter how much distance I put between us, the thought of it still coming after me was enough to cause major discomfort. It's very subtle but I genuinely think it was my favourite aspect of the preview. There are games that have had this looming presence effect before. Alien: Isolation and Slender come to mind, but here it feels different. Somehow, being able to see the threat gradually approaching makes it scarier. It must be deliberate, considering one of Big Robot's previous titles, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, featured a character known as the Landowner who behaved similarly to this.

A lot of other enemy types assert that 'fight or flight' response in you, too. There are multiple towers located around the game that guard points of interest, and will zap you if you get close. You can deactivate the weapons by interacting with a panel located at the base of the tower, and so this becomes a situation in which you must decide whether to take a risk and by approaching it, or try and find an alternative route.

There is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the technical aspects. There are currently no video options besides changing resolution and v-sync, although Dan Puzey from Big Robot has said they want to implement these options "once we've finalised what settings we can mess with without losing the atmosphere." On my own setup - in which I aim for 1080p at 60 frames-per-second - the game sat at a smooth framerate for most of the session, but could often drop to 30 when things got stressful. Aside from that, it runs quite well. There are also a lot of bugs that need to be ironed out, for example reloading a save can sometimes glitch the world and despawn certain objects. I also had a particularly rough time with navigation, where moving across uneven ground was a bit awkward and would sometimes even refuse to work properly. I am confident that Big Robot will have this worked out by the full release.
In its current state, The Light Keeps Us Safe still has a long road ahead. At the moment, there are three flashlight modifications and three worlds you can attempt in a single playthrough, but due to the replayability of its procedural generation, it can feel like more. It took a while to get going - I think the first part felt a bit slow and aimless as I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing - but by the time I got to the final world I was having a lot of fun sneaking past enemies and avoiding booby traps. Big Robot plans on adding additional flashlight abilities, biomes and enemy types in the future, while also fixing bugs and fleshing out the game's procedural generation, so it shall be very exciting to see what the game is like by the time it leaves Early Access, which is currently slated for March 2019.

Disclosure: code for this game was supplied by KA Games.

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