Any attempt to broaden the appeal of challenging platformers is an admirable one. The genre’s tough-as-nails reputation surely puts many gamers off, people who would rather not end their play sessions with higher blood pressure and broken controllers. Occasionally developers extend an olive branch, however, hoping to create a space that is “friendly and forgiving yet challenging” at the same time. The Lost Light of Sisu has such diplomatic aspirations, applying a softer approach to the consequences for failure. However, thanks to inconsistent gameplay that never allows players to feel comfortable in their mobility, the physics-driven running and jumping unfortunately ends up more frustrating than fun.
Getting into Shape
Things kick off as simple as they can: players take control of a purple cyclops block thing that grunts and waddles along, straining to leap or roll up hills, precariously clinging to walls. It’s not exactly empowering at first, but collecting different colored orbs placed in each stage grants increased (or possibly new) abilities that will help the little weirdo overcome some typical platforming obstacles in order to reach a red beam of light that must surely be emitting from a flying saucer.
For instance, red orbs increase speed while yellows boost jumping height; others grant a ground pound-like ability, as well as a triple jump. Early stages might contain just one of these orbs to act as a tutorial, but quickly begin employing multiples that allow for a variety of combinations to how the tofu hero controls.
In theory, this is a neat idea; building upon powerups conveys a real sense of growth and freedom, almost like removing the shackles that keep the player sluggish. However, with the combinations of orbs constantly shifting from level to level, it’s hard to get a grip on how the character moves; sometimes there might be one red and no yellow, while others will have two reds and three yellows.
This means that running speed and jump height are always changing, preventing players from ever getting comfortable with the precision of their motion. This is no problem while stages are less demanding, and it’s fun to experiment with the range of those new-found abilities, but when the difficulty begins to ramp up, throwing moving obstacles to negotiate, freezing ice block to dodge, and wonky wind physics to bluster through, The Lost Light of Sisu loses much of its initial charm.
Striking a Balance
In order for platformers to feel ‘fair,’ players need to have a full understanding of how their avatar operates. If from one moment to the next they’re not sure how fast they can run or how far they can jump, then even a ‘forgiving’ stage descends into unsatisfying trial and error. A good portion of The Lost Light of Sisu is spent on this sort of re-calibration, and the consequences of this type of repetition can be deflating, even upon victory.
There’s a difference between failure due to miscalculation and failure due to misunderstanding; one feels like a challenge to improve already developed skills, while the other feels like relearning the basics all over again. Sisu‘s shifting gameplay just doesn’t work well with the type of level design it wants to have, and though performing the actions required is always ultimately doable, it rarely feels good.
The Lost Light of Sisu does try to negate some of the frustration by eliminating player deaths, instead merely sending them back to the beginning of a challenge via a gust of wind or the like, but this seems mostly facade. While restarting the entire stage won’t be necessary, these punishments aren’t very far from what they’re pretending not to be, and when the game’s physics are the cause for a defeat, that it’s not ‘death’ doesn’t really help. This is especially true during a boss fight — essentially an auto-scroll through a gauntlet of obstacles — where a single miscalculation will force reset after reset. Sure, checkpoints ease the pain, but a proper flow is never established, and so these ordeals end up becoming more of a war of attrition.
Still, The Lost Light of Sisu deserves credit for trying to straddle that line. Veteran platformers will most likely force their way through its forty stages in no more than a couple of hours (though only ten per planet need completion to access the bosses), and there are some nifty ideas at play despite execution not quite living up to them. Levels that take place in twisty, dark mazes have some fun with light and shadow, and the reversed nature of underwater sections shows potential for teasing how players approach jumps.
It’s too bad then that questionable physics and inconsistent movement take away from what otherwise could have been a nice, relaxing experience. In the end, The Lost Light of Sisu unfortunately achieves the opposite of its intent, eliciting more aggravation than amusement.