REVIEW: 2D cinematic platformer Lunark's old-school-cool can't be beat
Indies love platformers. Celeste, Super Meat Boy, Ori. The indie platformer has almost taken on a life of its own, with flowing movement and speedrun friendliness put at the forefront. Fast, reactive, improvisational.
But thanks to Canari Games, a totally different kind of platformer is making a resurgence: the cinematic platformer, known for being much slower, much more about planning your path, and waiting for your openings. In a way, it's the direct antithesis to everything above.
And in the end, I didn't expect how refreshing a slower and more methodical pace could be.
Just the Facts
Developer: Canari Games
Publisher: WayForward Games
Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch* *denotes platform reviewed on
Release Date: March 30, 2023
Review key provided by publisher.
Canadian independent studio Canari Games, the mostly solo development studio led by Johan Vinet, teams up with WayForward for this release, after a successful Kickstarter campaign nearly four years ago. Johan took the solo plunge after years of working in the industry, including years with another studio known for pixel-perfect tributes... Tribute Games. After contributing to modern tributes to Metroidvanias (Flinthook) and Metal Slug (Mercenary Kings), Johan decided to start a project that paid tribute to the games he was most passionate about growing up: cinematic platformers like Prince of Persia, Flashback, and Another World.
And so was born Lunark. Lunark is an old-school cinematic platformer, which means full-on rotoscoped animation and hard-as-nails methodical platforming. One wrong step means death and Lunark showcases the hallmarks of the genre beautifully. This 5-6 hour journey will have you taking your platforming one literal step at a time as you dodge past waiting traps and fatal enemies.
The genre is one I've admired from afar for so long but hadn't tried in my more mature gaming years, aka when I'm actually likely to be able to handle them and not go flinging myself recklessly off a cliff. But 2023 has been a year full of experiences all about reining in that impatience, and Lunark is just the right kind of platformer to continue my education in just stopping and breathing once in a while.
Cinematic platformers have evaded me, but Lunark has shown me... I kinda love them? So let's get into it. Despite the genre's name, cinematic doesn't necessarily mean a deep or great narrative.
In Lunark, you inhabit Leo, the plucky sidekick to this reality's charismatic tech mogul, Gideon. Gideon is the creator and mastermind behind the robots and drones who govern the land and handle much of the citizens' existence. Leo is the protégé who's ready at Gideon's beck and call. After a journey to some ruins results in Gideon's factory being destroyed and Gideon himself injured, it's up to Leo to unpack a mystery centered around this planet's origins, the weird advanced aging that Leo's facing, and who is behind the attacks that upended Gideon's and Leo's lives.
It's fairly interesting sci-fi at its core, with the game's namesake being the moon turned into a moving space station known as the Lunark. That's already cool. Add in ancient sci-fi ruins, a ton of references to classics of the genre and Vinet's overall inspirations, and a generally interesting cast of characters, and it feels like it all should work really well. But it kind of fails to live up to the "cinematic" quality.
Thanks to the genre, it does feel bigger than it is... but it's fairly generic and never ends up as engaging as it should be. There are some great setpieces (making your way through a runaway train, a prison break, exploring the Moon station itself) but story is far from the priority for Lunark. And that feels like a miss, considering how well story weaves itself into gameplay in other titles of the genre. Another World comes to mind as a game that feels like it never lets up in telling its story within the gameplay.
Another interesting note that seems to factor into the generally lacking narrative: thanks to Lunark's crowdfunded nature, there are a ton of nods and characters inserted to honor backers. Tons of zones with interactable lore notes that turn out to be just lists of names, presumably of different backers. When you click in to talk to someone who you think will give out some fun lore and are instead met with a backer's username, it is a bit odd. I totally understand and am sure that those honored feel amazing about it, but it still holds the overall storytelling potential back a bit. I much prefer it when a game can weave in backer recognition in a way that feels natural; something akin to Coral Island's museum storyline.
It's a good thing Lunark delivers a gameplay experience fitting of the genre though.
Leo's only got a few things in his toolbox to get him through his adventuring. He's got Nathan Drake levels of grip and platforming ability, allowing him to jump long distances and catch ledges like nobody's business. He's got a gun, which will allow him to mow through robots and bugs, shoot down obstacles and solve puzzles. With only two hits to death (at the start, at least; it can be upgraded), he also has the ability to shield himself from damage using consumable shield cells. And that's about it. Lunark isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, of course. It's all about keeping things relatively grounded. Literally and figuratively.
Lunark's platforming experience is all about pacing yourself. Timing your jumps, timing your approach through a wall of obstacles, knowing when to duck, when to execute a long jump, and when to take it slow and eyeball the perilous path ahead. Every action is purposefully cumbersome in some way. Pulling out your gun stops all movement, running has you carry your momentum to a stop, jumps have build-up and momentum after. Every action has to be measured.
With limited health and no certainty about what awaits you behind each screen, it's all about taking it one step at a time and keeping yourself in check. There's no running wildly or taking uninformed jumps, because death awaits if you do.
It helps that Lunark's level design is extremely approachable, visually clear, and allows for a variety of approaches within the game's systems to make your way through each new screen of platforming puzzles. It skews Lunark more toward a traditional platformer at times, but with its bigger focus on gameplay over story, it works here.
Getting used to the very particular physics, the animation length of each jump, and how each enemy and obstacle interacts feels so refreshing, because indie platformers have started to blend together into a predictable but deeply enjoyable mess. Wall jumps, dashes, and speed. Lunark is the exact opposite and it left me genuinely having to learn new platforming skills, something I feel I haven't really had to do for the last decade at least. That alone makes Lunark something I recommend for folks — it allows you to stretch new gaming muscles, or at least muscles that haven't been put to use in some time.
What's odd, though, is achieving mastery in the new system might just take you the whole game.
Lunark is stretched across 10 or so "levels," each taking around 30 minutes your first time through. That pace is near perfect for this kind of experience, as death will almost certainly hit again and again and again as you readjust your gaming brain to this slow-and-steady style of platforming. But it also feels a bit silly, because by the time you reach the ending... you'll feel like you finally have a grasp on the controls. Especially if you're coming in with zero experience with the genre. Just for it to be over right when you finally understand it.
It inherits all the best qualities of the genre and makes for an enjoyable, if not short, adventure. Does it inherit the worst bits, though? I hear you ask. Yes and no.
First things first, the difficulty is a mixed bag. It can be a lot to adjust to, but it's honestly the easiest of the genre. Lunark has decent checkpointing, you can take multiple hits before death, and there are some ways to bail out of bad situations — all things that weren't landmarks of the genre previously. (In other words, the genre staples tend to be one hit and you're dead, lacking checkpoints, and an overall feeling that you can't really improvise your way through it.) Older games in the genre definitely feel like a "learn a bit, die, repeat" experience where you aren't meant to really be able to get through much without seeing what dangers wait around the corner. Lunark is true to that formula, but in a more accessible way. Just having more than one hit before death — something you can upgrade up to six or more hearts by the end of the game — makes it infinitely more approachable. It all ends up leaving Lunark as a genuinely great intro to the genre, allowing folks to hop into older, more difficult versions of the experience after learning the lessons needed to succeed within Lunark. That being said, some checkpoints and traps are definitely a bit much. Some sections can spell death in an instant, even when you know what's coming. Either through a ton of difficult obstacles to push through or through deep drops that can wipe you out that are not the easiest to avoid. Checkpoints only really come at the start of large sections. This is especially true toward the game's end. So, dying at the end of a long run of precarious jumps can mean going all the way back to the section's beginning.
It never gets too painful, as you'll still make it through it all in just under six hours or so. But consider that some of the most difficult chunks took me up to an hour and you can see that some chokepoints will make up a decent portion of your playtime.
But just like any obstacle in Lunark, sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and focus on the brighter things. And one of the brightest lights Lunark shines is within its brilliant visual style.
I remember stumbling onto Lunark a long while ago when I saw a collection of Vinet's actual videos that he'd used to trace the pixel animation over, using a rotoscoping style reminiscent of classic Disney films. For those who don't know, rotoscoping is an animation style where artists trace over live video footage one frame at a time, creating a realistically smooth animation at the expense of incredible amounts of work.
Vinet's pixel rotoscoping work here is incredible and most cutscenes employ this technique to great effect. It's a staple of the genre, in a way, with Jordan Mechner having used rotoscope work in the original Prince of Persia to capture fantastic character animation, and Eric Chahi expanding that to include toy cars and further extra pieces to create an even more immersive experience.
Vinet honors those roots beautifully here with a ton of great close-up rotoscope cutscenes, and even when pulled away, the micro pixel work for in-game art and animations is just as well done. With the sci-fi setting, Vinet doesn't shy away from bright colorscapes and generally more interesting design choices — some favorites of mine being the intricately detailed underbelly of Gideon's labs and the gem-focused lava caves you end up traveling through a few times over.
Lunark is a brilliant homage to the cinematic platformer. Vinet's work in capturing the look and feel of the genre with the rotoscoped animation and methodical platforming style is pitch perfect, even if it sometimes adapts some pieces of the era that you'd rather leave behind and forgets to bring in some elements that feel crucial to the experience, like an exciting story.
That said, Vinet's solo debut is a standout and one well worth embarking on. 2023 is the year of taking a breath and remembering where we came from as gamers, and Lunark is just another step in that direction.
Video Games Are Good and LUNARK is . . . GOOD. (7.5/10)
+ a cinematic platformer through and through, a more grounded platforming experience, beautiful rotoscoped pixel animation, and great level design
- strange difficulty arc, shorter than you'd expect, story a lot more muted than you'd want for the genre, some kickstarted elements get in the way
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