LUNA The Shadow Dust Review
LUNA The Shadow Dust — weird capitalisation and lack of punctuation aside — was basically human catnip to me. A hand-drawn animated point-and-click adventure about a boy scaling a mysterious tower? A weird four-legged pet you can control? Wordless, gorgeous visuals? Yes please. Lantern Studio’s debut had been on my radar ever since I played the demo at 2018’s AdventureX.
But when it came time to review it, I couldn’t. No matter what I tried, the game bombed out at the load screen. After some back and forth with the dev team it seems that the culprit was Citrix Workspace on my machine — a piece of software I used for remote working — which interferes with the Unity engine for many games, not just LUNA. Uninstalling this finally let me get started, but it’s worth mentioning in these times of confinement and a national revolution in home office working, just in case any other players have similar problems.
So, to LUNA. It starts off with a boy in a bubble. No, this isn’t a metaphor for COVID-19, nor a reference to Jake Gylenhaal’s awful film. The meaning of the bubble may or may not become clear to you later on, but the aim is to work your way up from the base of a huge tower to the top, solving puzzles in each room you enter to progress to the next. Not long after you start, you’ll encounter a weird spiky pug-like animal which you’ll be able to use in tandem with the boy to help crack problems. The pet is undoubtedly the highlight of the show here, unless you hate animals, in which case you should probably head back to the freezer lest your cold, cold heart begins to thaw.
Puzzles start off simply enough. The locations have a real picture book aesthetic to them, and dull greys often become flooded with brighter — but still slightly muted — hues as you discover their secrets. Wall paintings burst into life and shadows are cast from dingy areas with the excellent use of light which continues throughout the game. To begin you’ll click on the only hotspots the boy can reach, normally three or fewer in a room, and work backwards from there to find out how to unlock a door or pass a barrier. Trial and error are the order of the day, but fans of similarly wordless play-pen games like Samorost or Machinarium will be right at home here.
There are some genuinely delightful teasers buried within LUNA as well. The music room was a clear favourite, as was the kitchen where you had to manipulate the contents of a creature’s stomach (and its subsequent output) to get past a thorny barrier. For the first half of the roughly two-hour experience, you’re unlikely to be troubled much. The experience is more of a kid in a science museum, fiddling with knobs and levers and trying to work out how things all fit together. It may not be challenging, but it is engaging.
The second half is a slightly different matter as puzzles start utilising the two playable characters more. The boy’s pet can flit between the real and shadow world, allowing it to traverse otherwise impassable areas by using the shadows of other objects in a room as ledges or ladders. This is a lovely idea in theory and in some areas it’s executed reasonably well. When it fails to adequately signpost its platforms though, it becomes very frustrating. Shadows you think should turn into platforms refuse to do so unless you line them up with pinpoint accuracy. The boy’s bedroom is the most guilty culprit, but a second room is equally annoying and requires split-second timing to avoid the pet’s shadow form being attacked, forcing you back to the start of the puzzle.
Unfortunately repetition and back-tracking march into that final hour with a complete lack of subtlety. For every puzzle that requires you to match symbols (and there are a lot, almost all beautifully realised), there’s a puzzle which needs you to go to a different location and then back again, multiple times. One based on the four seasons is particularly harrowing — not because of the difficulty so much as the lethargic pace at which your characters move. A gentle stroll is fine if you’re only walking backwards and forwards in a single room, but when you need to move both characters in and out of multiple rooms, press buttons, then move back again, and there’s no run button? It soon provoked some gnashing of teeth. The final two puzzles cemented that frustration — one being a prime example of how a lack of logical signposting can potentially ruin an otherwise lovely game, the other being needlessly frustrating as it tries to illustrate struggle in a ham-fisted manner.
The way that the story is told, without any text or voice acting at all, is marvellous when it succeeds. LUNA struggles most when it attempts to be too opaque, and if the story had been less ambiguous early on there’s a great chance that the closing sequence would have matched the likes of Brothers and RiME for impact. It plays around with timelines impressively for such a short game, but it feels like Lantern Studio may have been a bit ambitious with this debut, putting cleverness ahead of emotional resonance when the reverse would have landed far more satisfactorily.
Even so, it would be harsh to criticise it too much given the variety and intelligence of most of the puzzles. The artwork and animation is sublime and bodes well for the studio’s future endeavours. Similarly, the game is underscored by a lovely orchestral soundtrack with a distinctly medieval flavour so if you’re in the mood for harpsichord earworms, you’re in luck. LUNA, with its quirks, weird dog and all, is likely to stay with you for some time after completion.
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