Players always have high hopes for games like Lucidity, and it’s easy to see why. Its visual style is distinct and saturated with character, and the story is complex and emotionally mature. People will point to it as yet another example of our favorite hobby being a legitimate art form, and in some ways I don’t disagree. But whether a game qualifies as art is secondary to how fun it is to play, and my critique of this thought-provoking adventure will be decidedly utilitarian.
Lucidity tells the story of a little girl named Sofi, who falls asleep at her grandmother’s house and is transported into a dream world that’s influenced by her changing emotional state. The visuals are the first thing you’ll notice about the game, and are somewhat evocative of a children’s book brought to life, but without being overly childish. The style reminds me of a Tim Burton movie – only less creepy – and proves a game doesn’t have to be pushing millions of polygons to be visually moving.
Each level sees Sofi cheerfully skipping her way across a 2D plane fraught with hazards in the typical side-scrolling platformer fashion. The difference is that you don’t actually control Sofi, but instead place objects in her path to help her on her way; a staircase can help her reach a high-up ledge, or a slingshot can launch her over a pit or past an enemy. These pieces are selected randomly, and the game shows you the next piece in the lineup, giving you the option to hold onto one as well. The end product is a mix of Tetris, Lemmings, and Pipe Dreams, and although that might sound like too much for one game, the concept works surprisingly well – Lucidity’s problems lie elsewhere.
The first few levels of Lucidity are a lot of fun; you only have a few object types to use, and the environments aren’t particularly threatening – a pit here, an enemy frog there. This allows the player to approach it as more of a puzzle game than a platformer, strategizing for each threat with time to spare. Scattered throughout each level are fireflies, the game’s form of collectible. Unlike most collectibles, however, these are actually worth the effort. Not only do they unlock bonus levels, but they utilize the game’s surprising verticality and require you to be more creative and spontaneous with your object placement. They also add replay value; each level will take at least two or three runs just to find all of the glowing insects, which is less repetitive than it sounds. Completely clearing a level is genuinely gratifying, and if you enjoy games that make you feel like you have OCD, Lucidity has you covered – there are over 2000 fireflies to find in the game’s 40+ levels.
But all too quickly, Lucidity runs into problems. New objects are continually added to your repertoire, but because they are randomly selected, each new type means you’re less likely to get the one you need in any given situation. This problem is compounded by the fact that you can’t control Sofi’s movement or speed at all, or scroll your view. Often, by the time an obstacle appears onscreen, it will be too late to react unless the next piece is the one you need. If the danger is a pit or a piece of thorny foliage, most jumping actions – namely a fan, springy shoes, and the aforementioned slingshot – can be used interchangeably, but if you’re up against an enemy, a bomb piece is your only line of defense (and you will never have enough bombs). Your only other option is to try to evade them, but oftentimes the level’s architecture is too claustrophobic to allow you to maneuver the little girl out of harm’s way. The result is frantically placing pieces around the borders of the screen in hopes for something useful to pop up, while Sofi pleasantly lumbers headfirst into danger.
Also not helping is the fact that you can only get twice before dying (fireflies will replenish your health, but when you have three enemies standing between Sofi and the next incandescent bug, you’re pretty much screwed). When you do die – which will be often – you are brought back to the beginning of the level, losing all of the fireflies you caught. There is no rewind, no checkpoints, or even a handy way to quickly restart a level.
Frustration caused by your complete lack of control over Sofi’s movements and the random piece selection could have been minimized with smart, conservative level design, but instead the designers chose to make the levels inexplicably difficult. By the second of the three acts, it’s hard enough just to make it through a level without dying, much less go out of your way into dangerous areas just to track down more collectibles. Most of the levels are just too hard – they’re not impossible to finish, but they destroy any possibility for strategic planning and will make collecting the fireflies an exercise in patience and frustration rather than enjoyment.
Many XBLA games are overly simplistic, and the way Lucidity presents the emotional issues that the storyline deals with is commendable – as is tackling a new twist on an old genre. But somewhere along the path the elements that make Lucidity fun are overpowered by a few fatal design flaws and the high degree of difficulty. You have to be way more forgiving than the gameplay is to enjoy Lucidity.