To light a candle is to cast a shadow
Where there is light, there is darkness. The two are inextricably intertwined, and where one exists, the other is usually not far behind.
As diurnal creatures, we’re often drawn to the light, like moths to a flame, as we yearn to let it envelop us with its warmth. But, like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun — ignoring the warnings of his mentor — we can be blinded by its dazzling potential and fail to notice the shadows creeping behind us…and the dangers that lurk within them.
This sentiment is what sets the stage for LUNA The Shadow Dust, a hand-drawn point-and-click puzzle game from Lantern Studio. With a phenomenal soundtrack, meticulously illustrated visuals, and an emotionally compelling non-verbal storyline, LUNA The Shadow Dust absolutely delivers on all its promises (and then some). An absolutely alluring and captivating experience, no player will be able to resist the sheer beauty of the title, and I daresay it definitely belongs in every puzzle-fanatic’s library post-haste.
The story in LUNA The Shadow Dust revolves around a young boy, his loyal companion, and a mysterious tower, which unfolds over time as the duo uncover its secrets. By working together, the pair crawl through vents, unlock doors, compose music, dance with shadows, and even travel through space and time in order to make it to the top of the tower. Only there can they realize their goal and right the wrongs they’ve wrought upon the land.
LUNA The Shadow Dust’s puzzles are elegantly positioned; as players enter the tower, they find themselves in a room with an entrance, an exit, and a puzzle separating the two. By solving the puzzle, they clear the room, and move onwards and upwards to the next. The higher the level, the harder the puzzle, so each floor requires more brainpower than the last.
In regards to puzzle difficulty, fans of the genre will be happy to hear that LUNA The Shadow Dust is legitimately challenging. Certainly the lower levels offer easier puzzles, but the middle and above floors will absolutely test the mettle of even the most veteran of players. There were plenty of times where I found myself unable to proceed, assuming I had tried the most logical course of action, before looking at a less-obvious angle and unlocking the next room. In the middle of the tower these setbacks were few and far between, but the last puzzle had me nearly ripping out my hair in frustration.
In that sense, I suppose some players will find this either positive or negative; on the one hand, players who refuse to look up online walkthroughs will be forced to spend more time with LUNA The Shadow Dust in order to find a solution, getting more bang for their buck. On the other hand, the cutscenes, chopped up in-between lengthy puzzles, can feel disconnected, the storyline’s flow ever-so-slightly diminished. Of course, the pros outweigh the cons in this scenario no matter which way you look at it, but be prepared going into this — LUNA The Shadow Dust is no cakewalk.
Of course, it isn’t the puzzles that jump off the page in LUNA The Shadow Dust; the animation and art style are STUNNING. Using traditional cel animation with 12 frames per second and three layers per frame, the 250+ animations and 20 minutes of cinematics are captivating, breathtaking testaments to video games as an interactive medium. Some outlets have been eager to draw parallels between this and Studio Ghibli; personally, I feel that’s a disservice to both organizations — where Ni no Kuni, despite its beautiful art style, had me falling asleep each time I picked up the controller, LUNA The Shadow Dust’s animations were emotionally gripping, conveying real, raw, and powerful expressions of the human experience that resonated with me on a spiritual level and left me on the edge of my seat.
Not to be outmatched, the soundtrack in LUNA The Shadow Dust is just as divine as its visual counterpart. The tracks played during the puzzle levels are unobtrusive yet energizing, which is nice because players end up hearing those the longest. The music heard during the cinematics, on the other hand, emphasize and heighten the emotions felt by the characters, and, by extension, the player. There were moments during the cinematics where I was left with eyes glistening, moved by the bravery of the boy and the unwavering loyalty of his companion, and I largely credit the music’s ability to convey those emotions to me.
If there’s one takeaway I’d say sets LUNA The Shadow Dust apart from other titles in the genre, it really does boil down to the emotion I felt throughout. In one moment, I’d be frustrated with my inability to progress through puzzles, my blood pressure rising to levels that really weren’t warranted for such a gorgeous game. That frustration would immediately dissipate the second those cinematics started rolling, however, as I instantly connected with the boy and his companion during each scene. Whether it be compassion, awe, frustration, or any other number of emotions that don’t quite have words, LUNA The Shadow Dust made me feel — purely, deeply, and freely — which in and of itself is highly impressive for a point-and-click puzzle game.
Without a doubt, LUNA The Shadow Dust is the most beautiful game I’ve played in a long time. A scintillating yet simple story told with no words, only the deepest emotions conveyed through glorious art and hypnotizing music, I was legitimately moved to tears multiple times. Of course, a few of those tears shed were in frustration over a puzzle or two, but in the end, it only extended my time with a phenomenal masterpiece crafted by video game artisans. A powerful, cautionary tale of those who forget that the brightest lights yield the longest shadows, LUNA The Shadow Dust is worth every single penny and will no doubt stay with players for years to come.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Mac, Linux, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Coconut Island Games; Developer: Lantern Studio; Players: 1; Released: February 13, 2020; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of LUNA The Shadow Dust provided by the developer.