Caution: Broken Glass
Gamers of a certain age might remember a time when getting a new game was more of a risk, especially when it came to console gaming. Generally speaking, games were all roughly the same price of $expensive.99 and return policies weren’t always gracious, so if you got a game that was pretty bad, you were quite often stuck with it.
Of course, half the time we didn’t often realize when a game was bad, as even the masterclass standouts of the time were often unrelentingly difficult and didn’t convey a lot of information. So when we got a bad game, it was honestly one of those things where you had to really scrutinize it and ask yourself if it was genuinely bad or if you just sucked at it; even if the answer was “both,” they were often still fun experiences. In fact, I didn’t know just how bad some of my favorite games from my childhood were, like DK64 or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, until looking back on it years later or watching AVGN make a very compelling argument on just how terrible the latter was.
This time period of unwittingly receiving a bad game is what I was reminded of while playing Gleamlight, a 2D action game with no UI and no explicit storyline.
Developed by Japanese dev team DICO and published by D3 Publisher, Gleamlight is touted by the team as “a 2D action game that will take you through an adventure traversing a beautiful, transient world.” The developer strove to prioritize immersion over all, which lead to such design choices as removing any sort of UI. Not a single word of text can be found in Gleamlight, as the story is supposed to unfold as the player progresses through the title. One look at the game’s beautiful stained-glass aesthetics and hearing these design choices is certainly enough to pique anyone’s interest, but does it all come together?
Let’s start off with the positives: the graphics really are interesting. I do love the stained-glass feel you get while playing Gleamlight, as I’m not entirely sure I’ve played a game with such a setting. When you defeat enemies and hack away at items scattered throughout the environments, they break apart with a shattering sound, so that is pretty unique. I genuinely enjoyed the use of light and color throughout Gleamlight, which is what drew me to the game in the first place.
Got the positives out of the way? Cool. Now let’s talk about where Gleamlight didn’t shine so brightly. Ultimately, the words “confusing” and “repetitive” spring to mind. For one, I guess you don’t actually play as the little boy, but as the sword that he wields, which was certainly not explained. Additionally, you don’t have a health meter, rather you just get darker as you keep getting hit and brighter as you hit others — in essence, the enemies drain life from you just as you drain life from them. Coupled with spawn spots being relatively close to where you died and no game overs if you die too many times, Gleamlight is awfully forgiving with no real need for stealth or strategy, tanking headfirst into every little skirmish becomes a natural, boring option.
At first, I was so delighted by Gleamlight’s levels, as they were beautifully illustrated, and who doesn’t think a stained glass theme is pretty? Over time, however, I started to see their cracks: the levels have a mild flow but are ultimately really repetitive and don’t feel all that different from each other. Even after several screen changes, you don’t truly feel like you’re making any progress. The placement of spikes also felt purposefully out to punish — at some points, you’d be forced to fall right onto them and take the damage, or the spikes would be on the ceiling and floor and you’d be forced to painfully walk through them. I didn’t see a point to it, and without any sort of direction on storyline, it didn’t feel like there was a hidden meaning either, just… pointlessly bad design.
The enemies feel also feel unique at first, but after awhile it’s clear to see how recycled they actually are. They’re also yawn-inducingly simple, and once you kill them, they disappear for good even if you die. The bosses are surprisingly anti-climactic — there’s no real excitement to them because you can Leroy Jenkins them head on, then get a few hits in to recoup health/light. I beat the first boss on the first try within about 20 seconds — that’s how easy it is. One boss was reused three times — look, moves, and all — for no easily discernible reason. I’m not one to use the word lazy (and I’m not saying that here), but when you’re skimping on the UI and text, I feel you need to make up for it and other areas; what a missed opportunity for it to not have been combat.
When it comes to Gleamlight’s moves, nothing is explained at all, so when you hit a wall, you’re essentially forced to watch YouTube videos to move forward. Within the first 30 minutes I was stuck in an area with only a clue of where to go but no idea on how to do it. It took a few YouTube videos, but I found one that narrated what they did to move downwards on platforms (down + jump) and was able to progress. Another YouTuber pointed out that they had to open up the controls menu to figure out when the character learned new moves, such as double jump, and I can confirm that Gleamlight fails to adequately explain when you gain new abilities. I get not wanting to be weighed down by cumbersome UI and text, but too little is perhaps more frustrating than too much.
I finally shut off Gleamlight when I tried jumping to the next platform and ended up walking off accidentally because the game doesn’t seem to let you jump if you’re too close to the ledge, then landing right on some spikes and being pounced on by three different enemies at the same time, instantly dying. With no hint of a storyline up to that point and the monotony of the levels and music setting in, there was no real reason for me to progress. If you’ve read this far and you’re still somehow interested in purchasing the game, please don’t forget to play it again after you’ve beaten it the first time, as it apparently takes you through the entire game in reverse. A nice design that falls right on its face because what little storyline is there is far too nuanced to be worth the trouble of the experience.
I don’t think games that have no UI or text are bad; Journey springs to mind in terms of its minimalism, and what an outstanding game that is. Instead of the unique, cutting edge experience the developer was going for, I felt I received a wave of bad nostalgia from the days where you simply had to put up with a bad game because your parents weren’t going to buy you another one for some time. Things have changed since the ’80s and ’90s, however, and we’re spoiled for choice, with games evolving to rise to that challenge. In that sense, Gleamlight served more as a reminder of the frustrating experiences of the past; gladly, these days a better game is just a Steam sale or free Itch.io download away.
I don’t think any reviewer truthfully loves giving a game a negative review; it’s not a good feeling thinking about the game developer’s feelings, especially when it comes to smaller studios. I say this with a lot of respect for a shipped game — Gleamlight doesn’t feel finished. Had there been even the smallest amount of text or UI, I honestly feel like this would have been a more enjoyable experience despite the other issues; if anything, those issues were heightened simply due to the lack of critical components. I love what the developer had in terms of concept, but as far as execution goes, Gleamlight unfortunately fell flat. You can find far better 2D sidescrollers for less money; unless the developer makes some sorely-needed improvements, it’s probably best to let Gleamlight fall into darkness.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: PC, XBox One, PS4, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: D3 Publisher; Developer: DICO; Players: 1; Released: August 20, 2020; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Gleamlight provided by the publisher.