Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sunday: Nix Umbra
Have you ever found yourself in the inky darkness of a mysterious forest with nothing but a magical sword to defend yourself against the creatures of the night? Nix Umbra, Latin for “snow shadow,” is a game by developer Ilzard that drops you in the esoteric monochromatic world with no idea what the hell is going on. The story given is from an opening phrase at the beginning of the game, “Light is my Sword, Darkness shall perish.” Unfortunately, you’ll find that it is in fact you and your sword light that will perish from the darkness.
I’ve been listening to a podcast recently on Esotericism, and I am inclined to think that Nix Umbra is one of the most esoteric games that I’ve ever played. Esotericism is, to put it simply, stuff that is known only by a select few. Not necessarily because it is a great kept secret, but because the content is only able to be understood by a select few. A good example would be, say, Dark Souls when it was first released in like 2012. Anyone could purchase and play the game, but a much smaller percentage would be able to beat it, and fewer still would be able to understand what in tarnation is going on here. That is how I feel about Nix Umbra.
In Nix Umbra you roam about a dark wood and try to collect gems and mushrooms until you’re killed. There is almost no overt clue as to what’s actually happening and why (other than the simple desire to avoid being killed). Indeed, you can barely see what’s right in front of you. But there is something very intriguing just below the surface. The only problem is that you have to survive longer than 90 seconds in order to figure out what that intriguing thing is, which I, unfortunately, must admit I am not particularly good at doing.
Non-Wanky Game Recap:
Nix Umbra is a game that plays like a slower, scarier Devil Daggers. It’s a roguelite that places you in an arena, and the only goal is to survive as long as possible. Your sword is more of a torch than a blade since you can’t slash at any creeps you encounter, but merely shine a bright light in their face util they leave. The light you shine drains your health bar as well and does not like to restore itself on its own. You’ll spend much of the game searching for crystals to upgrade your character and trying to keep a low profile.
Nix Umbra is a fascinating game. Not just the incredible oppressive atmosphere—the haunting sounds of the woods and incredibly limited vision are great if you like terror—but also the absolutely baffling things you will come across. You may suddenly find yourself in a strange stonebrick building or psychedelic light tunnel or randomly having a dissociative episode where you fly through the cosmos for no discernable reason. Every time I thought I’d seen everything, something new would come out of nowhere, and all the while waiting for a running spider or halo of skeletons to come and end your run.
The biggest problem Nix Umbra has for me is that it’s really really hard. The first ten or so runs I had felt exactly the same; pick up sword, run around blindly, and then die. Even once I got my bearings a bit and figured out what I was supposed to be doing (which was in a lot of ways still getting the sword and running blindly), Nix Umbra remained just as unforgiving. There are no markers of progress that carry over from one run to the next. The map exists entirely within your mind, which is tough for a game without any real landmarks. And of course, death can come at any time with the only thing to hold off your defeat being how much light you have left in your ever-dwindling health bar. It is a game that requires tenacity.
How To Fix It:
Just because a game is hard does not mean it should be made easier. Indeed, some of the problems I had with Nix Umbra were solved immediately upon getting the first upgrade. I found that traversing the nightmarescape was a lot more manageable with some faster movement speed. Were I to make any suggestions, it would be to have the first upgrade come a bit easier, maybe requiring three crystal pickups instead of five. But all the same, this difficulty is part of the experience, and I believe necessary for fully enjoying the game.
The cool thing about esotericism is that it is open to interpretation. All the lore you get about Nix Umbra is from the Steam page, a short poem about the Moon casting a spell upon the Sun, and turning him to snow falling forever into the woods. That means very little, and yet, means everything. Is your character the sun, cursed to be falling into these dark woods forever? Is it about the futility of life and the eternal spiritual war against the world of material things? Is it about the cycle of death and rebirth? Or maybe it’s a game about creepy spiders giving me the heebie jeebies? Nix Umbra is what you make of it, and if you’ve the desire to find that gamer’s gnosis, this might be the survival horror roguelite indie title for you.