In the summer holidays of 1998, my sister and I set ourselves a challenge: to finally beat Riven. A five-disc sequel to the puzzle classic Myst, the game was beautiful, mysterious, and brutally hard. We had watched a good chunk of the game over Dad’s shoulder but never gotten past the first disc ourselves, the obtuse puzzling a great challenge to pre-teen minds. Our playthrough took countless hours, with many sketches of symbols and backtracking to check valves, but each breakthrough on solving a puzzle was incredibly satisfying, to the point that I was a little sad when the credits finally rolled. Playing Lapso: NIMBO reminded me a lot of Riven, as the game also utilizes a breathtakingly gorgeous world full of strange symbols and unnerving sounds. A free prologue to a longer piece, Lapso: NIMBO is a great introduction to ‘90s-style puzzling with slick modern technology.
The Rockrose mountain range has always been steeped in mystery. Hikers had reported sightings of strange, humanoid creatures with glowing auras around their heads, dubbed nimbos, hanging out around the peak. While the photo evidence is less than convincing, the sightings nonetheless prompted many to visit the mountains for themselves, leaving offerings and trinkets along the hiking trail. The player’s character is searching for one hiker in particular, Kali Müller, who has gone missing.
Last seen on the path to the lighthouse, where she would often sit and sketch the strange markings adorning the rocky walls, Kali never returned from her last visit. Heading up the mountain trails, the protagonist quickly realizes that something is amiss in this popular, dangerous hike. Snowy paths lead to areas that should not be connected, and odd, clicking light creatures watch their every move. Solving the mystery of Kali’s disappearance suddenly got a whole lot creepier.
Lapso: NIMBO is quite traditional for an environmental puzzle game, requiring the player to pay close attention to their surroundings. Any corner might hide a block that can be inserted into a door, or a sketch of a circular symbol that is relevant for a code later on. Powering up an ancient machine is achieved via rotating tile puzzles, opening up new pathways within the cave system. The puzzle difficulty is about right for the introduction to such a game: The player needs to be observant — and sketching the symbols just like the lost hiker is extremely helpful — but the puzzles themselves are logical and fit the setting. Furthermore, the gameplay fits to extend the feeling of an ominous atmosphere, the symbols and contraptions used depicting a civilization quite unlike anything that exists in the real world.
The sense of dread accompanying what some would find a fairly peaceful walk is achieved via the astounding 3D audio system, which uses HRTF technology to create an immersive sound experience when wearing headphones. HRTF, or head-related transfer function, is a technology that can fool the ears into hearing stereo sound as a three-dimensional experience, making one able to pinpoint exactly where a footfall lands in relation to the player.
Lapso: NIMBO is my first encounter with the technology, and it is extremely impressive, drawing the player into the world on a whole new level. A main hub area has a large, pounding waterfall, and the tremendous roar of the water smashing into rock sounds exactly as it does in real life, an intensity you feel in your bones. Turning away from the waterfall and heading into a cave, the noise shifts around to the back of your head and slowly fades off, replaced by footsteps crunching and the rumble of shifting rocks. In the near darkness, hearing ominous clicking slowly following me from one side of my head to the other creates an intense sense of dread, tapping into a self-preservation instinct that would often sit idle in puzzle games. I usually do not bother with headphones since I have a nice speaker setup, but here the experience is greatly improved with a good headset.
Aside from impressive audio, Lapso: NIMBO is really pretty too. Most of the experience is spent looking at rocky walls of some kind or another, but each is rendered with high-level realistic detail. The different areas of the game stand out well, the thundering waterfall serving as a helpful navigation point and different levels of light and snow separating the tunnels. The mysterious relics found deep within the caves are believable as useful objects — but also undeniably strange, and the smears of golden fingerprints along the trail heighten the feeling of being watched.
While everything in-game was great, I did have a couple of interface issues: The controller support did not work, stuck with that common never-ending spin bug, and the writing was really small, only just legible. A text scaling option would be appreciated in the full release.
Lapso: NIMBO takes roughly an hour to complete, depending on how quickly one deciphers the puzzles. I really enjoyed my time with the game, finding it just the right length given the intense atmosphere present. The full game, Lapso, does not have a release date at this stage, but I am excited to see how the rest of the game turns out.
Next week we will be playing Boodunnit?!, a murder-mystery game where the protagonist’s ghost tries to solve her own murder. The game can be downloaded on itch.io. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions will be happening on the Discord server.