Ever since The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, I've been obsessed with the idea of parallel worlds in games—especially when changes in one somehow manifest in the other.
It's a tough feat to pull off successfully, which explains why this mechanic isn't used all too often. And, for that matter, it's an easy one to screw up: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes started strong, but its alternate-world explorations quickly turned into tedious retreads of old areas, with the annoying addition of a constantly draining health meter. (Not the greatest recipe for a good time.)
Thankfully, developer Lucky Pause's Homesick (currently available on Steam for $14.99) doesn't go that route. Like Metroid Prime 2, its "dark world" (of sorts) is a hostile place that wants nothing more than to consume you within in its inky void, but your trips to it don't—well, shouldn't—last longer than a minute or two. Most of your adventuring takes place within the relatively "safe" light (or daytime) dimension, where levers, buttons, switches, and valves act as your standard puzzle material. Both day and night variants of the world each carry their own unique restrictions, though, and using one dimension to overcome barriers in another figures into some pretty creative (and challenging) puzzles.
Like most of your typical walking simulator/environmental puzzle games, the who, what, why, when and where of Homesick are shrouded in mystery. You simply awake in what appears to be an abandoned hotel or boarding house, and are set on your merry way. By the time you explore the limits of what the intro offers, it becomes clear that the overarching goal boils down to opening up the locked or blocked door that stands between you and exploring more of... wherever you happen to be. It may take 15 minutes to fumbling to figure out exactly what Homesick is asking of you, but once you go through the first loop, the game's basic cycle makes itself known: find water for that area's flower, water it, go to sleep, and then dip into the "dark world" to open up the next location to explore.
As stated earlier, the nighttime variants of Homesick's environments are incredibly hostile; essentially, darkness drips from the ceilings, bleeds from the corners, and will suck you back into the daylight world if you dawdle too long. (Luckily, you can jump right back in if you're kicked out.) And while, for whatever reason, your character can't pass through areas lit with the sun's beams during the day, light acts as your means of progress at night—though Homesick makes you figure this out on your own. After being thrown into the night world with no sense of what the hell was going on, I followed the dim glow of florescent lights to a dead end, with a note affixed to the door—one I couldn't read during the day—that said, "Leave the Hall Lights On! - Management." I quickly realized all of those seemingly useless light switches in the power-free daytime world actually turned on the lights at night, so I lit myself a path towards a door that wouldn't budge during my waking hours, and soon opened my way to a new location.
Games of this sort are at their worst when you find yourself wandering through endless expanses, looking for the next event trigger, but Homesick mostly eliminates this problem by having you concentrate on just a few rooms at a time. And that's a good thing, since some of its puzzles border on the pixel-hunting challenges of ancient adventure games; I found myself stuck at the beginning after neglecting to pick up a vital piece of paper that looked pretty similar to all the other sheets scattered across the floor of every room. Once you get over the fact that you'll essentially have to scour every room for interactable objects, Homesick's daytime puzzles are pretty impressive—sort of like a mix between Professor Layton and Myst. Going into more detail would definitely involve spoilers, but I can at least say Lucky Pause does a great job of making these challenges feel natural to the environment, rather than superficial entities tossed in just to give the player something to do.
Homesick's night puzzles are mostly navigation based, since your only means of interaction within this dark space comes in the form of an axe. That said, you're often tasked with internalizing the exact layout of the space you're in, since some sections inevitably have you pushing your way towards some light source before you're swallowed up by the darkness and spat out into the daylight once again. And Homesick manages to figure out some pretty clever ways to send you stumbling through the dark: one nighttime section appears to be a dead end of pitch blackness, but if you look at juuust the right angle, you'll see the tiniest slit of light peeking out from around the corner. Reaching this safe zone, though, requires remembering just how the hallway in front of you twists and turns—again, you gotta keep moving when the lights go out.
I've only sunk three hours into Homesick so far, and I'm already pretty impressed. Like most environmental story/puzzle games, it looks and sounds absolutely great, and even though the sudden switch to "scary mode" made me initially think "Just what the hell did I get myself into?" Lucky Pause is far more interested in generating an effective sense of atmosphere than cheap jump scares. And if you're a still little wary of "walking simulators," Homesick manages to combine the low-key, atmospheric style of that genre with some honest-to-god good puzzles. For all of you who've yet to take the plunge into this sort of lonely-but-captivating experience: Homesick is definitely a great place to start.