Playing Lumo is like taking a step back in time. From the very start, it's reminiscent of the kind of classic isometric arcade adventures that were popular on the British ZX Spectrum computer during the mid 80's.
It turns out, this is a deliberate part of its design. The game's sole designer and programmer, industry veteran Gareth Noyce takes up the story.
"Lumo is a love letter to the games of my childhood of the 80's. I knew from when I was 11 years old that I wanted to make games. I used to analyze them and break down their mechanics so that I could understand how they worked. When I finally got into games development, I worked on AAA games like Crackdown 1 and 2, PGR 3, and Fable 2. It was great, but I always wanted to work on a classic game."
"So when I got to the point where I went solo, I was making prototypes for games, and I started to talk to Ste Pickford, who, along with his brother John, made the ZX Spectrum games Equinox and Amaurote. I said I was interested in making a classic isometric game, and he said I should try it. So I made the prototype for Lumo, and it immediately felt right. I also really liked the circular thing about it being my first solo game, and it being inspired by the first game I played as a gamer."
"Working on my own is completely different from working with a team, and definitely different from working on a AAA title. I don’t have to document everything, and write it up and ask for permission. I also don't need to have any kind of conversations regarding the larger structure of the game. I had a set of mechanics I wanted to play around with, and I built those first. If I had a stupid joke or a silly idea, I'd just try it out. If it was good and it made me laugh, I'd put it in the game, and I'd build stuff around it. There are some sections of the game that are in there just because of one joke. For example, there are a bunch of Ghostbusters jokes in the game, because I had a ghost in the game, and I wondered what to do with it."
As I begin to delve into Lumo, I feel really at home. I too grew up playing games like this, and it doesn't take long for me to settle into the action, which plays out across a series of some 450 single-screen isometric rooms, many of which pack fiendishly-designed platform challenges. What strikes me over the early screens is the way the game cleverly teaches you its mechanics as you play it.
I point this out to Gareth, and he explains, "There's no real tutorial in the game or text. I don't really explain anything. You find yourself in this world, and it’s about exploration, like the older games. You can't jump or do anything at the start because I had to be careful about that. People haven't played isometric games for a while, so I designed a series of simple rooms at the start to teach players about the basics and get them into the game."
"I didn’t want a modern tutorial in the game. I think the game is easy enough to pick up and play. It feels so much nicer when you learn to do something yourself – you get that buzz that you worked something out. That's something I miss from old games, figuring out stuff for yourself. So I take that path all the way through the game. Everything I'm showing you, I reuse and maybe bend later, and that gives me an ability to continually evolve the mechanics of the game. That's why I didn't put a lot of character actions in the game. I didn't need to. Even with a quite simple set of actions in the game, that's given me a lot of content to play around with. I also tried to keep it as close to one button as possible. It was a nice challenge from a design point of view, but there were always simple answers to not having another button. And that really appealed to me. I guess because I really like those old games, and want to keep as close to them as possible."
While Lumo definitely echoes the older games, it does have some modern trappings. Gareth reveals, "It's definitely old-school in many ways, but it does have some new-school stuff over the top of it. If I'd wanted Lumo to be totally old-school, I'd have done it with pixel art and really made it look like an 8-bit game. I've tried to do a modern spin on it. No-one's made a game like this for a long time, and I wanted to give a proper taste of what these kind of isometric arcade adventures used to be like. But I've put in some modern concessions. One of those is that Lumo features two modes. There's Adventure mode, which is infinite lives and instant respawn, with no penalties for death. Then there's old-school mode, which has a finite number of lives, and it’s a time trial. The old-school mode is like playing it in 1985 – if you use up your lives, you're back at the start. No save game either."
I'm playing adventure mode, and I'm glad. While Gareth has been talking, I've conquered quite a few screens, but have reached one that requires a particularly tricky long jump over a deadly water hazard. As I chew through a number of lives figuring out exactly how to make the leap without dying, I ask Gareth about his design philosophy for the game.
He responds, "The majority of the game is skill-based – there are a few puzzle bits here and there. I wanted to avoid going too heavy on the puzzles so that I didn't brain-lock the player. At least with the skill-based stuff you might get frustrated with it and put the game down, but when you come back to it, you'll eventually beat it – the same way that Mario works. All the mechanics start off very simply, and evolve as the game progresses. There's a steady and constant ramp of difficulty going up through the game. The first half of the game is quite linear so you can't get lost, and the second half of the game is completely open with a hub that leads to four sections that you can tackle in any order."
What I'm particularly enjoying about Lumo is that it references many of the old-school isometric mechanics in the way that I remember them. I ask Gareth whether he went back and played through the old 80's games that inspired Lumo.
"No. I purposefully, purposefully did not. I only recently went back and looked at Head Over Heels, and I knew Equinox because I was looking at speed runs of it, but I made Lumo based on how I remember the old games. I didn't want to be in the situation where I was like, that room is quite good, so I'll remake that room. I was worried that would happen. The other thing I was trying to avoid was it becoming too much like Zelda, because I was playing quite a few Zeldas before I made this, and there was the temptation to make bigger rooms and have Zelda-like puzzles. But I really didn't want to go down that path, and wanted to stay true to the original British isometric games. It's hard not to be influenced by stuff, and there are a lot of influences in this game that I'm not trying to hide, but I didn't want to rip off stuff."
"I'm trying to make a specific kind of game that people haven't made for a long time, from the perspective of what would happen if someone made this kind of game today. Knight Lore was great. Head Over Heels was great. Batman was great. Then all of a sudden, isometric games just disappeared. There used to be a genre called arcade adventure – that's what they used to call them. Where did that go? They became different things. They became Zelda, and RPG-type games. I grew up with those original isometric games, and I want to be true to them."
And indeed, I think that's definitely the case. During my demo, I play through Lumo's starter zone – which takes me the better part of an hour – and really enjoy the way the game is designed and plays. Lumo starts out easy enough, with basic mechanics to learn, such as moving crates around, leaping over spike traps, and avoiding collapsible walkways, but soon I'm challenged with action puzzles such as balancing on a ball and walking it around a room (apparently this is a taster of a Marble Madness-type level that appears later in the game), and running the gauntlet of a cascade of Donkey Kong-like barrels down a series of tilted platforms.
What I particularly like about Lumo is that it manages to evoke strong memories of classic isometric arcade adventuring, while still feeling fresh and modern. At its core, Lumo is a really enjoyable platform game viewed from an isometric perspective. If you understand where it's coming from, you can appreciate its roots and references, but you don't need to know them to be able to have fun. It's a great balance, and one that works incredibly well to deliver one of the most entertaining indie platformers I've played in ages. I can't wait to get back to it again – which will happen in April, when it's released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PS Vita, PC, Mac and Linux.