The isometric perspective in games doesn’t mean what it used to. Nowadays, we call just about any action RPG played from an overhead, ever-so-slightly-tilted perspective ‘isometric’, which is technically correct – but back in the day, isometric games were almost like their own distinct genre. These adventures utilized the perspective to simulate 3D space with 2D sprites, with your character hopping around clearly defined tiles of movement in their quest to explore massive dungeons. What started on the ZX Spectrum with Knight Lore led to the wizardry of Solstice on the NES and unique obscurities like Equinox on Super Nintendo. In the decades since, that old-school adventuring spirit inherent to isometric views seems to have faded – but Lumo is poised to bring it all back in blowout of old, old-school nostalgia.
Headed to PS4, Xbox One, Vita, and PC, Lumo follows the adventures of an adorable little tyke (boy or girl, your choice doesn’t affect gameplay) as they find themselves trapped within a ridiculously spacious castle and in need of a way out. By ‘spacious’, I mean that there are more than 400 rooms to explore, the majority of which contain some form of deathtrap or obstacle that requires tricky platforming prowess to overcome. Lumo is the brainchild of developer Gareth Noyce, who went indie after working on games like Fable 2 and the first two Crackdown titles; it was the 1987 isometric game Head over Heels that inspired him to take up development in the first place, so Lumo is Noyce’s love letter to that entire era of bygone games.
You’d be surprised at how discombobulating it can be jumping into a ‘truly’ isometric game, where movement is linked to the compass directions of the virtual world rather than being relative to the camera. If that sounds like too much of a mind-warping hurdle to overcome in a game where platforming is the primary challenge, don’t fret – Lumo does offer an alternate control scheme that feels closer to what you’re probably used to. But I think that perception-bending character control is crucial to the isometric flavor that Lumo strives to deliver – so I endeavored to play it the way it would’ve handled in ye olden days. That meant plenty of pitiable jumps directly towards death as my brain, eyes and fingers struggled to get their act together, but it also resulted in a real sense of reward once I had acclimated myself to the retro method of control.
While the general control scheme mimics the classics, your actual movement isn’t restricted to individual tiles: you’re free to carefully inch towards the edge of platforms before a particularly large jump, or zig-zag around the rooms how you see fit. That said, most of the rooms I encountered were laid out in neat, blocky chunks, which immediately called Solstice to mind. Noyce is actively trying to evoke such vintage experiences, to the point of sneaking some impressively obscure references into certain rooms that might otherwise seem to serve no purpose. To the generation that loved the C64 and the Spectrum, these little Easter eggs will be like finding jewels of pure nostalgia and sharing a knowing wink between you and Noyce.
Lumo’s demanding difficulty level isn’t just a function of its control scheme; the puzzle-like challenges in most rooms demand some pretty keen reflexes and isometric depth perception of max-distance jumps. Luckily, death merely sets you back to the start of the room in the default Adventure mode, though masochists are welcome to subject themselves to the finite lives, lack of a map, and ticking timer of the Old School mode. To ratchet up the challenge even further, there are loads of collectibles to seek out. Some, like rubber duckies, are placed in plain sight but require some incredibly nimble jumping to snag successfully; others, like giant cassette tapes (a throwback to physical game formats in a time before cartridges) are hidden in rooms you can only enter by venturing beyond the apparent confines of a given area. It’s the kind of devilishly clever secret-stashing that triggers my OCD to investigate every nook and cranny, one room at a time.
Regardless of whether or not you’ve dabbled with retro isometric games before, there’s a certain mysticism to the way Lumo so lovingly embraces a genre that feels like a relic of the past. Even the presentation is a stark departure from most games on the market, from the delightfully synthy soundtrack, to the way individual rooms appear to simply be floating out in space, not unlike the black voids at the edge of the screen that had to be filled in by your imagination back in the day. If all that earnest, nostalgic goodness sounds like it’d be up your alley, Lumo will be debuting at a budget price (still to be determined) on April 22nd.