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Lunark is Not Fun but I Really Liked It (I think)

Lunark is an absolutely amazing game that I had a horrible time playing, but I still liked it. I think.

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Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.

It took me a long time to play through Lunark and a long time to get my thoughts together after finishing it, mostly because I didn't like playing it but liked it a lot.

Let me back up, Lunark is a science fiction story told through a 2D platforming adventure that I first saw at PAX West last year. I knew then that it wasn't totally my vibe, but its level design and art style had me intrigued. Throughout my play-through, it was the design that kept me absolutely hooked and totally frustrated. It's a beautiful game with a wild story and cool level design and it feels super bad to play, but on purpose. It's weird.

Intentionally Clumsy

Lunark has clumsy gameplay, but fantastic presentation.

Lunark is, in every way, a throwback to early cinematic platformers like Prince of Persia and Another World. If you aren't familiar with those classics, it basically means that Lunark doesn't actually feel very good to play. This game hearkens back to a style of game that prioritizes incredibly detailed and fluid animations over fluid gameplay. When you hit the button for your character to jump, they will move through the entire jump animation no matter how much you try to interrupt it to stop them from flinging themselves off a ledge.

Thankfully, the level design here is built for your character's kind of awkward movement. Gaps are spaced to be crossed either with a walking or running jump and if a gap is too wide to cross it's usually pretty obvious. You can attack enemies with a recharging laser, and there are very few places where the game combines combat and platforming in a way that puts pressure on the player. As long as you stay calm and remember the controls, Lunark’s throwback design is never insurmountable.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll die a lot, but if you take things slow you’ll make it through. Eventually. Probably.

All the Good Stuff

Lunark uses rotoscoping for excellent cutscenes.

The good news is that if you can make it past the intentionally clunky feel of Lunark, you’ll experience a very cool sci-fi adventure story with excellent animation, level design, and music. The game takes place in the distant future, where humanity outran the collapse of Earth by turning the moon itself into an escape vessel, hence the title. After an initial incident sets him on an adventure, your character explores a city full of cyberpunk aesthetics, underground ruins, military compounds, and forests. The places you visit are full of little details and NPCs that aren’t significant to the story but help make the world feel alive.

Beyond the basic challenge of rigid platforming, there is some stiff but satisfying combat and a lot of lightweight puzzle-solving. Little moments of hitting a switch here, then going back over there to find that it opened a door that hid another switch, and so on. Most of the solutions to problems are straightforward but require just enough thought that they kept me mentally hooked with little hits of “I solved it” dopamine.

I’m worried this won’t come across as the compliment I mean it to be, but thinking about the level design in Lunark kept making me wish that this team got a chance to remake Zelda II: The Adventure of Link from scratch. I think they’d nail it.

Final Thoughts

Lunark looks good enough to (mostly) make it for being frustrating to play.

I finished playing Lunark a few weeks ago, and have been struggling with how to talk about it since. I really enjoyed this game, except that I found it incredibly frustrating to play (like the positive version of my thoughts on Red Dead Redemption 2). The story was interesting and the visuals are outstanding and the general vibe was so good, but I also got so mad at stupid deaths so many times while I was playing it. The rather forgiving checkpointing system helped a lot, but the fact that the game only seems to save at the start of each level meant that the checkpoints were only good per play session. On the other hand, all the things that I found frustrating are, I think, an intentional part of the retro experience. It’s frustrating, yes, but authentically so, so is that bad?

In the end, I think this is a really cool game and there’s a lot to enjoy here, but any recommendation to check it out comes with a pretty heavy caveat. If you played early platformers on a PC and like that type of gameplay, go for it. If you aren’t used to those games, you will almost certainly be frustrated by Lunark, but getting past that frustration will lead you to a satisfying experience on the other side.

Geek to Geek Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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