IMPRESSIONS: LUNARK is cinematic platforming bliss
Eric Chahi would be proud
I’ve had a connection to the cinematic platformer genre from an extremely early age. It all started with Out of This World/Another World on the SNES, which opened my 10-year-old eyes to the greater possibilities of gaming. Up to that point, I had largely played standard platformers where the story was light and the action was fast-paced. Cinematic platformers certainly had mechanics I was mostly familiar with, but presented them in a whole new fashion. Every movement was calculated, every interaction was unique, and an amazing story was presented with mystery and intrigue. Playing that game stirred something within me that is very much alive and well to this day.
Out of This World/Another World pushed me to explore the cinematic platformer genre. I went back and tackled the games I had missed (Prince of Persia), and quickly snatched up new releases as well (Flashback, Blackthorne, Oddworld, ect.). With each cinematic platformer I gobbled up, I felt my love of the genre grow. Now here I am 40+ years old, and I’ve played through pretty much every cinematic platformer there is. The genre isn’t anywhere near as popular as it once was, which means I’m always on the hunt for the next game that fits the bill. That brings us all the way up to 2023 and LUNARK.
LUNARK, created by Johan Vinet and published by WayForward, is without a doubt inspired by the all-time greats of cinematic platforming. These inspirations are worn on LUNARK’s sleeve, as fans of the genre will no doubt instantly recognize the DNA of titles like Flashback and Out of This World/Another World at work. Of course, just being inspired by the classics doesn’t mean a new title will be worthy of your time. Thankfully, after some lengthy hands-on with the title, I can say LUNARK seems to be worthy of standing alongside the titans of the genre.
If you’re familiar with cinematic platformers, you’d instantly peg LUNARK as one with just a quick glimpse of gameplay. Everything you’d expect from the genre is here; environmental platforming puzzles, death-defying leaps, back-and-forth enemy battles, and so on. That said, fans of the genre may also conjure up ideas of stilted controls, unfair deaths and sluggish response time. This is where LUNARK really manages to succeed in my eyes. The game manages to stay close to the feeling of cinematic platformers of yesterday, but with enough minor tweaks to remove a healthy amount of the frustration.
Controls for LUNARK will instantly feel familiar to cinematic platformer aficionados, but refreshed for some considerable improvements. Little quality of life adjustments are present, such as your character being able to climb platforms above you without the need to turn them left/right, and start/stop animations being a lot more forgiving. Previous cinematic platformers could be extremely brutal in terms of controls, with characters behind a slave to animations rather than input, leaving you facing multiple unfair deaths. While there’s definitely still some of that feeling in LUNARK, things feel more responsive overall, giving you a much greater sense of control.
To be clear, LUNARK still retains the overall feel of cinematic platformers, so don’t go in expecting control and response akin to Mario. That said, those who’ve dabbled with the genre should notice some adjustments that make a difference, and a level of forgiveness you don’t often see. Now, the question is if things have been revamped enough to remove annoyance from the average player or those who have never played a cinematic platformer. That’s honestly a tough one for me to decipher, but if there were a game that inches closer to something more approachable, LUNARK would be it.
As far as gameplay goes, LUNARK is exactly what you’d expect from this type of game. Again, if you’ve played Flashback in particular, LUNARK is going to seem familiar in design. Mantling platforms, shoot-outs, jumps across chasms, multi-tiered platforming puzzles, it’s all here. Those kinds of mechanics are the bread-and-butter of any cinematic platformer worth its salt, and LUNARK nails them. While I haven’t experienced anything so far that seriously breaks the mold or surprises me with its implementation, what I have come across is exactly what I’d want and expect. Yes, it would be nice to see things go beyond, but there’s also nothing wrong with perfecting what’s come before.
The one area where LUNARK carves a bit of its own path is with boss battles. While they’re few and far between, cinematic platformers aren’t really known for offering bosses to take down. I always thought this was due to the slower response time of the character and the more specific button inputs, but LUNARK manages to come up with some boss ideas that work in, around and with those limitations. You see this early one with a big spider battle, which plays to the strengths of cinematic platformers to present an interesting problem to tackle. Whether there’s more of that in the future remains to be seen.
In terms of visuals, I find LUNARK to be incredibly pleasing. Turning again to my childhood, I vividly remember being floored by the look of Out of This World/Another World. Since I was a console/portable gamer only back in those days, I had never seen anything even close to the graphics in Out of This World. It was quite honestly a mind blowing experience for me. Fast-forward to 2023 with LUNARK, and you obviously can’t get the same wow factor, but what you do get is incredibly nice to look at.
LUNARK aims to mimic the styles of Flashback and Out of This World/Another World, albeit with a bit of a twist. The game employs a rather chunk pixel aesthetic that aims to do more with less. When coupled with the game’s extremely vibrant color scheme and the painstaking character animations (a cinematic platformer hallmark), the end result is something to behold. This is cranked up to 11 with the game’s rotoscoped cut-scenes, which are absolutely dripping with style and finesse. Again, this idea comes straight from cinematic platformers of days gone by, but it definitely stands the test of time and looks just as fantastic today.
There’s a lot more for me to explore in LUNARK, but what I’ve seen so far makes me extremely confident. LUNARK has been near the top of my most-wanted list ever since it was revealed, and nothing I’ve experienced thus has disappointed. While there’s plenty of adventure to come, LUNARK has been nothing short of a dream come true for a genre fan like me.
That looks right up my alley! I'm a huge Flashback fan in particular, but I also love games like Heart of Darkness, Another World, Blackthorne and Oddworld. The genre unfortunately is not nearly as popular as it once was and it might be due to the fact that it never really had a real transition to 3d. Even though that's debatable really, the first Tomb Raider was definitely borrowing elements from cinematic platformers in the way that it concieved platforming. Unfortunately the series has completely lost its roots and forgotten that it was first at least a good 75% platformer. Ico might be the closest we've seen from a true 3d cinematic platformer and Last Guardian also to some extent.
Anyway, I still love the good old 2d formula and as you've said it is rare these days so I am super excited about this. Now a good number of cinematic platformers wannabes I've seen from the indie scene unfortunately give you the ability to change direction mid-jump, probably in an attempt to make the whole feel of the game a little more forgiving. In my opinion it really is a mistake as it is one of the crucial thing that makes your game instantly fall out of the cinematic platformers category. You're talking about Lunark being more forgiving, so is it doing the change of direction or is it more faithful to the originals? In any case I looked for it on my switch and it's not out yet apparently but I will be waiting for it.