Lights, camera, platforming!
Cinematic platforming is an interesting genre. You can see how the idea spawned from the desire to tell more of a story in gaming, both through visuals and gameplay. Genre-defining examples like Prince of Persia and Another World very much did that, with Prince of Persia wowing with rotoscoped characters, and Another World going further to tell a tale through its gameplay. It’s titles like these that pushed back against the idea of what games could be, and helped take the industry to a whole new level.
Nowadays, games are more cinematic than ever. From camera angles to storytelling methods, gaming and traditional cinema are on an even playing field. This was made possible mostly through the advancement of game hardware, which has been more than capable of mimicking what’s seen on the big screen for decades now. You’d think this evolution of hardware and abilities would be the death knell for the cinematic platformer, yet the genre persists.
In today’s age, cinematic platformers exist to celebrate the genre itself, rather than as a way to innovate within gaming limitations. Games can match and surpass anything seen in movies and TV shows, but titles like Limbo, Inside and more prove that there’s still charm and merit to the category. The latest example is LUNARK, a new cinematic platformer from Canari Games. LUNARK is very much a love-letter to the golden age of cinematic platformers, showcasing the hallmarks of the greats, which inching the genre forward ever so slightly.
If you’re expecting LUNARK to be a cinematic platformer that turns the genre on its head, you’ll definitely be disappointed. There are little elements here and there that go beyond what cinematic platforming has done before, but by and large, this is an experience that aligns perfectly with what you’d expect. That’s not a knock against LUNARK in any way, shape or form. LUNARK exists to revel in what cinematic platforming is, and aims to pay respect to the classics. If you believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there’s certainly no finer example than LUNARK.
If you’ve played even one cinematic platformer in your time, then you know what LUNARK is going to offer mechanics-wise. There’s a lot of running and jumping, plenty of careful planning in your platforming, a reasonable amount of enemy encounters, and a smattering of light puzzle solving. Again, this isn’t meant to say that LUNARK does nothing more than tread old ground. LUNARK clearly comes from a team that truly admires cinematic platformers, and it very much hopes to sit alongside the best the genre has to offer.
Even the story beats in LUNARK will feel familiar to those who’ve spent a lot of time with cinematic platforming. In particular, if you’ve ever played through the 1992 classic Flashback, LUNARK is going to feel incredibly similar. Without getting into specifics, there are a handful of areas where the story of LUNARK expands and creates its own tale, but it’s extremely evident that Flashback served as the basis for what you get. Truth be told, there’s probably no other platformer that LUNARK more closely mimics in all areas than Flashback.
Up to this point, it might sound like LUNARK plays things a little too closely to the greats, leaving you to question if it’s worth your time. Why bother playing something so heavily inspired by genre-defining titles when you can still go back and play those games? Well, even with its very familiar territory, LUNARK still manages to find its own identity. You’ll get some slight hints of humor that you won’t find in hardly any cinematic platformers. You’ll get a fun, energetic soundtrack when most cinematic platformers remain largely ambient in terms of music. You’ll get small shifts in controls and gameplay quirks that make LUNARK one of the most player-friendly cinematic platformers out there. Most importantly, while LUNARK’s themes and mechanics may be carbon copies of previous games, it presents those echoes through stellar level design and encounters.
Throughout the entirety of LUNARK, I can’t think of a single environment that wasn’t a pure joy to explore. You’ll make your way through futuristic cityscapes, lush forests, atmospheric caves and plenty of other exotic locations. All of them are dripping with mood while being ripe for adventuring. Every single screen begs to be clambered, as you never know what’ll be around the next corner. Could you find a hidden artifact that’s key to progression, a hidden nook with an optional power-up, an other-worldly enemy ready to attack, or something else altogether? That air of mystery constantly pushes you to see what’s ahead, and it never disappoints.
Surprisingly, sometimes you’ll find a boss battle waiting for you. You might not think of fighting a boss as odd territory for a videogame, but it’s certainly rarefied air for cinematic platformers. There are a handful of entries in the genre that have a boss here and there, but they are very few and far between. That’s why it was surprising to see LUNARK throw a boss at you quite early on. This is one area where I instantly felt that LUNARK was something special, and that feeling stuck with me for the rest of the game.
Cinematic platfomers usually don’t have boss battles because the controls aren’t responsive enough. Cinematic platfomers are slaves to character animations, as they take precedence over player input. This is one area that has been a sticking point for some gamers since day one. Cinematic platformers make you commit to every movement, as you can’t easily change it at a moment’s notice. If you make a jump, your character is going through the entire animation. If you’re running full-steam ahead, it’s going to take a moment or two for your character to slow down. Where Mario and Sonic will do exactly what you ask as soon as you hit a button, cinematic platformers are quite literally the opposite. All of this is why LUNARK’s boss battles are so impressive.
While LUNARK is more forgiving in the controls department than most cinematic platformers, it still very much feels and plays like one. That said, LUNARK’s boss battles are built with this in mind. The first battle you’ll come up against is a giant spider that calls out baby spiders in an effort to take you down. The battle plays out somewhat like a Donkey Kong level, as you’ll have to climb around to certain spots on the stage to avoid the enemies and do damage to the boss. Dodge a baby spider here, shoot your gun at the boss’ giant eyes there, and so on. It’s such a smartly-crafted skirmish as it plays to cinematic platforming strengths, rather than trying to shoehorn in a traditional platformer boss fight. That simply wouldn’t work here, but what LUNARK does feels fresh, surprising, and pretty much unlike any cinematic platformer I can think of.
The way this boss battle works serves as a microcosm for LUNARK itself. Canari Games clearly wanted to stick very closely to the genre in terms of mechanics and features, yet they knew where to improve things for a better experience. While still very much attached to animations, you feel like you have slightly more control than in other cinematic platformers. Battles with bad guys are more kinetic, which makes them more engaging and less of a chore. Small quality of life changes go a very long way, like a character that instantly knows what direction to face when jumping up to a ledge above. LUNARK is a cinematic platformer through and through, so it still might feel too rigid for some gamers, but those with knowledge of genre mechanics will notice these little changes absolutely everywhere.
As mentioned above, another point where LUNARK diverges from other cinematic platformers is the soundtrack. I went through a list of genre entries in my head to try and think of ones that had a steady, musical score from start to finish, and honestly, I don’t know that I could come up with a single answer. This might be my memory failing me, but at the very least, I have no doubt that a soundtrack in general is quite the oddity for a cinematic platformer.
I’m always down for a great game soundtrack, and LUNARK definitely offers that. From beginning to end, I don’t think there’s a song that didn’t have my toes tapping. The soundtrack was good enough for me to eagerly count down the days until I can stream it online. It’s full of thumping tunes that’ll keep you bobbing your head the entire adventure, and I have no doubt I’ll be listening to them in my usual music rotation for months to come. That’s why what I’m about to say next might sound a bit strange.
LUNARK has a wonderful soundtrack that I really do adore, but I think it might come at the cost of immersion. This could very much be a me thing, but when I think of cinematic platforming, I think of ambient, atmospheric background noise. Most games in this genre are quiet to a point of being eerie, and that only heightens what you feel. Another World is much more scary due to its lack of music, and Flashback remains quiet for most of the adventure, only using a small selection of songs at very key points. Even the Oddworld franchise, which does have plenty of music, goes with tunes that are extremely understated to build the vibe. LUNARK goes for an all-out traditional soundtrack, and while I do love the music, I think it detracts from the cinematic platforming experience…or at least, what I want from one.
The same can be said for LUNARK’s use of humor. It’s not like LUNARK is aiming to be an overly-comedic game, but it includes a handful of one-liners and quips that are meant to lighten the mood. Humor is an unbelievably difficult thing to tackle in any medium, and when jokes don’t land, they tend to stick out like a sore thumb. The humor in LUNARK didn’t ruin the experience for me by any means, but it falls into a similar situation as the game’s soundtrack. The silly banter that pops up from time to time pulls me out of the adventure, if only for a moment or two. Enough for me to note, but not so much that it killed my fun.
In terms of humor, I can feel you screaming Oddworld through your monitor (or phone screen, I guess). Yes, I agree that Oddworld has a fair share of humor in it, but I think it’s a very different kind of humor. The comedic elements of Oddworld are mostly slapstick in nature, and they also work to enhance the cruelty of that game world at the same time. The higher-ups in that game’s story are so out of touch with reality that you have to laugh or you’ll be crying. The way Abe’s race is treated is horrifying, and if it was presented in a serious manner 100% of the time, it would become an incredibly heavy journey. The moments of outlandish humor in Oddworld break up what could otherwise be a very uncomfortable adventure. With LUNARK, the humor comes off as harmless at best, and discordant at worst.
All things considered, these are miniscule gripes from an old man who’s been enamored with cinematic platformers for over 3 decades now. Even with those very small blemishes, I find LUNARK to be one of the best cinematic platformers I’ve ever played. I can nitpick here and grumble there, but the overall package is one that celebrates everything cinematic platformers have to offer. LUNARK and all it encompasses almost serves as the unofficial poster child for cinematic platformers. It shows why the genre is still around, just how great it can be, and how it’s a more than valid approach to games all these years later.
If you’ve never played a cinematic platformer, I honestly can’t think of a better place to start than LUNARK. Yes, there are entries in the genre that offer better atmosphere or story, but LUNARK is a finely-tuned experience that showcases why fans love cinematic platforming so much. It couldn’t be any more evident that LUNARK was made by developers who know cinematic platformers through and through, and wear their love of the genre on their sleeves. As a fellow genre diehard, I cannot give LUNARK a bigger stamp of approval.