Nebulous Review

Do you enjoy physics, puzzles, and the vast loneliness of space? Then you’re in luck!

Nebulous is a physics-based puzzler from Namazu Studios that messes with your mind almost as much as gravity. Guide Dash Johnson, a stranded astronaut, through a variety of increasingly difficult levels. Set the pieces needed to complete each level and let gravity take over. It might take twenty tries, but physics is hard… right?

There are few things I love more in this world than a good puzzle. Challenging my mind is my favorite exercise, and Nebulous is no slouch in that department. Nebulous is part of a recent resurgence, in my mind, of true puzzle games. Not action titles with one overly complicated puzzle every other hour;¬†real puzzle games. Finish one, next level; plain and simple. Here, you’ll be challenged from an early stage to wrap your head around some dense puzzles. After staring at the same screen for 30 minutes, you’ll start to sympathise with your lost astronaut friend. But his job is easy, compared to yours.

When you fire up Nebulous, the mystery unfolds. Dash Johnson is sucked into a black hole (or wormhole, maybe?) and you are forced to steer him through a series of daunting puzzles. For some odd reason, unbeknownst to him and you, whatever forces have taken him feel that the most suitable¬†punishment is to throw him around around like ragdoll at the mercy of gravity. Your role is the omnipresent architect, moving pieces and lining up how Dash will roll, bounce, and warp through the level to victory. There isn’t anything keeping you calm either. Dash keeps up his narcissistic dribble, verbal bashing of his captors (and you), and there is little to no sound or music. Crushing defeat is surrounded only by scolding and emptiness.

The difficulty of each level ramps up at a fairly fast rate. I adore difficult puzzles, but at points it felt like Nebulous didn’t give you ample time to adjust to how it plays. Once you have a certain trick down, it gets overtaken by a new mechanic. Granted, this keeps you on your toes and really makes you work to solve each puzzle, but I felt like I needed a breather now and then. What is nice though, is each mechanic doesn’t just disappear, it’ll be present throughout. The physics-based play of the game makes for some astounding puzzles that bend your mind and stretch your problem-solving skills to the limit. The levels start to get fill with moveable parts, and you’ll go from having one playfield (as they’re called) to a maximum of five.

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The parts you move and lay out for Dash to interact with range from simple ramps to switches that de/activate lasers or doors. Some rotate, or push Dash in specific directions; others you must force to do so. Each playfield has its own gravity setting, so make sure to note that before starting. The gravity direction is whatever direction the arrows are pointing on the side of a given playfield. When you feel that you’ve laid out the perfect path, let Dash roll out. He’ll scream, curse, and shout his way through each level. If you continually fail, he’ll make sure to remark on the fact that there is no intelligent life around; a jab at the player, but a good source of motivation too. Although the puzzles might cause you to make a few incoherent noises under your breath, Dash’s commentary will put a smile on your face.

There are no lives or time limits, but there is a 3-star system. Each level will rank you on how many stars you collect in each level, number of attempts, and time. This is the only other part of the game I really thought wasn’t well balanced. To earn all three stars, you really need to be near perfect, and fast. Very rarely did I get more than one, or even one, star. But, alas, that doesn’t mean the puzzles aren’t good! Each works well, and don’t feel artificially difficult at any moment. A good puzzle game, or a puzzle in general, fails to be solved only due to human, or in this case, player error. Nebulous succeeds in that department.

Making an earth-shattering, revolutionary puzzle game is a task of epic proportions. I don’t think Namazu Studios set out to do that with Nebulous, but they made an addictive puzzler nonetheless. You might rage a bit, and you’ll probably struggle for a while, but it rewards the determined. Adding the physics-style gameplay makes the potential much more vast, and Nebulous takes advantage of it. Not changing the way you solve a puzzle, or the genre in general, but it sure makes you think twice. And that is refreshing.

Nebulous is available on PC and PS4. We reviewed the PS4 version.