The first thing you do in every round of Nix Umbra is collect your sword. It burns in your right fist, casting a pool of harsh emergency lighting a few metres wide. As long as the sword is lit, you live. Your shared vitality is measured by a sun icon in bottom right. Ahead, coarse soil disappears into twitching shadow. Above, bedroom-wallpaper stars flicker uncertainly. You think you see the moon.
After around five seconds of walking you’ll encounter your first tree: a gritty slash of texture in the baleful glare of your sword. Early on in your time with Nix Umbra the trees might seem comforting: landmarks and barriers, things to retreat to, weave through while fleeing. You peep around the trunk and it bursts into flame, illuminating other trees, grouped in a ring like petrified ogres at feast. Your sun icon dims a little. You keep moving.
30 seconds in. Something is watching you through the trunks, maybe a hundred metres away. The suggestion of glowing sockets and a lipless grin. It rarely stays put for long, sliding around at ethereal speed or vanishing and reappearing. You can’t decide whether to confront it or let it herd you deeper into the darkness. As the onlooker glitches from point to point, you become belatedly aware that you are engulfed in sound – a subliminal purr, like an idling engine.
45 seconds. More trees. A lonely stump you’d like to jump on. You spy the moon again, but there’s something off about it. The planet seems to be orbiting something you can’t see. There are spindly, fidgeting shapes to either side of it, and what could be a comet travelling in hectic yet purposeful arcs.
50 seconds. You find your first collectible! A floating gem, its facets flicking white and black as it spins. Your sun sprouts a semi-circle of wavy-toothed rays. The eyes in the darkness are closer. You turn away, but it keeps darting in front of you. There is activity in the mesh of foliage overhead, a shrill fluting and a hint of whirling wings.
60 seconds. The anomalous background drone has increased in volume, a murderous edge creeping into it. The unseen world is beginning to take a serious interest. There is a flash of lightning and a tree far away combusts, conjuring up another little oasis of grim trunks and dancing shadows. No thunder follows. Mindful of the tried-and-true horror principle that any bright area is likely a trap, you angle toward the black spots on the horizon. There are several pairs of eyes watching you now, some of them closer-set and nearer to the ground, some of them cavernous and still.
75 seconds. All of a sudden you are under attack. The void at your back sucks in its breath and funnels itself into a dreadful, descending howl, like the call of a possessed Stuka. You don’t waste time looking, but turn and raise your sword in one motion so that its blade erupts into roaring daylight, obliterating the view together with whatever it is that wants to kill you. The trunks and foliage bleed back in, as though reloading from a crash. Your sun is dimmer still. Keep moving.
80 seconds. 90. 100. You think about the space you’re in, a procedurally generated expanse that has habits rather than contents or features. You wonder how much of the geography exists before it’s caught in the frail circle of fire that is the navigable plane. There are traces of an overarching logic: the collectibles and certain other objects, which appear at variable yet calculated intervals, sometimes forming trajectories that resemble lines of boost pads in a racing game. The types of tree you see change as you drift further from your point of origin – just two minutes behind you, though it feels like hours. But much seems random, or wholly dependent on your behaviour. In moving through this forest, seeking to know it, you are also reconfiguring it, provoking it.
Three minutes. You are attacked again and again. The sun shrinks to a sliver. The sword is a potent but imprecise tool, blinding you every time you raise it, the range and area of effect a matter of guesswork, with minimal feedback to indicate whether you’ve struck down a foe or taken damage yourself. When you’re under assault from several sides, it’s dangerously tempting to hold down the button till the entirety of your sun icon drains away.
A nasty, gobby kind of static invades the audio as you search for a place of reprieve, some boundary to set your back to, however ephemeral – perimeter stones or even just a change in the earth underfoot. Three minutes and a half. There is something else in the forest you can’t see, some force or tendency of the night itself, given away by fissuring halos and other, more pointed visual artefacts. It can be run from, especially if you make use of certain things you find (there is no dashing, to begin with). But I’m not sure it can ever be escaped.
I’m reluctant to describe much more than this, but suffice it to say that I’ve never survived for longer than seven minutes in Nix Umbra, a “horror ritual” you could summarise as Devil Daggers meets Slender: The Eight Pages, with art direction reminiscent of The Return of the Obra Dinn, and ambient effects that call to mind Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Nix Umbra is an “occult” game, which is to say that it is about learning the ways of things that remain hidden, working out how to manipulate them without ever seeing them clearly.
Less ghoulishly, it’s a simple score attack exercise with power-ups and leaderboards. There are even things to unlock – alternative colour schemes that recall World of Horror, another wondrous monochrome nightmare, and, well, that’s it so far. There are no progression elements, and the “combat” probably won’t thrill anybody hoping to put their reflexes to the test. Survival, here, isn’t about striking and dodging punctually but getting your head around an invisible world’s behaviour and doing your best not to experience it at its worst.
It’s perfectly appalling. But also irresistible. The darkness is malleable for all its threat, a thing to push against and play with. There is so much to be curious about, if you can only last a little longer. Next time, you’ll take a right at the first tree you see and try engaging the things in the forest, rather than showing them your back. You’ll prioritise gems and investigate the lightning. You’ll play with your ears as much as your eyes. And perhaps, with enough luck and good judgement, you’ll reach the moon.