One Upon Light is a unique puzzle game from developer SUTD Game Lab and publisher Rising Star Games. Its aesthetic calls the fantastic Limbo to mind, with a similarly austere black and white color scheme. One Upon Light‘s main themes are light and shadow, but with a rather ingenious twist: light hurts your main scientist character, and you must hide in the shadows in order to survive and make it to the next level, of which there are over 20. The game is quite the head-scratcher, in ways both good and bad. Time to delve deep into how One Upon Light is a rewarding, yet often frustrating, experience.
That pillar of light will fry you faster than bacon on a lit stove
The game starts off with your main character, who I have affectionately named Scientist, waking up in the middle of an abandoned, breaking lab with no memory of what’s happened, or indeed, going on. As he traverses the desolate hallways of the first level, he walks into light and finds that it hurts and turns him into particles if he stays inside it too long. Thus you, the player, figure out that light is the worst thing for Scientist.
He can withstand light for very short periods of time, a few seconds, so if there is a small pillar of light you can likely walk through it quickly enough without dying. Every time you step into light, you slow down and this weird disintegrating sound plays; stay in it too long and you’ll fall to the floor, dead. Each level in One Upon Light is harder than the last, but the objective is still the same: get to the newspaper at the end of the stage. These newspapers flesh out the game’s story, and also provide clues on upcoming puzzle variants in the next level.
Moving crates around to figure out puzzles sound tough? It gets WAY more complicated
Speaking of story, One Upon Light takes a very minimalist approach in its tale. Scientist doesn’t have a name or know what is happening in the lab, he speaks to himself (only in very tiny, hard to read text), and meets very few other scientists throughout the title (who would want to stay in a lab that is falling apart, anyway?). Scientist’s ultimate goal is to make it to his own office and figure out what the hell happened and why he can suddenly be easily killed by a reading lamp. There are very few cutscenes to speak of, and it is up to the player to piece the game’s story together through the various snippets of newspapers you read at the end of each level.
Scientist is either going to evade the light here by hiding in the shadow or he’s about to die horribly
As you progress through One Upon Light, things get more and more complicated. Scientist starts off running through tiny light beams to avoid death, but he soon learns crates are his best friend. Crates cast shadows that Scientist can hide behind, whether he’s moving them manually with his bare hands or following carefully behind them as they cross a stream of light on a set path. Crates show up in almost every level, and often have to be moved from place to place with a crane and back again. Some stages later on have multiple paths that you have to go through in a certain order, which can be anxiety producing when you have no idea which path is the first one the game needs you to go through.
There are lights that go on and off when you trigger them through a door’s floor plate: one particular level threw me for a loop because the lights went on the first time I went through the door, but then off when I went completely around the level and came through the door again (this was necessary to progress through the stage). One Upon Light can be overwhelming at times; the game does a good job of introducing new mechanics each level (my favorite being the walls that disappear when shadows are thrown across them), but the pacing is off. Sometimes the game eases you into something new, like the disappearing walls, but often the difficulty spikes dramatically mid-level. With so many paths to follow, it’s hard to keep track of it all, especially when moving crates all around and casting your own shadows.
What the hell do I do here?!
What’s that? Cast your own shadows, you say? Yep, one of One Upon Light‘s strongest mechanics is the Echo Shadow glove, which you obtain from a fellow scientist midway through the game. By pressing R1, Scientist can slow down time and create a shadow, provided there is a crate or object that is in front of something giving off light. This is great for crates moving along a conveyor belt because the shadow they cast is constantly moving and you can provide a safe area by creating the shadow in one spot. These Echo Shadows can only be created one at a time, however, so Scientist has to be careful he is not creating one in place of the very shadow he just made, destroying himself with light in the process. The Echo Shadows open up the puzzle possibilities in One Upon Light tremendously once they are introduced, though I wish they showed up earlier and weren’t used for only roughly half of the game’s levels.
It’s funny how any light pillar, regardless of size, can kill you in a heartbeat
One Upon Light, though definitely one of the most unique puzzle games I have come across recently, is a little rough around the edges. The aforementioned pacing is inconsistent, and you’ll often spend upwards of 30 minutes trying to figure out what to do in a level. Instead of feeling smart once you figure something out (which did happen a bit, to the game’s credit), oftentimes I ended up frustrated and annoyed, especially when too many paths were thrown at me all at once. Movement is a bit clunky and stiff, and sometimes death by light is the most maddening thing in the world (if you already slightly stepped toward the light, it’s usually too late to back out and survive).
At times, little shadows will look like safe spots but aren’t big enough to protect you. Rotating doors activated by levers that you have to squish into appear late in the game, and moving into them always felt rough and almost glitchy. Also, if Scientist stands in front of an automated crate on a conveyor belt and it reaches its end destination, it just passes through him, which was a bit messy. On the other hand, the sound in One Upon Light is top notch: everything from whirring gears to levers being pulled to the scratching of the floor as crates are pushed across them are quite vibrant and lifelike. Also, checkpoints are plentiful and there are unlimited lives, so at least there isn’t that headache to worry about.
As far as puzzle games go, One Upon Light is one that deserves a look. It isn’t perfect, and is often quite taxing, but its mechanics set it apart from other titles of its ilk. It is unique and deserves the numerous awards it has garnered. If you are interested in checking it out, you can find it on the PSN for the PS4.
One Upon Light ultimately does not succumb to light
Gameplay - 7/10
Design - 8/10
Controls - 6/10
If you are looking for something fresh and unique that puts a spin on the puzzle genre, check out One Upon Light. It has difficulty spikes and some wonky controls, but it is fun and interesting enough to play through. Be prepared for some really taxing brain twisters, though, especially the later levels that throw all the mechanics you have learned throughout your adventure at you. Watch out for the light, and stay in the shadows.