The easiest way to create a fake 3D world, back before polygons and the moveable camera, was through the isometric perspective. It was a little tricky on the controller, thanks to the angled view either requiring very good diagonals or having the player mentally adjust so that down was down-left, right was down-right, etc, but it was still the best way to communicate where things were in 3D space using 2D art. Games like Solstice and Landstalker simply wouldn’t have been the same with the camera set up differently, but eventually true 3D graphics spelled the end for the isometric platformer until Lumo decided to take a trip down memory lane.
More than just a retrospective, Lumo is a wonderful platforming adventure in its own right. A baby-faced wizard teleports into the opening chamber of a giant dungeon complex, and initially he’s got no powers beyond a gentle hop. After a few simple rooms and possibly exploring a dead end, if you ignore the giant red arrow painted on the wall, the young wizard finds the first of the two power-ups available in the form of a properly video-game like jump ability. It doesn’t sound like much but Lumo is a platformer to its very core, and this opens up the levels and access to the dozens of secrets they hide.
Each area in Lumo is built from a series of rooms, and in the standard gameplay mode death simply resets the room and sees the wizard back at the door he entered from, none the worse for wear. Miss a jump and fall into the poisoned water, walk into a spike trap, or get toasted by a spinning flame, it all works out fine in the end. Even losing a necessary prop to clear a room is easily corrected by leaving and returning, because the point of Lumo’s rooms is for each one to be a little puzzle rather than a punishment for experimentation. That’s important because experimentation is the key to figuring out everything. There’s no explanation for any of the wizard’s abilities, and it’s up to the player to figure out that the jump works just fine on the large bubbles rising up from the watery depths, or if it looks like there might be a secret exit in a room it’s worth exploring a bit to see there’s a path to access it. Secrets may not be everywhere but they’re more than common enough to make it worth paying attention to every part of the scenery, just in case there’s something there. You’ve probably spent years playing games and Lumo trusts you to use those instincts to figure things out.
So you run, hop, and explore, finding references to classic European games of the past scattered throughout the world while triggering switches, moving quickly off crumbling platforms, and trying not to die too often while exploring. Then, about halfway through the game, you come across a staff and a new mechanic gets added to the mix. The staff only has one ability, which is casting an aura of light, but all of a sudden hidden green platforms become available that only exist while the staff is illuminated. The staff has limited power, restocked by glowing butterflies found in certain rooms, and its glow only extends a set distance. More than enough to jump to, of course, so you can always see a platform at the maximum jumping range, but you can’t just turn on the lights and find all the room’s secret paths revealed. It also doesn’t help that if you run out of magic while on a green tile it ceases to exist, dropping you down to whatever may be waiting below, so you’ll need to be quick and precise on some of the longer runs between butterfly recharges.
As you progress into the dungeon the rooms get, as expected, far trickier and more challenging, but the maze gets more and more intricate as well. What was once a semi-straight path to the next area becomes a series of interconnected rooms, frequently connecting with multiple pathways, and the map only helps so much seeing as it doesn’t mark your position. Like many of the design decisions, the map is a modern convenience with echoes of an older style of gameplay, in this case being the kind of thing you’d jot down on a handy piece of graph paper. Lumo is constantly balancing between old and new, and only rarely falls the wrong way towards something best left behind. The major example of this is the winter area, with slippery ice on every surface making block-sliding puzzles more annoying than fun. Especially when you need to carefully jump on the blocks to reach an exit high out of reach, accidentally running into a block sends it crashing into another causing both to shatter, and the blocks are made of ice so it’s far too easy to go sliding off the top, and argh! Die stupid room die! Thankfully, instances of this style of design are few and far between, and most areas are very well designed and deeply satisfying to solve.
Lumo is a big, puzzley, dungeon-romping love letter to the history of gaming, filled with references to a huge number of titles but still more than able to carve out its own identity. Secrets and collectibles are scattered along the path, and you’re not expected to find them all the first time through. At only a couple of hours in length, Lumo encourages replayability with mini-games, hidden areas and even an Old School mode that limits lives and applies a timer to the run. Clearing Lumo with everything is the kind of feat that will take practice and a strong familiarity with its layout, but the game is large enough to supply a good run while being just the right size to make at least a second play-through very appealing. It actually bugged me enough that I missed one of the rubber ducky collectibles on my first time through that I restarted from scratch, in fact, and have all the ducks and am also trying to complete my map collection as well. Lumo is a wonderful little thing, gorgeous and intricate and tricky, and a perfect example of what a game from the past made for the present can be.