Wordless games are some odd ducks. On the one hand, you have wordless action games, like Journey and Abzu, where gameplay and exploration are the central focus as you make your way through the world and its puzzles. On the other end of the spectrum, you have games like LUNA The Shadow Dust, which are more traditional adventure games and place a higher emphasis on the story and the puzzles that you solve to advance. It's a bold choice, but does it always pay off?
A Wordless Journey
LUNA The Shadow Dust is the story of a boy and his Ghibi-esque creature, climbing a tower to save the world. The game has no dialogue or text, telling the story through short cutscenes interspersed throughout the campaign. It’s hard to describe the plot more than “they climb the tower” because that’s really all that happens. Each new room and level is a new puzzle to figure your way through, and you don’t really understand why they’re climbing the tower until the very last cutscene.
The characters, the boy and his pet, are sweet but bland. They are both persistent, loyal and brave as they make their way ever upward. Unfortunately it's hard to get emotionally attached. I mean, I only found out their names through achievement popups. Only at the end do you find out why you should care. Unlike most games of this ilk, emotional bonding isn't driving the story forward. In fact, there's not much of anything driving the story except for sheer curiosity as to what’s at the top of this tower.
Unfortunately, the room escape puzzles throughout LUNA fall into the same pitfall that most textless adventure games do. It’s difficult to craft puzzles without being able to give the players clear parameters. I’m up for some good puzzles, but it’s artificially difficult to solve them when I don’t know what tools I have at my disposal. The character abilities aren’t defined, and there was one room in particular where inconsistent logic and previously unseen abilities were key to the way forward. If I’d known what abilities were at my disposal, or even when they were at my disposal, it would have been much less frustrating.
That said, some of the puzzle rooms were really quite clever, and they all have a very outlandish, Studio Ghibli-esque aesthetic and mentality to them. From cyclopean mice to time traveling paradoxes, no puzzle is ever solved in the way you expect it to be, which is excellent for whimsy but not so much for puzzle structure.
LUNA’s overall tone and art style is delightful, easily my favorite part of the whole experience. The cutscenes and art style look like they belong in a movie, reminiscent of the style used in The Book of Kells. The fanciful creatures and the background designs reminded me very much of My Neighbor Totoro with their charming peculiarities. The soundtrack is a gentle and soothing instrumental selection which blends perfectly with the art.
For all of the drawbacks of having a wordless adventure game, it feels like LUNA The Shadow Dust should have been a short film instead. Keep the strong points of the animation and design, as well as the soundtrack, but take away the frustration and lack of intuitiveness with the puzzles. The strong points outweigh the bad, but it still makes for a less than optimal gameplay experience.
A Lunar Denouement
Overall, LUNA clocks in at about 5 hours in length, and both the soundtrack and art book are available as DLC for it. The artbook answers a lot of questions about the game and gives the necessarily lore and background for you to properly understand the entire story, which is useful and personally helped to clear up much of my own confusion. However, lore shouldn’t be something retrieved from an artbook after a confusing experience, it should be in the work itself.
LUNA The Shadow Dust is more of an artistic experience than a game, falling into one of the common pitfalls of wordless games. For those looking for really good puzzles and a strong story, this is not the game for you. However, if you’re looking for an adventure game that’s a bit more out of the box without breaking the mold entirely, you may just find your companion. That being said, there's not a bad thing to say about taking a few hours to look at some gorgeous artwork. If you want to understand the story though, the artbook is a worthy investment.
TechRaptor reviewed LUNA The Shadow Dust on PC via Steam with a key provided by the publisher. The artbook and soundtrack DLC keys were also provided by the publisher for review.
- Gorgeous Art Style
- Soothing Soundtrack
- Lack of Words or Text Made Plot Unclear
- Puzzles and Character Abilities Were Not Logical And Properly Defined