Sliding block puzzle games are nothing new to the genre, and it seems like there are only so many things you can do by trying to get a block from one part of a room to another. That said, there’s something about Once Upon Light that manages to make some of the formula feel fresh and new, even with its dark, dreary black and white setting. While investigating the events that happened after an explosion wrecked the lab you work in, you push blocks from one place to find the notes of what happened, all the while avoiding the light in order to save your own life.
The story in Once Upon Light doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense: the company that you worked somehow changed the way light functions, a process somehow related to an experiment about ice melt in the Arctic. The experimentation goes wrong, and you find that standing in the light, even for just a few short seconds, will kill you. As a result, you have to work your way through the wreckage of the facility to get back to the lab, using nearby machinery to shadow yourself.
Once Upon Light’s appeal comes from the simplicity of interaction with shadows and light. This top-down puzzler forces you to think about the angles that the light is coming from, how to precisely maneuver through obstacles and beams, and to even take a couple chances by exposing yourself to light for limited amounts of time. Puzzles start relatively simple, but the game introduces cranes, pressure switches, mine carts, and more to increase the challenge. Some of the later puzzles can take 10-15 minutes to figure out, with rooms needing multiple steps of solving to get to the end.
The puzzles gain some complexity when the Echo Gauntlet is introduced, a tool which allows you to keep a shadow in place, as well as the effects of the shadow, even after the physical object and its light source is gone. Not everything is sunshine and rainbows…err, darkness and midnight, though. The gauntlet creates some really interesting puzzles and solutions, but there doesn’t seem to be a consistent way to know which objects will cast permanent shadows and which ones won’t.
One of the later puzzles involves trying to create a pathway through three beams of light activated by pressure switches; each time I tried to use the Echo Gauntlet to create a permanent shadow, it simply disappeared. I wasn’t sure if there was a problem with the game or my usage of the gauntlet since it still allowed me to select the item I wanted to use, but I eventually worked around the problem and found the game’s intended solution.
Functionally, the game seems to work well when interacting with a single light source, but when multiple lights are focused on the same object, the shadows can get a little crazy. It’s not a game-breaking bug, but it forced me to use more trial-and-error to solve some puzzles by guessing what the light would do instead of logically creating the right situations. Again, it wasn’t a huge problem, but considering some of the logical mastery you end up invoking to handle later puzzles, it feels like a bit of a letdown to end up leaving some issues to chance.
Don’t let those points dissuade you, though; like most puzzle games, Once Upon Light doesn’t win you until you’re working on some of the later puzzles. The atmosphere, though it’s dark and reminiscent of a horror movie, doesn’t really deliver any horror or scariness since it’s just not that type of game. The story, delivered by the end-of-level newspapers and pieces of dialog between the protagonist and the couple of random people he encounters in the lab, feels relatively unimportant and underdeveloped, though some could make some intellectual ties between what happens in the game and the results of scientific research gone unchecked. But the puzzles themselves, particularly in the last quarter of the game, are simply fun to figure out, requiring a mix of basic logic with movement-based timing.
One puzzle in particular required me to follow a box as it cast a shadow on the ground, then use the Echo Gauntlet to create a safe space in front of me since the shadow cast from the object guaranteed to make the area dark, even if light cast from another angle would usually illuminate it. Doing that three times in a row took precision, and though I was frustrated at first, I was happy to have cleared it at the end.
Once Upon Light is a great game for fans itching for a little action mixed in to their puzzles, especially if you don’t like combat. Even when the puzzles get technical, nothing feels completely overwhelming, and I always had the feeling that even when I was in the dark for a while, I’d discover the answer that brought me to the light…or, rather, the dark.