There's no jumping or timed movement or violence of any kind in Luminesca. You explore, rescue friendly plankton and figure out how to use them to move onto the next undersea area. Sole developer Matt Glanville helpfully describes it as "an underwater exploration minimalist slightly puzzly sort of thing."
It takes courage to design a game based around sections everyone hates, and Luminesca takes place almost entirely underwater. "Whenever I'm researching underwater stuff or reading about underwater stuff in games it's always like "Argh the underwater level!" Matt jokes, and he's not wrong, but Luminesca's swimming isn't an afterthought, it's the whole game. Fast, powerful strokes dart you across the screen. Your momentum keeps you turning in slow, graceful curves. There's a tangible feeling of water pressure, but reach the surface and you can break free from it all, arcing through the air like a dolphin.
In a game of precise jumps and well timed dashes this kind of elastic movement would be frustrating, but fortunately that's not what Luminesca is. It's a game about slow, languid exploration and puzzles. Your only real ability is your light, which illuminates the stark black rocks, revealing impassible walls to be riddled with hidden caverns and passages. "That's sort of a big thing," explains Matt. "Using your light to understand the world around you and feel your way through and learn something about something you thought was different." Exploring a cave might reveal a charming glowing plankton. They can be enticed to follow you, powering the rusting machines strewn around the ocean floor, opening switches and giving you more areas to explore.
I fell into Luminesca's rhythms instinctively. The game doesn't give any instructions. There are no glowing objective arrows or tooltips. From the beginning, when I transformed from adorable glowing plankton to adorable silhouetted merchild, I went left because I couldn't go right. I sought out plankton because they opened doors, and I saved as many as I cloud because they're cute.
With no information to go on, I started filling the void with my own imagination. Throughout the demo I was convinced that shining my light on the little plankton convinced them to follow me. It was nothing of the sort. I'd projected a far more sophisticated personality onto them than they actually had. "That's one of the big things I love about minimalism," Says Matt. "you leave things open and people go with the thing they find the most interesting. Which is great, it means I can do less!"
The minimalist approach fits perfectly with the shadowy atmosphere. Everything is Luminesca is either cute or dark, often both at once. The whole game is drawn in shadows and silhouettes illuminated only by the soft greenish yellow glow of your light. The art style - a collision of the childlike and the ominous - reminds me of Limbo. There's a darkness lurking behind that adorable character art. When you speak to adult merpeople, they drop hints about gathering their young for some dark purpose. Scattered machines and cages tell a chilling tale of child imprisonment and sacrifice. "It is pretty dark, what's running underneath," says Matt. "You can play it and ignore all that, but also yeah I'd like people to look a bit below the surface."
The gorgeous visuals, mysterious atmosphere and dark story all combine to make Luminesca feel like an old fashioned macabre fairy tale. Like The Little Mermaid as told by the Brothers Grimm. After all these years, I've finally found an underwater level I don't want to skip.