Review: The Void

23 December 2009
11:58 pm

The Void is an atmospheric action/adventure game by Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge. It was originally released in 2008 as Turgor or Tension, but made its English debut for the first time in October of this year. The digital version of the game arrived on Steam last week (where I picked it up) and so far the game has really blown me away. In the game you play the role of a lost soul that has arrived in the Void after death; the Void is a purgatory-like existence between living and absolute death, and as a soul you roam through surrealistic zones watched over by the Sisters. The monstrous Brothers govern the entirety of the Void, and relations between the two factions have become strained due to diminished levels of the Void's only resource– Color. Color is the game's only capital and is everything from a weapon to attack enemies with, to your health, armor and skill points. The previous balance between the Brothers and Sisters has been lost, turning the Brothers towards rage and acrimony, and the Sisters towards despair and starvation. Throughout the course of the game you are sent between the Chambers owned by the Sisters to seek and grow Color in order to, eventually, regain your living existence and return to the real world. The cost of failure is succumbing to the famine and passing into absolute death.

The Void is billed as a survival adventure game; as such, you have limited resources, face monsters magnitudes stronger than you, and have to navigate around disorienting and confusing locations to progress through the game. Color is your one and only asset. You use it in a variety of ways like "painting" enemies with a particular color to attack them, drawing glyphs onto dead trees to rejuvenate them into blooming more Color, or healing yourself. There are seven shades available to the player– silver, gold, violet, azure, crimson, amber and emerald– and each color has inherent properties to it that affect both what it does in the world and what its relationship is to your character. To utilize Colors, they have to be pooled within internal vessels known as Hearts. The amount of Color in your Hearts determines your stats like health points, but the type you've decided to pool also grants your character certain characteristics. For example, a large amount of crimson makes you do more damage, while a large amount of azure makes you move faster. Each attribute is also reflected in how the Color affects the Void; emerald within your Hearts softens attacks from enemies, but when used in the Void it will drive the Brothers to jealous outrage. The game world is split between Chambers and the Void itself; while in a Chamber time is stopped, but while roaming the Void it restarts and the Color within your Hearts is sapped away from you, requiring constant quick replenishment to stave off death. The Void map is the "overworld" where you move from Chamber to Chamber. While in the Void, Color is transmuted within your Hearts from Lympha to Nerva. Nerva is a form that the player can directly utilize to attack enemies or draw glyphs. This brings a strategic element to the game, because you cannot generate Nerva within a Chamber and must routinely wait around the Void to restock; however, your resources are dangerously limited and it's very easy to run out and die. You also have to think several steps ahead, because the wrong decision early on will affect your Color stockpiles for the rest of the game.

The Void operates in Cycles of approximately a minute of real time. When a new cycle starts, new Color is generated in the form of flowers that the player can pick up inside Chambers. The shade is random, but determined by the type the player has used in the previous Cycle. This random amount is not sustainable, however; some Chambers are gardens, where the player can cultivate trees into Color generators that will provide a necessary amount of the resource. There's an element of strategy involved in this as well, as putting more Color into the tree's "seed" will return a commensurate amount, but this needs to be balanced with what you have on hand; pour too much into a tree and you won't recoup the investment in time to make it worth it. Color must also be fed to Sisters to give them the strength to open new Chambers within the Void, but each Sister is only interested in a specific set of shades. The game itself has a hard limit of 35 cycles total– while this might initially seem absurd, the amount of time you can spend within the Void itself is only a handful of seconds before your Hearts starve and you die. Every action requires the use of transmuted Nerva and the types used have as much a role in the game's final ending as the path you took to reach it. There are a total of eleven possible endings, achieved through a rather open-ended and non-linear progression.

The game's visual aesthetics are stunning. Environments are highly stylized and surreal and many of the screenshots I've taken would work just as well as artwork or wallpaper. The atmosphere is oppressive and bleak, perfectly fitting for a world that is falling apart just as you enter it. You encounter a variety of characters in the course of the game, from the sylphic Sisters to the frightening Brothers, as well as violent Predators and Hunters. The Chambers are a reflection on death and loss and the imagery contained within resonate powerfully in a dream world that's decaying all around you. While playing, I was as interested in progressing to see the plot as I was looking forward to seeing each new room. Your surroundings are simply gorgeous, saddening and succeeded in creating a haunting experience that affected me on many levels. Sound is a impressive strength in The Void as well, both due to the acoustics of your environment and the enemies within, but also to further the atmosphere of the game itself. Voices continually whisper around you, lost snippets of conversation expressing remorse and fear. The music is powerful and holds its own next to the gorgeous graphics of the game.

The gameplay itself is pretty standard for a FPS; the use of glyphs is not unique, but it is an under-utilized mechanic. I feel that its implementation was better than a similar setup in Lionhead Studio's Black & White, though I did have trouble a few times getting glyphs to fire unless I made several attempts to draw them. When you have your pallet open, the game world slows down considerably to give you time to draw a glyph (in case you're actively being attacked or something). Glyphs serve a range of functions, like temporarily increasing your run speed/jump range or creating a temporary barrier around your body. The Void doesn't break any new ground on this, but in conjunction with the incredibly artistry of the visuals, it's sufficiently compelling. There's a push to revisit old Chambers, both to collect errant Color and to see what changes have been effected in the course of your roaming, and the plant/tree farming "minigame" is a spot of beauty within an otherwise desolate and suffocating landscape.

Obligatory Numerical Value: I definitely give The Void a five out of five; some elements of the game are tedious and repetitive, but not to a degree that harms it. There isn't a lot of shocking innovation, but the story is interesting and the implementation of the Color resource is compelling. The graphics are such a monumental achievement that any potential negatives are lost under the game's beauty. This is definitely a game that everyone should look at, as it's as much a novel as it is an interactive experience, punctuated with poignant sparks of eye-candy in a world that seems drained of all hope.

Additional screenshots:

2 Responses to \'Review: The Void\'

    Just wanted to let you know that the graphics in this post don't work in RSS readers such as Google Reader. Instead, they are replaced with a "don't hotlink this image" graphic.

    Ah, good to know, thank you. I've gone ahead and fixed it, so the images should load correctly.

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