I love the experience of playing a game with absolutely no knowledge of what to expect. It's harder than ever these days, but despite that I've been studiously avoiding reading any articles about Red Dead Redemption 2 — although unfortunately I haven’t been able to avoid the headlines (shrinking horse balls, really?)
So it was a rare treat when the early access release of The Light Keeps Us Safe dropped into my eager hands — here was a game I hadn’t even heard of just moments before. But what I did know is that it's from Big Robot, the plucky British indie studio behind the ambitious and quirky games Sir, You Are Being Hunted and The Signal From Tolva, which was more than enough to create much excite.
The best way for me to share this plunge into the unknown is probably to take your clammy hand and walk you through my first moments with LiKUS... what could possibly await?
OK, we’re looking at a bed. Not a very nice bed either, more of a converted mattress. It’s probably mine. But we’re in familiar territory for a gamer: clearly a first-person shooter with WASD controls and all the usual. A nice pop-up tells me to press F to fiddle with things (well, 'interact', but doesn't fiddle suit F better?) Then a disembodied female voice pipes up and begins rambling about our situation. It seems we’re in a bunker, we’ve “stayed too long”, and should have “gone with the others into the light.” Immediately I’m reminded of ZombiU, and The Prepper sending out his hapless minions to fetch things from the apocalyptic wasteland from his safe little bunker.
Then I happen across a torch thing that the nice lady tells us she left behind: very thoughtful. It can be charged up on the right and upgraded on the left, but upgrades are locked until three ‘components’ have been acquired. Further on there’s a cavern in which sits a giant, mysterious machine. It doesn’t seem to do anything. The lady makes some oblique comments about it.
But there are doors! To the outside! Although only one we can go through for now. At which point some red R2D2 thing pops up and starts hurting me. Here’s where the fancy torch comes in — shining it at the metallic threat causes a stun effect, and its malevolent red LEDs turn a soothing purple. The light keeps us safe, yeah? Like guns do. But it’s light. Alan Wake motherfucker!
Once outside, it's clear that something has gone very wrong indeed. It’s dark, there are weird lights shooting through the sky, awful stuff has happened to the moon, and there are more black robot things with red lights. One looks like a security camera, scanning its surroundings in a set pattern. Another is a black orb patrolling the path in front of me. Luckily I have a secret weapon: bottles. I lob one in the bushes, and the security camera immediately starts firing lightning in its direction while I sneak behind a rock.
But disaster! THE ORB HAS SPOTTED ME. I run pell-mell, before remembering the torch. I shine the light into its evil robot face, and it’s stunned — but as soon as I move the torch, it’s after me again. I change tactics, shining the torch straight at it as I retreat backwards behind a shed, then quickly crouch in the grass to throw it off the scent. GLORIOUS VICTORY.
A fairly unforgiving approach to stealth won't surprise players of Big Robot's previous titles, nor will my move onto the real delights of this new environment — rooting through the bins. A press of the fiddle button reveals question marks over the black bags, dumpsters and the various detritus littering this apocalyptic wasteland, many of which contain unexpected bounty: initially, bandages and food. Eating the food fills up the hunger bar at the top of the screen. Aha, this is a survival game!
After foxing a few more robots with all-powerful bottles, I find another shed, but this one has a glowy machine inside. A quick fiddle with it produces those all-important components to upgrade my gear, and it feels like we're getting somewhere. I head off to find two more to improve the weird torch thing.
We probably don’t need to go through the next bit in detail, so we could just do a montage instead.
[DRAMATIC MUSIC BEGINS] Man looks in bin. BEAT. Man looks in another bin. BEAT. Man looks in cupboard. BEAT. Man looks in bin again. Man eats something he found in bin. Man waits for agonisingly long time while glowy door takes ages to unlock while security camera pans towards him. BEAT. Man finds glowy component. Man finds another glowy component. BEAT. Man gets hopelessly lost as he tries to find his way back to the bunker because he's just noticed there’s no map. BEAT. Man eventually finds said bunker by mistake. BEAT. Man triumphantly holds newly upgraded torch thing above his head while bellowing in manly fashion [MUSIC CRESCENDOS].
Right. So now my torch can shoot a laser beam, which means I can unlock another door by pointing it at a mysterious orb. And I’m in a new area!
It looks the same as the last one, except a bit more green. OK so: procedural generation. It can be used to wonderful effect, like recent-ish examples Dead Cells or No Man’s Sky (probably the more appropriate comparison). But it can also, as here, lead to environments where the same old bits of furniture are scattered around every time, just in a slightly different layout. I won’t bother doing another dramatic montage for the second area, because it would be basically the same as the above but in a slightly different order.
All of which earned me a torch upgrade that reveals hidden objects, which unlocked another door, which led me to… well, another level that looked the same as the first two. And the same task, only this time the components were a bit further apart.
I won’t lie: the drive to continue was flagging by this point, and I was probably only two or three hours into the game. The core loop of 'find components, upgrade torch, repeat' is frankly hard to get excited about. Partly that’s down to the torch itself. Shining a torch at things is far less immediately exciting than, say, spewing machine-gun rounds into a Cacodemon, but it's also one of those ideas that has been used to excellent effect in previous games. I’m thinking of the likes of the Project Zero games, where you frantically try to keep ghosts held within your camera’s viewfinder, hindered by twisting corridors that provide ample opportunity for beasties to leap out unaware. Or Alan Wake, which soaks dense and detailed environments in an encroaching blackness such that your torch genuinely comes to feel like a lifeline.
In LiKUS, on the other hand, I quickly learned to ignore the enemies and just run past them if they spotted me. They’d eventually give up the chase and, because the levels are so wide and open, there’s plenty of room to escape into. And even if they catch you... floaty orbs and security cameras are hardly the most threatening of foes. Creepier spider-things turn up later, but hold little fear when you realise the 'run' strategy remains effective.
That hunger bar suggests this is a survival game, but surviving is easy thanks to all those bounteous bins. Beyond scrounging for food, there are no other survival mechanics, no crafting trees or bases to maintain. All you’re doing is looking for components to make your torch do different things.
Another reason I zoned out is that the story seems to disappear as soon as you leave the bunker. I was intrigued by the terrible fate that must have befallen this world, and what that mysterious disembodied voice meant about going into the light. But answers came there none: not even a scrap of lore hidden in a bin. I thought maybe the mysterious machine in the bunker might provide some clues about what’s going on, especially once I realised I could feed it the motes of light scattered across levels. Nothing happened when I did. A quick scan of the developer’s latest patch notes crushed my dreams: “And no, you can’t turn the machine on yet anyway, sorry!”
It's worth reminding ourselves that, while LiKUS currently looks the part, this is an early access game and reflects that. In its current form, however, there's just not much to grab you. I mean, sure, most video games basically boil down to repeating the same actions, but usually there's a sense of achievement or progression as you do so. Here I was doing the same thing again and again with little sense of satisfaction.
LiKUS has only just entered Early Access, so I do feel a little mean being so hard on it. And based on Big Robot's excellent track record, I wouldn't be surprised to return to this in six months and find an atmospheric and absorbing adventure. But right now, this feels like it needed a bit more time in the oven before seeing the light.