Every so often, a platformer comes along that so thoroughly knocks you on your ass you can’t help but smile in sick appreciation. For me, the latest to do so is Blue Fire, from the Argentina-based Robi Studios, officially out yesterday for Switch and PC. Blue Fire is a difficult game, yes, but it also heralds a difficult milestone.
Blue Fire first popped up last March, during a Nintendo Indie Direct that aired right around the time covid-19 lockdown restrictions swept the nation. You know how it goes with these showcases. A game pops up with a minute-long trailer or as part of a sizzle reel. It looks promising. Maybe it comes out and lands with a bang. Maybe it’s quietly canceled. Maybe it blows the initial release date by months, flies under the radar at release, and is never heard about again. That March Direct offers something of a micro case study. Some games (The Last Campfire, Moving Out, I Am Dead) made it to market with a bit of fanfare. Others (Baldo, Eldest Souls) were planned for release last summer but have yet to come out.
Robi Studios / Nintendo (YouTube)
However, of those games that Nintendo showed off last March, few piqued my interest more than the 3D action-platformer Blue Fire, which had a planned summer 2020 release. Robi Studios did not hit that target, but I was determined not to let the game fall off my radar.
Now it’s out, and a thought struck me: Guys, we’ve been doing this for nearly a year. (It’s one thing to know intellectually that we’ve been grappling with a criminally mismanaged pandemic for 11 months. But having something tangible—in this case, a tough-as-nails video game—to point to as a benchmark makes it feel all the more real.) I’m really enjoying Blue Fire so far. I also can’t shake that thought as I play.
Blue Fire casts you as an ostensibly long-dormant warrior wearing a cloak directly out of Link’s wardrobe. You emerge from a stasis pod of sorts. The world around you—a kingdom called Penumbra—is mysteriously desolate. You’re not really sure what’s going on, but there’s a strange malaise inflicting everything, and you get the unshakable sense that Penumbra was once prosperous and bountiful. You come across a city. It’s mostly vacated, save for a few dutiful individuals staffing the local shops. Sound familiar?
Navigating Penumbra isn’t nearly as breezy as the trailers and promotional imagery suggests. By pressing B (on Switch), you can jump; holding the button down increases the height of your jump. You can dash by pressing the right trigger. Holding that down increases how long your dash is, and leaping between Penumbra’s various platforms and dilapidated ramparts is often contingent on knowing exactly how you need to move. This all may sound simple enough, but the Switch’s Joy-Cons aren’t quite responsive enough to offer the control you’d get from, say, an Xbox or PlayStation gamepad. I’ve often found myself plummeting helplessly into a river of caustic water—not because I misjudged the distance but because I held the Joy-Con’s trigger down just a hair too long. So it’s a good thing that Blue Fire is also planned for release down the line on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
I’d be lying if I said Blue Fire wasn’t aggravating at times. As you shatter vases (that’s so Zelda) and defeat enemies (with, yes, Zelda-like lock-on combat), you’ll accrue a currency called Ore. You can use Rupees Ore to buy various upgrades and, more crucially, to activate statues around Penumbra, which will then serve as healing and respawn points. When—not if—you die, you’ll go alllll the way back to the last statue you activated. If you haven’t come across one in a while, well, tough luck.
Dying leaves a spectral shadow of your character in the exact spot you died. If you want to retain all of your hard-earned Ore, you’ll have to navigate your way back to where you died. (I haven’t died on the way to reclaim a dessicated corpse, so I can’t say for sure if you’d lose your stuff entirely at that point, or if you’d then have two spectral, cash-loaded carbon copies of yourself to track down.) It’s a bit like the death mechanic from Hollow Knight, Team Cherry’s pivotal 2017 platformer. Death is frustrating, but it’s only a setback if you’re not willing to put in the effort.
Penumbra is also filled with about three dozen Voids: optional platforming challenges that take place in an otherworldly realm. Completing each one will give you a permanent health increase, and those I’ve stumbled upon so far are impressively designed, requiring creative use of the platforming moves at your disposal. They’re by far the most thrilling part of the game (I love a good platforming challenge) but similarly aren’t without frustration. When—again, when, not if—you die, you’re sent back to Penumbra, directly outside of the Void’s entrance. You can just hop back into the Void without repercussion. Since each Void might take a few tries, you’ll find yourself reloading the same zone over and over. Would it not have been easier for the player to just respawn at the start of the challenge ad infinitum?
One Void demanded that I leap across a series of crumbling blocks to a rotating platform. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get the line down. A block would turn to dust, or the platform would spin just out of reach. Several dozen respawns, and I still couldn’t nail it. Frustrated, I went to bed. The next day, I picked up the game. Got it first try. Boo-yah.
Maybe it’s a result of when it was announced, and when it was released, but Blue Fire inexorably makes me think of the patience we’ve all exhibited for the past 11 months. You keep pushing, keep trudging, keep moving forward, even if it feels like you’re treading water. You’ll get where you’re going eventually, whether or not you’ve realized it. Blue Fire is a reminder that, no matter how tough the going gets—and right now, it’s really fucking tough—it always rebounds.
Oh, yeah, and there’s also a character named...
Game of the year!