Review: The Light Keeps Us Safe

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This game was selected as one of our October 2019 Reader’s Choice Reviews. Learn more on our Patreon page.

As a developer, it’s got to be hard deciding when to bring your game out of Early Access. Once the public sees your unfinished game, they’re going to get all manner of ideas in their head about what constitutes finished to them, personally. The best you can hope for is satisfying a majority of players, but there’s still something of a floor that we can all probably agree on reaching before pushing that 1.0 button. The Light Keeps Us Safe is a moody, atmospheric, and at times terrifying game that honestly seems to have hit that button a little too soon, and it’s a bit of a toss-up whether or not you can overlook the bugs and rough edges for the unique experience it offers.

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The world ended again, can ya believe it? This time it was the machines, great, terrible constructs that wander the barren land in search of any humans left un-purged. There’s no Matrix to escape into here, there’s just you, in your bunker, alone with a strange lady’s voice in your head. Apparently there’s still a way to reach the refuge that the other survivors nipped off to, but you’ve got some work ahead of you to get there. Armed with the baddest-assed flashlight since Alan Wake’s chunky Maglite, you must forge out into the ruins of civilization in search of salvage to make your turbo torch even badder-assed. It’s got some neat modes that will help open new paths and options in the wasteland, eventually leading you to the salvation you’ve been looking for.

If you’ve played Big Robot’s older title Sir, You Are Being Hunted, there are some elements here that will feel familiar. The Light Keeps Us Safe is primarily a stealth game, with you striking out from your bunker home into different randomly-generated regions to find the scraps to upgrade your light gun. Your world is pretty much eternally cloaked in night now, leaving you plenty of shadows to skulk through and avoid the glaring gaze of your robot oppressors. Loot for upgrading your flashlight can be found in particularly well-guarded ruins and structures, but the landscape is dotted with interesting locations like old houses, dilapidated gas stations, ruptured chemical tanks, and murky swamps. These places hide lesser loot stashes that can provide you food for surviving, bandages for also surviving, and bottles for making distractions.

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What keeps this from becoming a banal light-survival joint is the incredible atmosphere and aesthetic. The first time you step out of your bunker into the still fields, cold moonlight peeking through the clouds to touch the cracked earth, it’s liable to give you chills. Few games have captured that sick, uneasy feeling of being alone and exposed in the dead of night, but The Light Keeps Us Safe does it masterfully. It’s not just window dressing either, because the machines hunting you are all kinds of threatening. Beyond the basic stationary observers that buzz menacingly and the crab-like monstrosities stamping around, there are utterly alien designs like floaters, invisible sentries, and projected spheres of energy that will track you down. There’s one that gets introduced in the third level that is absolutely terrifying in scope, partly because I thought it was part of the environment at first. So much of what you see here is bizarre and counter to your expectations that it can’t help but unnerve.

Your flashlight upgrades can help you deal with some of these threats, because they’re not just there to make the beam brighter. Every time you improve your weapon it gains a new light mode, which includes familiar features like a concentrated beam and less familiar ones like a light that brings non-existent things into being. You’ll have to experiment to see how each new mode interacts with the enigmatic features of the world, and there are some really great moments that come about with these discoveries. It’s actually a fine example of game mechanics contributing to the storytelling, because there’s some serious world-building that happens once you realize how some of your modes work.

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If The Light Keeps Us Safe was just a tight, creepy adventure it would be an easy recommendation. But I mentioned Early Access before, because unfortunately this title bears some ugly marks from the process. It won’t be long into your journey that you start noticing the muddy controls, how your character tends to stick on certain corners or get caught by invisible walls. This can happen to the enemies as well, ruining some of that all-important tension. Ladders are a particular killer, with a bug that can literally send you flying off into space and force a restart from your last checkpoint. There’s a conspicuous lack of polish everywhere you look, too, from the clunky menus and UI to the lack of video options to the weird brightness screen that pops up after every single loading screen. It hurts to say it, but the game really does feel unfinished in how rough so many of the all-important gamefeel edges are.

Even the story suffers from being undercooked, building plenty of atmosphere but not much substance, and it ends in just as unsatisfying a place. So that’s the real question when faced with picking this one up, are you looking for a complete experience, or just an impressive one? The first few hours here will be intense and creepy, but beyond that the bugs are going to eat into your fun and it’s going to end without really going anywhere. If you want to experience a strange, alien world full of fear and wonder, by all means pick this one up. But if you’re expecting anything more than that, sadly I can’t really say your time will be worth it.

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