Big Robot have a growing catalogue of compelling titles to their name, but they're far from the most well-known or prolific name in the modern indie gaming landscape.
You’ve might heard of Sir, You Are Being Hunted - but it’s no Braid or Minecraft. Nevertheless, the talent involved has always lent the company’s various projects a unique hook in the form of a question.
When game journalists jump the fence into development, what do the results look like? When you’ve made a living writing about games and critiquing the decisions of the people who made them, what kind of games do you make and are they any good?
Founded by former Rock, Paper, Shotgun editor Jim Rossignol, Big Robot’s previous games would suggest that the answer is a positive one. And thus far, the company’s commercial projects haven’t just been good - they’ve also been experimenting with a kind of tone and ambition that feels unique to the studio. They feel like the products of a creative team that's very deliberate in its choices.
Sir, You Are Being Hunted was a quirky survival game about polite-but-murderous British robots in the English countryside. Meanwhile, the pulpier The Signal from Tolva saw you dropped into a more-scenic science fiction setting populated by equally-murderous but less British automatons driven mad by their search for the source of a mysterious radio signal.
Now, the company’s next first-person adventure, The Light Keeps Us Safe has entered early access on Steam.
We took the survival game for a quick spin to see how it’s shaping up and came away intrigued. The visual direction isn’t as striking as The Signal From Tolva nor is the tone as absurd as Sir, You Are Being Hunted was. As a result, The Light Keeps Us Safe is Big Robot's bleakest venture yet.
Though the vibe is more nihilistic, the larger premise for The Light Keeps Us Safe is much closer to The Signal From Tolva to any of Big Robot’s other projects.
You awaken alone in a bunker having seemingly-slept through a nightmarish and cryptic apocalypse. Again, I want to stress that it's not quite horror, but it’s distinctly more moody and laced with uncertainty than previous works.
The world in The Light Keeps Us Safe is gunked up, broken down and largely-overrun by mechanical predators with malevolent intentions and indecipherable origins. It feels like the final battle already happened, and you lost. Now all that’s left to do is survive.
Wandering through the dimly-lit bunker, we quickly found a flashlight and, later, an exit to the game’s procedurally-generated outside world. Similar to other similar first person survival games, your goal here is to go out and gather food, medical supplies and other resources without being killed by the monstrous entities lurking in the folds of the landscape.
From what we played, the use of your flashlight appears to be, if not the central conceit then one of the main mechanics of the gameplay in The Light Keeps Us Safe. Similar to Remedy’s Alan Wake, you’re able to use the light to disable traps and stun enemies. As you make your way through the world, you’ll scavenge supplies and eventually upgrade your torch - this empowers you to use it in new ways.
Rather than just use it as a flashlight, you can later focus the beam and charge up specific objects in the environment. This means that, though the wide-open levels in The Light Keeps Us Safe are procedurally-generated, the larger progression here isn’t all that different to what you’d find in a Metroidvania like Dead Cells.
Refreshingly, The Light Keeps Us Safe doesn’t seem very interested in the conventional first person gunplay. Light can keep you safe, but any harm it inflicts on your adversaries is fleeting at best. While you don’t lose torch upgrades when you die, almost all victories are temporary. This creates a tension between conservative play and resource management. It also helps maintain the world’s evocative sense of danger.
Thankfully, the penalty for being caught isn’t so high as to discourage exploration. If an enemy catches you out, you’ll take some damage and have to sprint away to escape them - but it’s by no means an instant death scenario.
For better or worse, there's no map system in The Light Keeps Us Safe. It's up to you to remember your way around the world. I can see this potentially being a turn-off for some players. However, combined with the game's audio design and sense of tone, it does meaningfully contribute to the game's sense of danger, urgency and the unknown.
It’s clearly early days for The Light Keeps Us Safe. We encountered some bugs but there's a lot here that we hope to see improved, polished and iterated upon in later updates. Still, we’re intrigued enough that we'll probably return later down the line and see how the final product shakes out.
At the moment, The Light Keeps Us Safe sense of danger and tense atmosphere makes for a striking first impression. Whether Big Robot will pull off the trick of spinning that into a lasting one remains unresolved.
The Light Keeps Us Safe is available in Early Access on Steam now.