One of the dominant trends in indie gaming is the prominent use of retro-licious pixel art graphics reminiscent of the 8 and 16-bit games many of us played as children. XenoHorizon actively chose to buck that trend in favor of vivid colors, higher resolution, and flashy animations in their action RPG Luminous Plume. It is no secret that Luminous Plume‘s visual style is quite bold, but is the game more than just a pretty face?
Luminous Plume populates its vibrantly colored environments with fluidly drawn and animated sprites. The heroes and enemies all have various flashy attacks, and I experienced no slowdown when things got frantic on the screen. Dialogue is accompanied by character portraits that, while appealing to look at, don’t have the most original designs. That being said, I appreciate the reasonable attire for the female characters. I also like the originality in the monster design; some of the larger boss monsters are a sight to behold. One of my favorite monsters was a four-legged bull shark roaming the arctic plains. In short, Luminous Plume‘s visual style screams, “Hey, look at me!” and it looks pretty good.
The big, bold instrumentation of the game’s music complements the striking visuals quite well. Even the quieter pieces like the village theme are very in-your-face. The music is layered, well-composed: it’s complex enough never to get boring but not so complex that it’s difficult to listen to. None of the pieces have huge hooks that will get stuck in your head, and I’m not compelled to go out and buy the soundtrack, but the music was enjoyable to hear as I was playing the game.
The crowning jewel in all of these positive attributes is an addictively fun battle system. Some of the mechanics remind me of the classic Tales series battle systems where I could map myriad moves to various button combinations. There are plenty of moves to learn, everyone will find their favorites, and having so many hotkey options for moves keeps combat fresh. I had loads of fun trying out different actions and pulling off massive combos. A slick menu interface makes optimizing your character quite intuitive, though some character upgrade options were never even mentioned in the game. I only stumbled upon their existence by accident while poking around the menus.
The smooth and responsive gamepad controls made battles feel fast, fluid, and plain fantastic. It is possible to play Luminous Plume using a keyboard, but it is NOT at all advised. Keyboard controls are awkward and unintuitive, making play even on the easiest difficulty setting an absolute pain. Luminous Plume is optimized for the gamepad and I think games of this ilk are best played using one anyway.
Unfortunately, battling is pretty much all there is to the gameplay. There is no exploration, no shopping, nor any other proverbial RPG trappings, making Luminous Plume a stripped-down “battle rush” RPGs. To be honest, these types of games get too repetitive for my taste and feel incomplete. I need something more to do than fight, fight, fight all the time like in Itchy and Scratchy’s theme song. Dynamic, explorable stages like in Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir or Child of Light would have made Luminous Plume feel like a more fully realized game. Thankfully, this repetitive game is mercifully short; it’s possible to blow through in about five hours on easy mode, though normal and hard modes will likely take longer. Once the credits have rolled, a post-ending bonus area resolves one of the hanging plot threads.
Stripped-down is how I would describe the story as well. Luminous Plume presents a bare-bones JRPG tale starring a melancholy rogue with a troubled past whom fate embroils in a mysterious adventure. I’m fine with a classic RPG tale so long as the storytelling is good, but Luminous Plume‘s storytelling feels rather disjointed. Events don’t flow smoothly, and the expository info dumps shoehorned into the dialogue feel like the characters are awkwardly saying a whole bunch without saying anything at all. Okay, those info dumps are important for players to understand what’s going on, but I feel like the worldbuilding could have been presented more smoothly. A game like this where it’s more about fighting and killing things doesn’t need a Citizen Kane level story, but Luminous Plume‘s story could have been better than this.
When characters aren’t spouting expository info-dumps, the conversational dialogue is subpar as well. Every line of dialogue reads stiffly, does not flow the way conversation should, and does not imbue any personality or “voice” into the characters. To add insult to injury, some of the word order is questionable, making some characters’ lines read like bad impersonations of Yoda. Some characters say they’re from other lands and have foreign dialects, but there is no indication of that in any of the text. Basically, every character speaks in exactly the same manner and they all feel interchangeable, with different looks but the same personality.
The writing also breeds inconsistencies, such as a casual-minded person calling another out for their overly formal speech while speaking stiffly. At no point did this casual-minded character speak casually, causing the whole dialogue exchange to make no sense. It made me wonder if any real thought was put into building character personalities and crafting dialogue styles to match them. Given the effort put into the graphics, music, and gameplay, seeing such slipshod writing is a grave disappointment.
It’s a good thing there is no voice acting during cutscenes because of how laughably awkward characters’ lines would sound when spoken. There is, however, voice acting during battles where characters grunt, kiai, shouted battle cries, issue taunts, etc. The voice acting is not bad, but it could have been better. The voice acting lacked the visceral energy and tense urgency I expect from battle cries, and several of the pre-battle taunts sounded phoned in. Some people might say I’m overly critical since this is an indie game and the harshness of grunts, shouts, and other battle verbalizations are taxing on actors’ voices; however, I’ve played indie games with lesser production values and lower budgets that had superior, believable voice acting.
Luminous Plume feels more like a tech demo than a fully realized game. The lion’s share of effort was put into the sumptuous battle engine, luscious visuals, and bold music to the detriment of the narrative, characters, writing, and non-battle gameplay. I admittedly had fun playing Luminous Plume, but I would have better appreciated its amazing battle system if it were in a more substantial and fully-realized RPG. If battle-rush games like this are your thing, then you’ll probably enjoy Luminous Plume more than I did.