Indie developers have done an amazing job of upping the game when it comes to horror and storytelling in the last few years. From dark and twisted personal tales like Neverending Nightmares to crude but effective jump scares (Five Nights At Freddy’s), there’s no denying that the smaller groups have done their best to step up when certain titans of industry have decided to take their franchises in strange new directions, or simply light them on fire and never look back (we miss you, Silent Hills). Bulb Boy is definitely another addition into this growing pantheon of creepy creations, and I’m happy to see it make its way onto the Switch, especially when the library is still new, fresh and steadily growing.
Bulb Boy is an unusual adventure/puzzle game that puts you in the position of the titular character, who’s head is literally a light bulb, but thankfully not shaped as such. You live in a small house in the monochromatic countryside with your grandfather (who’s a…lava lamp?) and your flying bug dog. One day, as you totter off to bed, a sinister entity from elsewhere invades you home and turns everything upside down by digging horrible and terrifying creations straight out of Bulb Boy’s imagination and memories and brights them to life. You, my dear Bulb boy, must now figure out what on Earth(?) is going on, save your grandfather and dog and drive the evil from out your home. And you’ll do so while also drifting in and out of reality with memories and flashbacks that set the stage for what fresh Hell may come.
As I stated above, Bulb Boy’s entire world is shaded in classic, sickly green, giving it the appearance of a game that may have, at one time, been made on an IBM circa 1970s. This gives a great boon to Bulb Boy, as it takes a different direction from the tried and true “black and white” approach to stark game design. Instead, the different hues of green do their part to give light and shadow and a properly foreboding nature to everything as the game unfolds before you. You’re given a chance to adjust the lighting from the very beginning, and I chose to err on the lighter side because, well, I’m going blind and I need to see things properly. The last thing I want to do is give the game a poor review because I can’t see and I just kept running into door jams. The additional brightness also gave me a chance to appreciate what the folk at Bulbware had put into the creation of their first game. There are little things, like the clutter on top of the kitchen counter or the disorganized bookshelves, that show there was no rush job that happened in Bulb Boy’s birth. There was a great amount of finessing that went into making sure the atmosphere and intentions of what our hero is encountering is crystal clear. It may not be a clean or rich home, but Bulb Boy was happy here, and he intends to fight back and reclaim what belongs to his small family.
Bulb Boy does have a serious air of “grotesque cute” about it from the word go. There are elements to the game that are bordering on disgusting, but it’s balanced by presentation and the surreal nature of everything. If I could compare it to another medium, Bulb Boy’s aesthetic is like if Courage the Cowardly Dog got an R rating and took place exclusively at night. There’s blood splatters what go green with the rest of the game, there’s rot and decay in some places, and a surprisingly large number of dead bugs. If Bulb Boy dies, he doesn’t just disappear, but you see his little head get crushed (in some places) resulting in broken glass and brain fluid in the same exchange. Bulbware dances right on the line between too much and just enough, and kudos to that. It’s an element that makes the game engrossing and engaging, and can compel players who otherwise might get a little put off by certain unsettling moments.
Gameplay wise, Bulb Boy is all about discovery, patience and, in many cases, timing. The game progresses forward with each room of the house (and beyond) acting as a contained puzzle room. You have to figure out what’s needed in order to move onto the next room, and some of it may take a little or long time. Arrows will appear over what Bulb Boy is able to interact with, but that isn’t enough to simply make the game easy for you. Once you figure out what to do and where to go, it’s a matter of the how and when as well. One of the first “bosses” you’ll encounter is a desiccated, decapitated chicken corpse that will straight up smoosh your head if he catches you. The game will lead you to exactly what you need to do almost immediately, but the chicken isn’t polite enough to wait patiently while you examine items and work things out in your head. It keeps moving around even while you interact with clues and items, and woe unto Bulb Boy if it catches you. Despite the very slow and relaxed control of the game, there is a serious sense of urgency in many places, and you find out quickly that Bulb Boy can (and will) die without your attention.
I admire Bulbware’s choice to also develop Bulb Boy with zero written or spoken language/instructions whatsoever. Relying on pictograms and thought bubbles, figuring out the game came as intuitive and logical instead of simply being fed what to do. In some cases, the lack of clear direction was confusing: I was supposed to push a button at a certain moment instead of just waiting for an interaction to occur, and I wasted a bit of time sitting there. That, however, is a rare moment where my own reflex went against what the game expected, and, for the most part, I aligned with the forward motion and had a blast in the process. I also like that this means Bulb Boy can be ported around the world quite easily, making it a globalized enjoyment.
Finally, I am in love with the sinister, ambient soundtrack of Bulb Boy. The tracks are incredibly well crafted to fit the different scenes and moments that your character encounters, and the music actually evolves as the game and puzzles progress. During a dreamy memory with Bulb Boy and Grandfather, I noticed that the initially light (comparatively) tune was slowly becoming more dissonant and ominous, even though nothing around the game was necessarily changing. It slowly put me on edge even as I did a cute little task to get a ball for my dog. When the dream was finally finished and I moved onto the next scene, I had my hackles up, and it really set the tone for what was to come next. I don’t think I could listen to the music independently, as my blood pressure would go through the roof, but it’s expertly crafted to match what’s going on within the game.
Bulb Boy is a short tale, however, for fans looking to invest multiple hours into their gameplay. Even with a slow and deliberate exploration of the game, I finished Bulb Boy in about three hours. It’s a difficult thing to properly judge on, because I don’t think the game needed any extra time. Everything felt tight and packed in at the right proportion, and just adding more rooms or puzzles may have diminished the tension of the game. It’s a proper ride from start to finish, and I think that some games only need a bit of time to tell their story. So I wouldn’t hold that against Bulb Boy, but keep it in mind when picking up this title.
If I could sum it up in a word, Bulb Boy is properly satisfying. I was fascinated by the game and the world, I was sickened by what happened to my character and how he lived and I was anxious from the gameplay and the soundtrack. Everything about it oozes a delightful charm that makes this an excellent addition to the indies available on the Switch. Though I can’t say for certain what the replay value would be, Bulb Boy is better that your average independent horror film and runs even longer. If you want to experience a prickling in your soul rather than your stomach, pick up Bulb Boy, turn down the lights and bear witness to what nightmares the cosmos have brought.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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