You awaken alone in a dimly-lit room, seemingly in a bunker of some kind. A voice on local comms gets you up to speed as you head towards the exit. Upon leaving the claustrophobic low ceilings of the bunker, you find yourself on a long gangway in a dark and expansive underground cave. It’s at the end of the gangway that you see the first sign of something that doesn’t fit what’s been established. A high tech doorway with a bright energy barrier.
What on Earth has happened to make this life normal for you? Well, that’ll be where you step through that door, pick up a modified torch and head outside to find that the answer is… the machines. The machines and the darkness. This is the world of The Light Keeps Us Safe and it is the latest intriguing example of deprivation of the senses in horror.#
Killer robots of various shapes and sizes roam the land above, hunting anyone foolish or desperate enough to venture there. The upside is, these infernal machines are susceptible to light sources, so you’re safe as long as you either have one or can stand in one. The snag in that well-woven plan is that light is in incredibly short supply on the surface these days.
The Light Keeps Us Safe‘s surface world is unsurprisingly gloomy. The inky darkness envelopes whole swathes of the horizon and the only reprieve are either the hazy radiance of certain buildings and streetlights or the threatening glow of the machines and the structures they’ve created. The feel is very much one of a 1980’s idea of an apocalyptic future. The Terminator seems like the obvious nod, but developer Big Robot has a far wider range of media influences to call upon than that.
Films by Tarkovsky and David Lynch helped inspire the tone, backed by musical influences such as Boards of Canada and Tim Hecker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a book that played a significant role in the oppressive, bleak vibe of this barren world (thankfully, The Light Keeps Us Safe, while oppressive, is not as bleak as McCarthy’s book). In terms of how it looks, you can see quite quickly that Arkane’s Dishonored is a touchstone, especially in the strange machine structures design, but Jim Rossignol, head of Big Robot, also cites S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as another influence. Both can be felt in how the game looks and plays.
Certainly, the stealth is something of an inversion of Dishonored. Whereas the shadows were your friend there, here you’re literally hiding in plain sight by seeking the safety of brightly-lit areas. There is a need for sneaky stealth too, but the dark that normally helps hide you, is as much an enemy as the machines, and the only respite from the zap-happy tin terrors in the dark is to hide in or behind something and pray the threat wanders off instead of investigating your hiding spot. In the early hours, this is your key strategy. Your torch can ward off the machines temporarily, but wits and cunning are just as handy.
You and your flashlight against an army of murderbots in unending darkness may seem a tad unfair, and in truth, the odds are definitely in favor of those with circuitry, but that flashlight you carry is modular, and it can do some pretty remarkable things with light. In addition to fending off machines, the torch can be adapted to foil traps, open new areas, and discover hidden places that can only be seen in a certain light. There’s likely to be more to it than that as things progress, but so far it’s a fine amount of variety that shifts the current obstacles and challenges about fluidly, and the modular flashlight is a neatly-simplified way of carrying a toolkit full of abilities.
Even in its Early Access phase, The Light Keeps Us Safe is showing its talent for a tense game of Cat and Mouse. There’s a splendid sense of impending dread as you peer into the long, looming darkness, gauging how long it will take you to reach the safety of the next precious light source and the exhilaration of making it by the skin of your teeth is often almost euphoric. Even when you gain more means of fighting back the threats are leveled accordingly. If that remains the case throughout and any frustration is tempered, then this has real potential for longevity.
One tried and tested (and reviled in some corners of the internet) way to keep up longevity and dread is procedural generation and The Light Keeps Us Safe employs that to its map each time. With its strong visual design, there is not much dilution of identity caused by the procedural map and the dark and open nature of the game world means randomness is not all that intrusive to the experience. After all, you’re largely running blindly into the dark whatever the map is like.
Being Early Access, you’d expect some technical gripes and there’s definitely a few fixable issues. The frame rate can suffer occasionally but has been largely fairly stable. There are instances of textures not loading and some pop-up, but again, nothing out of the ordinary for a game in its nascent stages. To be honest, The Light Keeps Us Safe is one of the better examples of an Early Access game. The edges are a touch rough, yet largely, this is a polished affair already.
The base of it is much like any other survival game, though wisely, crafting is not a thing here, and that is going to be a problem for those exhausted by that genre, but the atmosphere of The Light Keeps Us Safe, and its focus on moment-to-moment survival, really helps it strengthen its identity. If it leaves Early Access with the focus in the right places (a stumbling block of many titles to go through the program) then The Light Keeps Us Safe could well be a long-term success. For now, it’s a refreshingly focused survival effort that brings new light to the fear of the dark.
Preview code provided by the publisher
The Light Keeps Us Safe is out now on Steam in Early Access.