Tenebris Pictura is the latest game self-published by indie games studio Pentadimensional Games. Their previous game Megaton Rainfall, also self-published, won a few awards but with complaints of being too difficult and not having enough content. Tenebris Pictura is in a similar boat, in that it is a unique concept that is let down by its difficult combat. With extra handholding it could have made an excellent puzzle game with an unconventional hook. Unfortunately, its main claim to fame, using paintings to enter and solve puzzles, is disappointing in its absence from a large majority of the game. The one thing that made it stand out amongst the crowd is relegated to the back seat, despite being featured heavily in the game’s trailer. This is a pity because the puzzles are generally quite good which highlights its faults a lot.
Players step into the role of Magnus Blom, a man who has garnered reputation on the mainland as a finder of things and a solver of the unsolved. He is invited by his old friend Fred who is a duke on an island in the middle of nowhere to help look for his missing daughter, Sophie. One of the places Sophie used to frequent is the art gallery, which makes sense as she is a painter. During his explorations of the island, Magnus discovers the Imbued, a cult which is linked to the art gallery and therefore Sophie. Hindering him however is a black diamond which whispers sweet nothings into his head about other worlds and how much the diamond wants Magnus dead; In every world. To say something strange is going on would be underplaying it.
The main gameplay loop of Tenebris Pictura is to select a location on the map, solve the puzzle to proceed to the boss room and then unlock a new area. Each area’s puzzle will have a quirk, and this is usually the key to continuing. Sometimes it requires a certain skill and other times it might require a painting. An example is the forest which has a fog that hurts Magnus, where trying to find a way through the fog without taking damage is the key. The game is incredibly generous with checkpoints so players should feel free to experiment without much pushback. Another forest area is a puzzle based on light and shadow. Yet another area gives the player a medallion which will adjust the entire area, shifting it on its head, to solve its puzzles.
The medallion is how Magnus uses skills, both in his human and astral form. Often solving puzzles will require a combination of using the human form’s strength and the astral form’s abilities to progress. Magnus will pick up new powers for his medallion as he continues to explore and save places. While only three can be used at a time, he can collect up to 24. While a majority are for battles only, I only found myself using two at any time. The puzzle skills like teleporting and entering paintings were used regularly as they were required to overcome obstacles. Certain sections of the game are like hubs and there the puzzles must be found. Teleporting and sinking into the ground are vital for discovering them. I felt smart when I figured out the use for the sinking skill. Embarrassing, but true.
Another annoying thing was that the game barely gives the player any direction. The tutorial consisted of nothing but button prompts. This can easily cause confusion, as the game gave me a prompt for the A button during a fight. I thought this was the attack button and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t complete the tutorial. After dying many times, I figured out that the right trigger was, in fact, the attack button. Despite them being completely different, only one general hint was given for all combat encounters, with none given for the puzzles.
Combat is the game’s weakest point. I found myself wanting to throw the controller many times due to the combat which is something I have not done since I was a teen. There’s an element of luck in the fights. During one fight, my astral form became trapped by the demons surrounding me. The astral form cannot go through demons or walls, which was how I became pinned down, especially when there’s ten or more enemies in a room. The dash does not go through them either. In fact, the dash is more likely to get the astral form killed, as any projectiles will still deal damage. Here’s how all my fights progressed. Hide Magnus, put a barrier on him to stop demons from targeting the main body. Enter the room where the frame was already placed and hide. Use my ranged attack, run from the demons, continue to hide until it regenerated. If that sounds boring, it’s because it is. As enemies gained health it became an infuriatingly slow process. And speaking of infuriating, the big boss battles involve using the right thumbstick, the d-pad, the left thumbstick and the ABXY buttons to control four horses. It was cool the first time, but as it progressed in difficulty, I found that I was having to put my controller on my lap and use multiple fingers to even stand a chance of completing it.
Tenebris Pictura may have been a game designed with an interesting core concept in mind, but it is really lost amongst the negatives. It’s cleverness is undone by its janky controls, frustrating combat, lack of direction and a narrative that comes across as pretentious. Having very little direction – which was supposed to encourage exploration – has backfired by making it incredibly easy to become unsure if you’re making progress or doing the right thing. Instead of being a unique puzzle experience, it’s a test in patience as players are left to muddle their way through the annoying combat. If the painting-based puzzles had been introduced much sooner, the smaller issues could have been overlooked. Sadly, the combat is a stain that will never come out.
Tenebris Pictura was reviewed on Xbox One using a code kindly provided by the publisher.