A few hours in
That’s not how it went.
Okay, that’s mostly how it went. Which is to say, Scanner Sombre for the most part isn’t an overtly spooky game. It’s a creepy game, in a bunch of places, but I can count the number of active jump scares on one hand. By and large, Scanner Sombre is content to let its environment and audiovisual aesthetic do the heavy affective lifting… Though it’s not above a surprise BOO some of the times.
Start to finish, I’ve spent a little over three hours on Scanner Sombre. It was an… interesting experience. At the very least, engaging enough to keep me around until the credits rolled. That said… I’ve been trying to find a good approach to lead in this review, but I’ve already revised this paragraph like five times. It feels difficult to bring my usual suite of critique tools to bear on a game where the majority of active run-time is spent lighting up caves. Of not even necessarily ‘difficult’; maybe ‘meaningless’ would be more apt.
The thing is that Scanner Sombre is basically a colouring book. No, but really. Easily 95% of the play experience consists of you running around caves so dark they might as well be featureless, and filling them in with pretty colours to slowly learn of the shape underneath. It’s like one of those paint-by-numbers things where there are so many small shapes that you can’t really see what you’re painting until you get close to done. Except in Scanner Sombre the game even fills out the appropriate colour for you. So that’s what I did: I walked around dark caves, and slowly and meticulously painted areas until they looked cool and interesting.
Note that this isn’t meant as shade. Scanner Sombre for the most part is a really neat, very Zen experience. It’s the boiled-down essence of exploration and discovery for its own sake: Here is a cool cave, here is a tool that lets you learn more and navigate around the cool cave, Go Do That Thing. There’s almost no pressure to perform and hardly any mechanical challenge, making it a uniquely calm experience. A calm experience woven through with a sense of creeping dread, because especially sound-wise Scanner Sombre does try to keep you on your toes: Music is used to good effect whenever a certain scene needs particular setting fast, but particularly the sound effects deserve credit for pervasively keeping your attention on the creepy side of town. All the same, Scanner Sombre is never pulse-pounding or intense; it’s always some flavour of subdued, whether that’s ‘calm, because I’m alone in this cave and I can just scan and paint as much as I want’ or ‘careful, because I think I just heard something and I don’t want to give whatever that might have been any ideas‘.
And make no mistake: I use colouring books as a metaphor because this game is gorgeous. The noisy hitscan painting LIDAR scanner is definitely Scanner Sombre strongest element. It has a certain wow-factor from the start, when you first learn how it works and see how easily and clearly it can map interactive 3D environments. But the real visually impressive stuff doesn’t come to the fore until you’ve had some time to play with it. Like the way different colours effortlessly start translating to different distances. Or the interference aperture of the scanner, which is visible whenever you scan from one place without moving in the characteristic unscanned cross pattern, as if a large negative area were burned into the distant wall. My personal favourite effect is the casting of false shadows. When you scan (e.g.) a ceiling full of stalactites, the LIDAR rays get absorbed by the hanging rocks. Those rocks get illuminated, but the ceiling behind them doesn’t; if you then look at it from different angles, it looks like the rocks cast shadows from the light of your scanner. Or not even a shadow, per se: More like the blast zone from a colour bomb.
And that’s just the result of early tools! The abilities and resolution of your scanner get enhanced over play, leading to later pictures that can be bafflingly accurate — as well as marked with cool visual imperfections that trace how you were scanning and what you were doing at the exact time.
And even that is leaving out some of the later visual splendor. I was genuinely struck silent the first time I came into a cave with water dripping from the ceiling: Your scans hit the water droplets as they fall, creating a perpetual rainbow every time you scan that never illuminates the cave section for longer than a second.
Henceforth, colouring book. The lion’s share of the Scanner Sombre experience, and of its engagement, lies in brightening up a gloomy goth cave. If that’s something you were always looking for, then review over, I guess.
There is some mechanical challenge and overt ‘gameplay’ in Scanner Sombre. Not much, but it’s there. Most of the challenge comes from having to find your way, which means having to work out what the room looks like, which means painting; it keeps coming back to painting. This isn’t even a ‘challenge’ very often, as usually there’s one clear path you’re expected to follow — not always, but very often. Interleaved with this is a handful of platforming challenges, nothing more complex than simple jumping puzzles. I mean, it’s complex because whether or not you can see where you’re expected to jump to in the first place is up to you, but the jumping puzzles themselves probably won’t raise any eyebrows. I would say that there are… two puzzles that I’d actually classify as puzzles, and both of those introduce new temporary mechanics in order to exist.
You might expect the scanner upgrades I’ve referenced to open up more puzzle opportunities, but it turns out that’s not really what they’re here for. Most upgrades are honestly just quality-of-life upgrades, to improve the experience of scanning and wayfinding. One upgrade gives you a charging ‘burst’ of LIDAR that scans a whole room at once. Another increases the scanner’s resolution and power. There’s even an upgrade that lets you switch between colouring terrain based on distance, and colouring it based on material. This isn’t really used for puzzle purposes (except maybe in one case), but it’s an invaluable upgrade for letting you understand, organically, just what the deal is with this cave you’re exploring.
Scanner Sombre is not a very ludic game. And that’s okay! I’m just repeating this over and over so you understand what to expect: Less first-person platforming spelunking action, and more walking simulator with a magic paintbrush.
Interestingly, for a walking simulator, Scanner Sombre is pretty light on overt storytelling. There’s a handful of text popups, maybe two dozen over the course of the whole game, that explicitly tell you what’s going on. The rest is environmental, such as it is. These things are quality over quantity, obviously, and I’m not trying to assert that Scanner Sombre should’ve had ‘more story’. The stuff that is being told paints an interesting picture of uncertainty deep underground, which definitely helps in setting that oppressive spooky atmosphere I referenced way back. Weird things can happen while spelunking: Sensor glitches, sounds that shouldn’t be, and ghostly-looking imprints of people long past, sometimes caught in whatever must’ve inevitably killed them. The game initially explains this as ‘the sensor isn’t properly calibrated, so sensor artifacts like this can happen, don’t worry about it’, but then immediately adds a ‘at least, it’s probably that’. It’s clever. There is no fear so potent as the fear of the unknown that people inflict on themselves, so by leaving in the open whether or not this cave is really supernaturally spooky or not, Scanner Sombre hands all players plenty of rope to scare themselves with without needing to commit to explicit scares.
Which is what makes it so weird that hallway into the game, you run into a lake with haunted ghost witches that will try to kill you when you swim. This is not a joke. Whenever you set foot in deep water here, your sensor glitches out, and you see ghostly figures rise above the water’s edge with a bloodcurdling shriek-roar. And if you don’t get to dry land soon enough they will charge you, grab you, and push your head under water until you drown and die and have to reload. This is a real thing that really happens in this real videogame.
While I did play through all of Scanner Sombre with a vague sense of unease, this was the moment when I stopped being genuinely unsettled. Before, everything had been possible: I figured the game probably wouldn’t directly attack me, but you can always imagine what could happen, right? But after, I knew. If Scanner Sombre wanted me dead, or hurried, or scared, it wouldn’t be subtle about it. Why would it, after the screaming ghost witches? Conversely, any situation that didn’t directly involve magical water spirits from a tortured past was probably something that I didn’t really need to worry about.
It’s hard to pull back from a NARM-moment like this, and I don’t think Scanner Sombre ever quite manages. From halfway on out, the game starts dropping references to what will eventually be its final story conclusion, right around the time you’ve probably forgetting there was supposed to be a story. I called the silly outcome right away, and so will you, and we will probably agree that it’s an ending that doesn’t at all match the game we just played before — not in theme, not in mechanics, and only barely in aesthetic.
And then we’ll discover that this game has an NG+ mode, and probably scratch our heads in confused unison.
Scanner Sombre is an ambitious bit of technology, and an exercise in level design that uses constraints to great advantage: The caves are massive and use large, rough outlines for guiding and environmental storytelling, unable to rely on lighting and textures as they are. Scanner Sombre is a relaxed experience of painting pretty colours that also subtly unnerves you throughout, except when it decides to stop doing that. Scanner Sombre is the kind of game that the Not-A-Game crowd would probably have a field day with, but it’s also a game I think should be celebrated for existing, even if it isn’t necessarily an experience I’d repeat, or even blanket-recommend to everyone.
If you’re looking for a cool immersive experiment, or about an hour’s worth of tense uncertainty followed by an hour’s worth of keeping your eyes open for ghost witches, the twelve dollar asking price is a decent investment. Might be high, might be low, depending on how you value time spent per money unit versus supporting cool technological innovation and ludo-mechanical innovative risk taking. I’m glad to have experienced it, that’s for sure; rainbow-painting haunted caves is too good a prospect to be mad about.
Jarenth doesn’t have a lot of caves where he lives, owing to the whole ‘flat country’ bit he’s got going on. Tell him that caves aren’t as cool in real life, or that they’re way cooler, on Twitter or on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?