Confronted with near complete darkness, there’s a lot about Scanner Sombre’s opening that’s reminiscent of the sublime The Unfinished Swan. There you delve into a fantasy world of white blankness and sound, throwing globs of black paint to reveal the magical environment, where here you pick up a VR headset and a LIDAR device, the two combining to let you paint darkness with pinpricks of light.
There’s a distinctive and utterly individual look to Scanner Sombre, as you set the caves you’re exploring aglow with light. As you move around, the laser beams shooting out from the device in hand, the dots of light change colour depending on how close you are to them, creating a heat map of depth and revealing much of the geometry to you.
That geometry, however, isn’t tangible without this light. It’s there, but you can’t see it, and turning back to look the way you came lets you see through floors, walls, rocks, structures and more. It is magical, in a way, and never ceased to delight as I came out from a tight little tunnel and into a huge underground cave that I gradually revealed with the LIDAR scanner.
Boiling it down, this is another ambulatory exploration game – a walking simulator, if you must – but one with an utterly unique style of presentation that keeps you constantly engaged. It really is a case of a game that knows how to do one thing and do it well, making the most of the fantastic visuals that you can create within the game but never really breaking beyond them. In that regard it could be seen as something of a disappointment, especially with the little hints that it could have become more.
Over the course of your journey, you come across further LIDAR devices that add new abilities to the one in your hand. First it’s being able to control the spread of the laser beams that shoot out of it, letting you colour in cavernous rooms or focus tightly on a single spot, then it’s zooming your view, finally a burst mode that will paint everything in sight with a tightly knit weave of lasers. Entering into a new room, that burst mode helps to create some of the most striking visuals possible in the game, creating a wavy grid of lines from one particular viewpoint, leaving pools of shadowy darkness from obscured areas that become apparent as soon as you move.
A loose story is told in rare moments with text appearing in the top right hand corner of the screen, as a sort of internal monologue from the protagonist. It meanders from one topic to another, exploring some of the history of the caves, from cultists and witch sacrifices to more modern day mining, as well as the reason for your journey through them. There’s hints of mysticism and the possibility of something supernatural during the early areas you explore, but the pay off really appears out of nowhere and is rather unsatisfying.
Scanner Sombre can at times be rather unsettling, especially as the LIDAR system glitches out and you’re suddenly confronted by humanoid forms that really can’t be explained, with the sound design really helping to build the atmosphere at these moments. They’re dismissed in a rather off hand fashion all too soon, precluding the tantalising possibility of this game riding the recent wave of first person horror. Certainly, the darkness you’re so often confronted with and the way that the LIDAR works could make some very compelling and terrifying gameplay.
Sadly, Scanner Sombre never really attains the heights of Dear Esther and Gone Home, two games that Introversion site as inspirations. If you have an interest in that genre, it’s still very much worth exploring the cavernous depths of Scanner Sombre, but more than its fellows, this is a striking idea that searches for a game and a story to make the most of it.