Adventure games are seeing a welcome resurgence thanks to the indie scene. When done right, the various limitations on scale and production are what really help adventure games shine, placing all of the focus on story, writing, and environment. Elements which recent games like Thimbleweed Park, Oxenfree, and Broken Age are lauded for. Adding itself to this list is Bulbware’s Bulb Boy, a 2D light horror adventure puzzler that wins you over with its crisp visual identity and unique scenarios.
Having released previously on PC as a point and click adventure, Bulb Boy makes the transition to controller-based gaming with its port to the Nintendo Switch. The added autonomy that comes with being able to move the character and interact with objects first hand lends itself well to Bulb Boy and makes for an ultimately more enjoyable experience.
Surreal and Bizarre
The game tells the story of a boy with a detachable light bulb head who lives with his oil lamp grandfather and a flying dog. One night, an evil force descends on the house and Bulb Boy has to saddle up and save the day by defeating headless chicken monsters and giant shit snakes with object-based situational puzzles.
The puzzles in the game aren’t incredibly difficult but will sometimes trip you up. It’s the standard formula of finding the right item to use on another item to continue the story, but Bulb Boy’s scenarios are outlandish and weird enough to keep you engaged. It also helps that the game has a runtime of two hours, allowing it to not overstay its welcome. In one puzzle, you have to utilize light stealth mechanics to avoid a beast while baking a confection to lure it to the oven, resulting in it getting roasted alive. In another, you have to save your dog from the clutches of an evil plant being by using its acid spit against it and poisoning its roots.
All of this may sound grim, but Bulb Boy does a good job of balancing its cuteness with a world brimming with disgust. The game is filled with snot, poop, bugs, bile and (almost) every other type of bodily fluid and unpleasant image you can think of. Most of the game is even presented in green-and-black nightvision to add to the horror. The characters are adorable though and the art style is very reminiscent of old afternoon Cartoon Network shows, so you never get as grossed out as you would if they had tried to go for a more realistic art style. The grossness is also where most of the horror elements reside, relying much more on visual repulsion than actual jump scares.
Hands-On Graphic Novel
Bulb Boy and his dog are very likable protagonists. There’s no dialogue outside of a few garbled murmurs, so the characters are built on their facial expressions and actions. Bulb Boy himself is a joy, often smiling and giving victorious arm pumps after completing a puzzle. His detachable head makes for a fun mechanic as it leads to him being able to operate other body types like a fish suit or a spider. His dog also adds to the fun since he is all sorts of squishy adorableness, flying on a pair of tiny wings. You can play as the dog in several puzzles as well, and when the pair reunites it is absolutely heart warming.
Bulb Boy’s greatest narrative strength is that it feels like playing a graphic novel, albeit without all the text. This pairs perfectly with the limited play time and really makes for a pleasant experience, letting you zone out for a bit and get lost in its odd little world.
Bulb Boy can be slow at times but never to absolute boredom. Your character walks slowly and load times, while not unbearable, are just long enough to be annoying. There is also an incredibly limited amount of handholding. There are a few sections where I got stuck, pressing every button only to figure out that a new mechanic had been introduced. Luckily, this only happened a few times and never took more than several minutes of head scratching to overcome. The new mechanics themselves are one offs that rarely recur but add to the variety that keep the 2 hours interesting. Whether it’s taking control of your dog with the right stick while controlling Bulb Boy with the left, or figuring out how the hiding mechanics work in order to not get devoured repeatedly by the same beast, the game stays fresh by adding on top of the classic search and experiment formula.
As a whole, Bulb Boy is a gross yet endearing update to the classic 2D adventure games from studios like Lucasarts and Sierra Interactive. It feels right at home on the Switch, especially when played in handheld mode. While the grim setting and disgusting visuals can be off-putting for some, it’s the enjoyable characters and inviting strangeness that make it a worthwhile experience. If you have a classic adventure game itch, this is one of those.