Candleman: The Complete Journey Review
Puzzle-platformers are one of those things that can go either incredibly well or incredibly badly. Designed well enough, playing through their levels feels like a breeze, even when you’re technically being challenged. Designed poorly, however, they become unbearable slogs consisting of thinly-veiled busywork designed solely to waste your time. Candleman: The Complete Journey belongs to the former category almost exclusively, creating a magical world of briskly paced levels and genuinely creative gameplay mechanics so endearing that it was often a sad experience moving on to a new set of mechanics (though almost every time, I came to love the new mechanics even more than those that came before). That’s not to say that there aren’t a few rare missteps here as far as the mechanics and level design are concerned, but Candleman goes out of its way to make up for them with some of the greatest final levels I can recall in a game. At the end of the day, this is a brilliant game that will win you over if given the chance.
The Complete Journey is more uplifting than the base game
When Candleman first released as an Xbox One exclusive in January of 2017, it ended suddenly and without warning on a seriously depressing note entirely at odds with the whimsical tone it had maintained up to that point. You can still find comments about this in reviews of the time. Flash forward ten months and it received a free expansion called “Lost Light” that not only added several more levels, but also continued the story so that it ended on a much more uplifting note. Having now played through the “Complete Journey” version for PC that includes both the base game and Lost Light’s content, I can’t help but suspect that the original ending was the result of the developer or publisher rushing the game out to meet a deadline. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine the Lost Light expansion not being an originally planned part of the game given how much more naturally it ends the story, but if it truly was something tacked on to address concerns about the bleakness of the original ending, then its quality is laudable in its own right.
Candleman’s story is of the journey of a living candle (who remains unnamed despite the title) who questions why he burns while the candles around him don’t. Of course, he lights various candles along the way, but the question about burning is quickly supplanted by his admiration for a lighthouse which he intends to reach. The journey there has an undeniable fairy tale vibe to it, as the internal logic could easily fall apart under scrutiny (it’s hard to be sad that you aren’t as bright as a lighthouse when you can conceivably start a forest fire that burns even more brightly), but holds together thanks to the level names—which give you a rhyming second line if you go out of your way to find and light all of their semi-hidden candles—and efforts of an accented narrator who speaks on the candle’s behalf to reveal his motivations to the player. Because he’s a candle and therefore can’t speak for himself. Obviously.
The whole thing sounds ridiculous when written out, and yet by the end of the game I was so invested in this little candle’s journey that I was legitimately emotional about what was happening. To create such attachments to a character who doesn’t speak and whose journey is relatively straightforward is a remarkable achievement.
Light, darkness, shadows, and fireworks
The gameplay in Candleman is incredibly simple to wrap your head around. You have one key/button that causes the candle to light, one that causes him to jump, and your usual WASD/analog stick movement controls. Camera controls are handled for you, so that’s it, really. Levels consist of getting from your starting point to a glowing end point, and there are a number of candles on the way that serve both as collectibles and as a way of slightly lighting the nearby area. See, the gameplay hook is that the world is incredibly dark, and while you can light in order to increase visibility, you only get 10 seconds of light per life. Lighting drops wax that persists between lives (and lit candles also persist between lives), however, and you receive 10 lives per level, so this isn’t ever as limiting as it no doubt sounds. In fact, with one or two exceptions, Candleman is easy. There are mid-level checkpoints despite many levels being reasonably short, and unlit candles can even be seen when it’s totally dark to make finding them much less of a hassle. While there are often one or two hidden in alcoves off the beaten path, they’re not too much trouble to find if you take your time to explore levels. At its basest level, Candleman’s gameplay is all about lighting for brief flashes to get a handle on your environment, then proceeding until you need to light again to reorient yourself.
Of course, there are numerous additional mechanics that come into play to shake that simple formula up. There are barrels that you have to ride to reach high-up candles, environmental elements that remain lit a short time after lighting to reveal a path forward, hazardous flowers that bloom when you light, switches that can be activated by manipulating shadows so that they touch one of the controls, and best of all (in my opinion), fireworks that create platforms and light candles from afar.
Most of these gameplay twists are amazing, but there are a small number of them that proved to be little more than annoyances. For one, enemies. The environment is the only real enemy for the majority of the game, but there are a handful of levels where derpy-looking ghost/phantom things chase after you. The early version of these is repelled by your light, which becomes a problem since lighting causes the level’s invisible platforms to disappear under you. The later version is instead attracted by the light, leading to moments when you have to light, figure out where the platforms are immediately, and then blindly leap to them to avoid being caught. Considering that the most enjoyable sections give you time to find your way through them, these forced semi-chase sequences start to feel like anomalous hassles that don’t really belong. There are also a few levels where harsh blue lighting causes the candle to melt if he steps into it, which can become an issue since you can only see this light when it’s touching the ground. That means jumping while in a shadowed safe spot can cause you to collide with the invisible light cone and reduce the amount of time you have left to burn. Burning too much causes the candle to keel over and that isn’t much of a penalty given how many lives you’re given, but things like this really started to get under my skin after awhile. The game’s final levels are the fireworks ones, though, and these proved incredible enough to wash away all of those negative feelings. What makes these so brilliant is the fact that the sparks from the fireworks can light candles and other fireworks, creating chain reactions that are delightfully rewarding to set off.
Time trial mode is unexpectedly great
After you finish the base game, you unlock a new time trial mode. While this is usually an afterthought in most games and I initially regarded it as such, it quickly became obvious that there was something special about it being included in a game like this. See, many levels have a rhythm to them—a barrel moving back and forth, a line of boxes floating along the water, interlocking cogs turning—but this isn’t much of a factor when your priority is lighting all of the candles and safely making it to the end. Time trial mode doesn’t require lighting any candles along the way, though, so the focus instead shifts to careful, efficient movements in darker than usual environs. A split second can be the difference between swiftly moving between platforms without interruption and having to stand around waiting for something to swing back your way, and that changes the required approach just enough to feel like an entirely different experience. Especially since there are leaderboards where you can compare your time to that of others. The rapidly shifting mechanics allow for all kinds of entertaining strategies, as well, and trying to figure out how to do a little better and/or beat a stranger’s time is always fun.
This game has some real screenshot bait
Candleman’s focus on light and shadow allows it to be truly gorgeous at times. An early area on a ship highlights some so-so textures, but the lighting and colorfulness cover this kind of thing up for the most part afterward, creating scenes that are perhaps best described as “screenshot bait.” Bright blue flowers that light up when exposed to the candle’s flame. A candlelit voyage along water currents. Dozens of purple and red flowers erupting open in unison. And of course, a bunch of fireworks exploding colorfully. The music, on the other hand, is much less of a factor, but it can really hit hard when it wants to. Candleman’s levels don’t usually play music in the background in order to leave room for the sound effects, and I had expected to say something like “I wish there was more music that played during levels” here because of that, but when the end cutscene rolled around and the piano and strings music kicked in, I realized that the contrast allowed scenes like that to have much more of an impact. I still prefer games that include lots of memorable music, of course, but in this particular case I can see how the end experience was ultimately bettered by its relative scarcity throughout.
*A Steam review key for Candleman: The Complete Journey was provided for the purpose of this review