A wonderful journey full of unique and clever ideas around every squishy corner.
Often times the trick to a puzzle platformer is to execute a series of preset jumps while deciphering how to unlock the path forward. However that’s not the case with Semblance, which instead sees you manipulating not only the environment, but also the blob-like protagonist to overcome obstacles and collect orbs to turn back the corruption overtaking the world. The pacing is wonderful, throwing new ideas into the fold as you progress deeper into the adventure, keeping it fresh and fun. Demanding platforming leads to some frustration in the late game, but despite that I was left admiring this truly charming experience.
The main draw of Semblance is the ability to deform and mold the surrounding areas to overcome challenges to collect orbs known as life essences. Manipulating a surface is as easy as jumping and dashing the blob-like creatures body into it, and this works for each of the cardinal directions. These can then be reset to their starting positions with the tap of the A button, so it’s encouraged to mess around with the environment. Jumping and slamming down will make a ground dip or getting underneath it and slamming up will cause it to rise. Sometimes dashing into walls is necessary to make little nooks to climb to higher ground. The concept is easy to grasp, but the way the developers play with this idea is where the game really shines. Within each of the three worlds there are a number of trees, which act as hubs, each with varying numbers of orbs to collect. There are some light challenges in between hubs, but they’re pretty mundane in comparison to what’s waiting within each tree. Collecting all of the orbs within the tree will vanquish the corruption from the tree and gathering all the orbs within the world will unlock the path to the next world.
The progression and pacing from world to world is done masterfully, starting off with simple puzzles, but eventually ramping up in difficulty, testing both the player’s platforming and puzzle solving skills. Early on, simple tasks such as rising the ground to jump over spikes or making a hole to bypass an oncoming enemy are the primary solutions, but quickly more elements are introduced. Beams that if touched slingshot the manipulated area back to its starting place are thrown into the mix. While at first glance they appear to restrict the player’s options, soon they’re part of the solutions as they too slingshot the hero into the air over otherwise unreachable areas. And just when you thought they’ve run out of new mechanics, manipulating the blob is thrown into the fray. By dashing into certain hard surfaces the blob will squish and either become tall and slender or flatten itself, opening up a plethora of new abilities.
This is easily the biggest addition to the gameplay as it completely changes up the physics and skill set of the blob. The flattened version can’t jump very high, but it can clear much longer jumps. The slender version doesn’t have great lateral movement, but can jump way higher than any other form. Many of the later puzzles will require changing between the forms to overcome the task at hand, which I found to be some of the most rewarding to accomplish. There were times when platforming became frustrating due to the inertia after stopping. Jumping from one raised area to another can be tough when there isn’t a lot of surface area to land on and that’s exaggerated with the movement after landing. There were definitely a few puzzles I had to skip and revisit after getting too frustrated with the platforming the first time around.
Developer Nyamakop took a minimalistic approach when it comes to the visuals, but it fits the game well, allowing the player to concentrate manipulating the surrounds to their heart's content. The music matches the tone as well, especially when all the storytelling is done by visual and audio cues. What’s really nice is that it’s a rather non-linear game, allowing you to skip puzzles and hubs within a world to go to other areas if stuck. Due to the nature of deforming and resetting surfaces, there will be times when you’ll get stuck in between areas, but luckily the option to ‘reset squish’ is just a few button presses away in the menu, starting you back at the beginning of the puzzle. I did actually end up clipping through the level and found myself continuously falling into the abyss, but fortunately with the restart squish option this was just a minor infraction.
Puzzle games can run into the issue of reusing an idea one too many times, ultimately losing its luster, but with Semblance that was never the case. Seemingly around every corner was another new and interesting idea, keeping this wonderfully paced journey fresh beginning to end. Whether it was deforming surfaces or squishing the character to yield completely new physics, I was never disappointed. Some of the later platforming can be a bit frustrating, but with the option to move onto another puzzle it never bogged down the experience. With a unique hook that is constantly building upon itself, this is an easy recommendation and one you won’t want to miss.