Semblance Review

July 24, 2018
Also on: Switch

Semblance isn’t a game you want to play if you value your cursor keys. It relies on quick reflexes, muscle memory, and the kind of finger dexterity you’d normally associate with the likes of Guitar Hero. And while you may rage in impotent fury when your digits don’t move as quickly as your brain, at no point does it feel overwhelmingly difficult.

Six orbs to collect for this zone. Get cracking.

As with a lot of puzzle games the story is secondary to the gameplay, but that doesn’t mean it’s ignored completely. The home planet of a blob named Squish is being overrun by evil crystals, solidifying the plant life and generally wreaking deadly havoc. Only by helping Squish collect a number of orbs in each of the planet’s realms can it begin to turn back the spiky menace.

Each realm has its own personality, and consists of a number of different zones indicated by trees. To complete a zone, you need to collect the required amount of orbs for each tree in order to cleanse it, before moving on to the next one. When each tree is cleansed, the zone is finished. However, the beauty of Semblance lies in the freedom to move between realms and trees as you see fit.

That red orb is your goal...just don't touch the lasers.

So far, so typical. But what Semblance brings to the table is unique amongst games of its ilk: the ability to manipulate your environment to achieve your goal. At its most basic, Squish simply needs to collect orbs, and with a control system consisting of moving, jumping and double-jumping, this may appear a straightforward enough task. However, the orbs quickly become hard to reach, requiring Squish to mould the ground and ledges around it in order to create platforms you can then jump from in order to grab them. This starts off as simply as smashing a low platform up with Squish’s head to make a higher one, and escalates to a fiendishly complex series of steps involving multiple platforms, lasers and special walls which alter the nature of Squish’s form.

Realms are themed to some extent, from a series of swampy challenges that focus on manipulating the floor, to high-tech areas filled with alarms which reset your altered platforms back to their original state when triggered. Squish also has other environmental obstacles to worry about. The crystals dotted around the platforms cause instant death, flying enemies often carry huge chunks of these back and forth to test your timing, and lasers jut from walls and ceilings and need to be cordoned off by clever manipulation of the gooey foundations they sit on.

Squish carving out a new path through the crystals.

Some areas act as a dampener, preventing Squish from using its boosting power at all. This forces you to consider the path you need to create before entering the field, adding another layer of strategy to an already fiendish task. Later worlds let you alter Squish’s form completely to either a flattened disk which can creep under low ledges, or a pencil-thin strip with immense jumping powers. Every new addition to the playbook serves to reinforce what you’ve already learned, incrementally and subtly teaching you new ways to manoeuvre Squish and its surroundings.

Every puzzle in a tree zone is contained on a single screen, and you can skip as many as you like, which often comes as a relief. Though you may ease into the first branches of a puzzle tree, the difficulty soon ramps up to the point where it’s often necessary to take a break and tackle challenges of a completely different type. Flitting between realms acts as a mental palate cleanser, a way to reset your brain to a different way of thinking which lets you come back to a tricky teaser with a more lateral approach. Puzzles you thought were simply not possible to conquer often become a doddle once certain synapses have fired in your frontal lobe. Semblance doesn’t hold your hand, but rather lets you teach yourself how to adapt in the same way that Squish does.

Well, that escalated quickly.

There are dozens of puzzles to solve, though after you crack through the first thirty or forty repetition does begin to set in. In many respects, Semblance is a victim of its own clever mechanics, since the rules it sets up often limit the number of possible solutions available to collecting those elusive orbs. For instance, a platform can either be pushed to the side or upwards, or have its form altered, but not both. A wall can have its doughy form squidged into position from one side but not the other.

Once you get to grips with the underlying mechanics, the challenge then becomes one of dexterity. While Squish’s movement is responsive, its interaction with floors — especially ones you’ve reformed — can prove slippier than expected, and you’ll often find yourself sliding into deadly crystals after painstakingly working your way up a tower you’ve crafted. This is the point where your reflexes will be tested: double-jumping, smashing a crevice into a wall, dodging a laser, moving a platform and launching yourself into a safe zone… Semblance demands you do this all with a few keypresses, lest you be returned to the floor again. Prepare yourself for hand cramp and occasional frustration, and if you run into one of the occasional bugs we came across which got us stuck in the environment, a reset button is available specific to just that puzzle.

You can't talk to the other inhabitants, but they make the place feel less lonely.

Fortunately, Semblance is very forgiving in general. Squish can reset platforms and altered areas with a tap of the Alt button, while dying doesn’t reset anything you’ve previously squidged into place at all. Restarting is almost instant, which promotes the kind of addictive “one more go” mentality of a truly great puzzler. The visuals may be stripped down to let the puzzles take focus, but the varied soundtrack never gets repetitive and its bite-sized approach to levels, while fun enough on PC, also make it a perfect addition to the Switch’s portable library. Though a little repetitive at times, it’s still an enjoyable debut from indie outfit Nyamakop. If you don’t think there’s space in your crowded library, take another look: we’re pretty sure you can squash Semblance in there somewhere.

A charming and interesting puzzler, with a refreshingly accessible approach to level design.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.