It is rare that a game can make you stop in your tracks, turn around, and go and watch it being played in a nightclub. That’s exactly what happened when I first saw Semblance at GDC though, as a crowd gathered around it like a horde of sugar deprived bees. Here was a puzzle platformer that stood out from nearly everything around it, and it continues to stand out as the game has released.
The visual style is what stands out most of all at first glance; the stark contrast of the soft purple and crystalline green made the world intriguing beyond words. The second thing that grabs you is the way you can bump into the scenery and deform it. There’s something about watching this little purple thing reshaping the world in order to overcome its impending and spiky doom that is really quite wonderful to behold.
There are other physics based puzzle games that have you messing with the world around you, but the little Squish you play as in Semblance has more charm than all of them. Despite the complete lack of text or speech, you still get a feel for what is going on and how the character is struggling with the tasks it has been given. The world has been infected by various colours of crystal that are all slowly overcoming the softness of the world, changing what once was safe and squishy into something hard and deadly. You have to cure this by solving various puzzles that will require you to either reshape the terrain or yourself in order to make it through.
The puzzles are initially very simple, simply asking you to hit a platform up or to the left so you can reach what you need to. The limiting factor initially is that platforms can only be distorted in one direction at a time; you can warp a pillar right many times, but not left at the same time. In order to go back you can reset a platform to its original position and shape. This is never really an issue to begin with, but by the end of the game, you will be wishing you could both push and pull things at the same time.
As you progress through the three worlds, new things will be introduced. Obstacles might start moving, there may well be laser beams, and heck, some platforms just will not be moved. Each new addition creates new problems that your old solutions simply won’t overcome. The game is constantly evolving as you get closer to the source of the crystalline infection, it really feels as though it is trying to fight you off.
The third world adds in perhaps the most significant change in the shape of giant diamond hard surfaces. Instead of you changing the shape of them, they change the shape of you. If you become tall and thin then you can jump higher, but nowhere near as far, but if you become short and wide, then the opposite is true. This is the point at which many of the solutions that you can come up with will feel as though you are cheating the system. There are no specific answers and you are encouraged to combine everything you know to succeed in overcoming the games hardships.
The sound is what help to bring this wonderful game together, and the music in particular is constantly perfect. There are some frustrating moments ,but they are always balanced out by the incredible score that helps to keep you at peace in order to hit some of the more challenging jumps or nail your timing. Squish is somehow one of the most charming creatures in existence, the combination of animation and the adorable little sounds they make just make for a protagonist that should one hundred percent be made into a plushie toy.
Semblance is an astoundingly enjoyable puzzle game that never outstays its welcome. It is neither too short nor too long and the progression to the puzzle design is spot on. The final level is a challenge unlike anything else, but somehow captures everything you have learned in your journey so far. The visual style takes the simplicity of games like Limbo, but shows that there is so much more that can be done with it by adding a dash of colour. If you are looking for a new game to fall for then this is probably it, but don’t be surprised when it beats you so hard you need to take a break.
Version tested: Nintendo Switch – Also available for PC & Mac