Tuesday, July 24

Review: Semblance [Nintendo Switch eShop]


In order to make a strong impression in the indie space, especially with the Switch library practically bursting at the seams already, you need to start with a pretty good hook. Whether it’s related to genre mixing, the artwork or graphics, a quirky sense of style, or any number of other intangibles, without something at the core fueling what makes your title stand out from the rest it’s hard to get noticed. What then makes a game something special is when it’s able to make the most of that and experiment with it, not simply riding it to success but working hard to iterate or expand what they player can do with it throughout. Taking the base idea of a puzzle platformer in a world where you can deform the environment, the people behind Semblance absolutely have gone the extra mile to continually add new layers to the experience up through its satisfying conclusion. The result is an exceptional title that is worthy of everyone’s attention.


There’s no story to go by directly, though you’ll see hints in the form of drawings on the walls you’ll find every once in a while, but obviously your little blob of a character is set upon removing a corruption from his world. To do that he’ll need to clear 4 major areas, each having a number of trees in them, which are then broken down into multiple puzzles apiece. The typical pattern in these worlds is that you’ll initially be introduced to a new mechanic or idea, which you’ll then get a level or two to get the basic hang of, but from that point on you’ll be expected to iterate on it. Given that your controls are pretty limited, consisting of basic movement, a jump, a dash, and the ability to reset any deformed surfaces the ingenuity demonstrated to keep things from getting too repetitive is impressive.


As you progress what you’ll find is that the environment itself almost serves as your secondary character, as the only way to get through the levels is to cleverly manipulate it to provide your means to success. When things start out it’s pretty simple to see where you can raise or move a platform into place but things quickly get more complex and interesting. Lasers need to be diverted, beams that reset any platforms they touch sometimes need to be avoided but can also be your key to success, even the classic concept of wall jumping changes when it’s only possible when you deform the wall itself to do it. Just when it seems that you may have exhausted what you can do to conform the environment to your needs you’ll then find it’s your own character that will need to change in order to progress. Semblance does an exceptionally good job of giving your just enough time to play with a concept to feel you’ve fully mastered it, but then transitioning you to new ideas before they get stale.


Of course with a game that relies on you somewhat molding the environment yourself in order to be successful there can be frustrations at times. Whether you just can’t quite get something to deform the way you’d like or you even manage to get yourself stuck in a deformed wall somehow there are some occasional rough edges. Fortunately, pausing and gives you an option to desquish and free yourself, and you can always choose to reset your deformations in a specific area and start again so it isn’t as if dealing with these challenges is ever a serious impediment. Specifically when you’ve flattened yourself horizontally your expanded surface area can make it tricky to avoid traps and death but thankfully this was only an issue in a small number of places.


Overall, the handful of hours I spent getting to Semblance’s conclusion were rewarding and well-spent. Having played so many indie titles on both the PC and Switch I’m always taken aback when I run into something so fresh and new, and from its terrific visuals and music to its continuously evolving challenge this game manages to check just about every box I can think of. When you throw in its extremely reasonable price I consider Semblance to be an absolute steal and a title anyone who enjoys puzzle platforming should be looking to pick up.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • The hook of platforming with a deformable environment is an interesting one
  • Rather than settle for getting off to a great start and then coasting you’ll need to acquire and master new techniques throughout the game
  • Looks and sounds great, whether docked or in handheld mode

Cons:
  • In some spots it can be difficult to get the environment to behave precisely as you’d like it to
  • It’s possible to get stuck, and this will happen on occasion, but there’s an easy menu option that will free you
  • The journey to get to the end is rewarding, but without a real story driving things you just sort of complete everything and then you’re done