With countless puzzle platformers already available and more flooding in every day, you need to do something truly special to stand out, and Semblance does just that.
Billed as a “playdough platformer” by some, this game’s key mechanics lie in the fact that the environment and the player character Squish are both malleable and can be deformed to suit your needs.
As you’ll see in the teaser below, Squish can dash into parts of the environment to change their shape and how you can interact with it. Need to get over some spikes? Just create some safe hills to jump over them. Want to avoid a flying enemy? Ground pound until you’ve made yourself a safe little foxhole.
While these two are rather simple, Semblance will slowly introduce more complex puzzles where you’ll need to use these abilities in interesting ways. Climbing up a sheer surface, for example, requires mashing into a tall pillar until it turns into a ladder with pop marks you can climb.
On top of being an interesting way to get around, it’s endlessly satisfying to do. Experimenting with how you can reshape the world is a game unto itself, and the puzzles are crafted in such a way that you can’t abuse the system in unintended ways.
When we first played an early slice of the game years ago, we were worried that this system could be cheesed, allowing you to solve puzzles in unintended, easier ways.
After finishing the game we only managed to do this once among dozens of puzzles, so props to the developers for good design here.
Aside from the simple reshaping of platforms, there are many extra elements added in that prevent Semblance from growing stale.
Look past the standard spikes and enemies and there are special beams of light that will return the environment to its original state. These can then be used to pull off tricks like turning a thin platform into a trampoline – the beam of light snapping it taut when they collide, sending Squish flying through the air.
And Squish can be changed too. Using special walls this character can change his shape into one of two other forms. There’s a tall, thin pole-like form that gives you immense jump height but little to no horizontal movement speed.
Then, on the opposite end of the scale, Squish can be flattened into a pancake, flying through the air like a Frisbee and shimming under low walls in exchange for a now minuscule jump. Like the environment, being touched by a beam resets the character to its original, round shape.
All of this results in an experience which is more than the sum of its parts. We suspected that these ideas would become boring quickly, but that never happens.
As more mechanics are introduced the puzzles you need to solve change accordingly, and you’ll want to keep coming back to see what the next one has to offer.
Semblance is launching on PC and Switch, with the latter being where we spent our time. As the game is more on the casual side, with shorter puzzles, it was a good fit for the portable system and the need to get in a few minutes of gameplay while you stand in line or wait for public transit.
This ease of access may be a sticking point for puzzle game veterans looking for a challenge. While we do admit rage quitting a puzzle or two and returning later, there’s nothing that feels impossible here. Partly due to the complexity of the puzzles, but also subtle encouragement from the game by throwing you a few softballs when new ways to play are unlocked.
Unfortunately, going between those puzzles can be something of a chore here. There’s no level select screen to navigate here, replaced by a large single plain that you can move around in freely.
Those trees you see in much of the game’s artwork each represent a level. After travelling through a portal in their centre, you’ll need to solve a collection of puzzles unlocking orbs at the end of each one. Finish all the puzzles and the tree will light up signalling your victory.
Moving between the trees can be a chore, however, as you can easily miss them. Jumping into the wrong portals while you try and track down that one single, missing orb can also be frustrating.
The rest of the game, however, is very calming. The aesthetic here is inviting, and it’s paired well with appropriate music and sound effects.
Those wanting to find out more about the world of Semblance can look for the story, which is depicted in murals hidden around the levels.
These can be hunted for together with secondary objectives in the form of enemies (which are collected like orbs) and ominous symbols that light up when you find them. Look for these as muted outlines on certain trees.
This extra content may be something many will be interested in given this game’s short length. We completed the main game with a few optional unlocks in just over five hours.
While we’re not going to get into the debate of gameplay hours versus price, we bring this up because, well, we wanted to play more.
While the final level does have a soft tone of finality to it, when the credits started to roll we were a bit shocked. We wanted to play more and even had some preconceived ideas about future puzzles, but they never came.
That aside, Semblance still gets a very high recommendation from us, even for people who usually avoid this type of game. It’s endlessly endearing, a joy to play, and a shining example for games made in South Africa.