Semblance is an indie puzzle-platformer with an adorable squishy character, a uniquely squishy world and creatively squishy puzzles.
Dropped in without much preamble, you’ll find the game has a rather simple structure. There are three worlds: Cuddly, Swamp and Snowy, and they each have several levels for you to play through. The levels all have the same goal, which is to collect ‘essences’, essentially floating orbs, by solving puzzles to reach them. This describes the vast majority of the game, but it makes for a mostly satisfying gameplay loop, with some drawbacks.
The puzzles involve a host of mechanics, slowly introduced over the course of the game, mainly centering around terrain being reshaped, much like playdoh. The character’s dash ability allows the player to mold the environment to a certain extent in a bid to access previously inaccessible areas. Additional mechanics add complexity by introducing dash-free zones and beams of light which prevent any terrain reshaping. The puzzles are well-designed, combining all the game’s mechanics in genuinely clever and interesting ways. My only gripe lies with the fact they’re never properly introduced and, while simple enough to get the hang of, it can be frustrating not being able to solve a puzzle because you didn’t know something was possible.
Each puzzle is self-contained, and the camera, which has been following you, pans out to frame the puzzle in its entirety on the screen. This can lead to sections lacking difficulty and depth as they all have to play in the real estate provided by the screen, however, it makes them very accessible. Their self-contained nature means they can be played in any order and even skipped and revisited later, without fear of losing progress. Combined with a frequent use of checkpoints, this approach means you won’t have to replay large sections (losing a few seconds, at most) if you die. The game doesn’t punish you for trial and error and, in fact, encourages you to take chances and experiment, the hallmark of a good puzzle game, giving a strong feeling of forward momentum as you’re always making progress. This makes Semblance a game you can play in any style you want: from one sitting to chipping away at it in small bursts.
Although this simplicity makes for accessibility, it also leads to some drawbacks. Since levels can be tackled in any order, there is not much reward for beating them. You will find yourself solving a puzzle to collect an essence, only to move on to the next puzzle and level and repeat. The puzzles are fun in the moment, however, you find yourself at the next one so quickly there’s no time to reflect on the success. A story is included, which attempts to serve as a worthwhile payoff, but its execution is poor, with two brief cutscenes to bookend the game, lacking in explanation to get the player immersed and engaged. The gameplay loop is satisfying, but Semblance would benefit from providing something to give the player more motivation to continue, outside of admittedly fun puzzles.
Semblance is a nice-looking game. With a minimalist art style, it communicates everything about the world through its strong art direction and use of colors. All of the mechanics are visually distinct and clearly telegraph every aspect of a puzzle to the player quickly, in a non-intrusive manner. More could have been done, however, regarding the three worlds you play through. “Cuddly,” “Swamp” and “Snowy” receive barely any makeover outside of a color swap and a few background sprite changes, meaning their names feel like an unnecessary inclusion, similar to that of the story. A more distinct appearance could have broken the game up nicely and given each world some character, however, overall, it doesn’t detract heavily from the gameplay experience. Bolstering the visuals is an understated soundtrack that doesn’t jump out at you but makes for pleasant listening while you maneuver the world.
Once you’re done with the game, which should be after around 4-5 hours, you’re not likely to want to revisit the offerings. Currently, there is not much incentive to replay the levels, however, additions such as a challenge mode or new levels in the future would be happily welcomed, and the game’s structure is geared towards such an opportunity. The fact that I would like to revisit the world of Semblance speaks to the fun I had, and, despite some shortcomings, I’d recommend the game to a friend as an enjoyable and accessible experience.
Semblance is available on Steam, Itch, GOG and the Nintendo Switch Shop for $9.99
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