I love my Switch. This might not be much of a revelation as most Switch owners can barely contain their unabashed adoration of Nintendo’s hybrid console. But where I may differ from some is that my adoration stems not from Nintendo’s own record setting stable of exclusive titles, but instead from the never-ending deluge of quality indie titles that hit the Nintendo store on an almost daily basis. Semblance is the latest small team release I’ve gotten my hands on, and it’s pretty damn good!
The puzzle-platformer has become synonymous with the indie scene, if it's not a rogue-lite/like then it's most likely a puzzle-platformer. This is not in any way a negative as there is a lot of room to explore in this space, and Semblance does more than enough to separate itself from the masses. Our protagonist is a delightful big-eyed little ball of squish, and his or her pliable forest home has become infected by a crystalline growth that has hardened the landscape and made it lethal on contact. You must jump, dash, and manipulate this now hostile environment in order collect various orbs scattered around the world in order to dissolve the invading hardness and return the lands to their former malleable glory.
There’s not much here is the way of actual story in Semblance, but the environmental storytelling is top notch and does an excellent job of setting the scene and providing all the motivation you will need to help the voiceless but adorable blob save the world. The striking yet minimalist art-style is key to delivering this seamless visual narrative. Strong silhouettes and simple geometry give the world a strong identity that avoids any needless distractions and imbues the world with a distinct eerie and alien personality, and a clear path to your next goal. In addition to keeping the visuals uncluttered the game as a result looks exceptional both when playing in handheld mode and when connected to a large HDTV. Accompanying the striking visuals is an atmospheric and evocative soundscape that helps reinforce the other-worldly vibe throughout the admittedly all too short experience.
The game play “hook” in Semblance is in the malleability of the world, and your ability to shape it in order to reach your next objective. Areas not taken over with the crystal infection can be deformed in several ways. Hitting a wall, floor, or platform at speed can bend, dent, divot, or move it depending on its thickness, location, or size. Moving and deforming the landscape can help you to manoeuvre platforms to access other areas of the level, avoid enemies, or block incoming attacks. Can’t reach a plateau at the top of the screen? Bash some platform from underneath to push them up. Getting munched by a beastie in a tunnel? Divot the floor to slip underneath. There is a fair amount of trial and error with some of the games more taxing puzzles, but thankfully you are able to reset most of your environmental Feng Shui with the press of a button.
As far as puzzle-platformers go Semblance is a little on the easier side, that is not to say it’s a cakewalk. Each of the worlds four biomes provide their own unique challenges, puzzles, and hazards, but because your toolset is limited to the deformation ability and your characters inherent squishiness most players will find themselves removing the roadblocks without too much trouble fairly quickly. This is where the game shows it major weakness. There is not enough flexibility or variety in the puzzles themselves, with the vast majority of puzzles being a slight variation of one you solved earlier. Some additional abilities, and greater variation in how you can interact with, and manipulate the world would have greatly improved the challenge in the latter stages. I found myself becoming a little bored with the repetition. The core mechanic is expertly executed, but it’s not
interesting in of itself to carry an entire game.
What the team at Nyamakop has delivered is undeniably fun, but it feels more like the first part of a full experience rather than a complete game. The journey is compelling but over far too soon. The deformation mechanics are unique but feel like a proof of concept that could be great if given the opportunity to evolve and expand.
Excellent art and sound design.