I am probably saying this for the millionth time, but, just for the record, I am an avid lover of the puzzle genre, and the platforming genre. When I looked at Semblance for the fist time, it grabbed my attention due to it’s alluring artstyle. Does it perform as good as it looks? Or is it another case of “all that glitters is not gold”? Let’s find out.
Semblance is an independent puzzle platformer video game developed by Nyamakop, a South African game development studio. It was released on July 24, 2018 for Microsoft Windows, OS X and Nintendo Switch.
The game takes a very passive approach towards storytelling, and unless one is properly paying attention to the game, the story is pretty much insignificant. The beginning sequence just highlights a green blob entering a tree, and that infects the whole environment and turns it green. Then the character comes out of the ground, and moves out to disinfect the environment. That’s pretty much it. Rest of the story is revealed amidst the levels, which most of the players are likely to ignore. Specific areas in each level have certain painted walls which give the players bits and pieces about the game’s story. For instance, one painting emphasized upon the antagonist of the game. It was just a mere painting, but it highlighted how the green blob was segregated by the rest of the purple blobs, and that gives us some info about its backstory. There are paintings like these spread all over the levels, and even though it’s a very passive approach to storytelling, it does it’s job pretty decently.
The game begins off on a very unembellished note, and it looks like a pretty mundane platformer where you can mould the platforms the way you want, just like a play-dough. Fast forward a few minutes, and my perspective changed. Level design is one of the key aspects which a game need to excel in, in order to standout as a whole. There are only a few games which grant players the ability to interact freely with the environment and use the environment itself in order to accomplish a level. I remember there was a sequence in Fe, where the player had to talk to a deer which led to the blooming of a flower and eventually opening of a path that lead forward. Semblance, borrows the same attributes, but implements it in a different way.
Semblance takes the traits of a good platformer, i.e. good level design, and a good puzzle game, i.e. intriguing puzzles, and knits them together with its squishy physics. The few puzzles in the beginning are pretty simple, but as the game progresses, the difficulty level increases, exponentially. The world map is subdivided into four trees which unlock one after the another, and each one is further subdivided into about 6 trees. Players have to visit each tree and then gather collectibles which will disinfect the tree. That’s basically the gameplay summed up. Sound pretty boring eh? Nah, there is much more to it.
The collectibles are usually exposed at a really open area in the level and looks almost reachable by just jumping most of the time, but, when you try to reach it, things start to look a bit difficult. The players need to do a variety of things to gather these collectibles, and that includes remoulding the environment, using the various obstructions in the level, i.e., a light that brings the altered platform to it’s original shape, etc., to their own benefit and even changing the character’s shape in order to collect these collectibles.
Semblance doesn’t have a wide range of mechanics, but what makes the very few mechanics present excel, is the pacing of the game. The first area focuses on the game’s pretty basic physics, i.e., remoulding the environment, to reach certain places and avoiding the laser beams which obstructs the path; the second area brings up a specific light source which prevents the player from remoulding the platform where it is casted on, and finally the third area allows players to reshape the character itself. The levels are so well paced, that none of the puzzles feel like a chore, since there are certain mini segments between puzzles which include much easier puzzles like pushing through two parallel walls in order to scale one the higher ones.
The character reshaping mechanic isn’t designed to fit in. If you reshape to the elongated version you get more vertical height (and in turn your horizontal reach decreases) while jumping, the flattened version gets more horizontal distance while dashing and your vertical reach decreases. This adds tons of variety to the levels, as you have to keep reshaping yourself amidst tight places in order to properly reach certain platforms and finally gather the collectibles. The uniqueness of each puzzle, and the way players are not provided with the slightest of hint on how to solve the puzzles, makes the level design exceptional. My only complain with the game is that it is really short. With the amount of fun I had in the game, I wanted it to go beyond 3-4 hours, but, I think certain things excel only when they are short and to the point, and not unnecessary elongated.
Graphics & Sound
Semblance is one of the best looking platformers I have ever played. The game features a really good artstyle, and although the colour palette in each level is pretty much restricted to a couple of colours, the artistic virtues of it is at times really phenomenal. The character is a pretty cute one, and so are the various creatures in each level, both friends and foes.
We tested the game on a pretty entry level laptop, to properly assess its performance. The game ran pretty well on a laptop with Intel i3-5010U, HD 5500 and 4GB DDR3 graphics. I did face certain glitches frequently though. At times I was stuck inside the wall and couldn’t come out, and a few times I just went through some of the platforms. None of these were game-breaking and we could easily recover from them in a few moments.
The sound design is pretty good too, although it’s pretty minimalistic as well. Although I expected more from the OST of the game, it’s pretty decent and just does the job. There are some audio cues which are associated with various character interactions, and those are really well implemented too.
When I first played Ori and the Blind Forest, I thought that I won’t ever get a game in the future which might replicate its ambience. Then came Hollow Knight, and now Semblance. Semblance doesn’t boast a wide array of mechanics and a robust narrative like Ori and the Blind Forest and Hollow Knight, it just has a handful of mechanics and the level design does the rest of the job to elevate this game on the same pedestal as Ori and the Blind Forest and Hollow Knight. Overall, this is really a must play game for all the platformer lovers out there.