Imagine living in a world where everything is soft, rounded, squishy. Then something terrible happens and angular, sharp, hard crystal starts growing over the world, sharp points and nasty edges taking over. This is how Semblance starts and without any dialogue or narrative, a hero is born (or summoned?) to save the land of playdough-like stuff.
Semblance is the perfect example of minimalism done right. Every single thing you can do, every trick for solving puzzles is given to you in a clear, unskippable and unmissable section of a level. The game explains without any words how to squish, squash, deform, nudge and restore sections of the game world itself so that you can progress and it is so elegant in its execution that it has to be lauded with praise. There are no long tutorials that ask you if you know how to move to the right or jump, instead the game shows you what is dangerous to Squish and what isn’t, what moves and how to take advantage of that fact.
The game explains without any words how to squish, squash, deform, nudge and restore sections of the game world itself so that you can progress and it is so elegant in its execution that it has to be lauded with praise.
Squish doesn’t have super-powers or a jetpack, a fancy gun or puzzle solving grenades. Squish takes advantage of everything in the world is made of something with a consistency of a marshmallow. Beating the world into shape, knocking holes into the floor to get under a section of overhang that is too low, or smacking a platform up a bit to make an impossible jump possible. The whole world isn’t the same squishiness though, so some areas won’t stay deformed, or will reach a point that they won’t change shape anymore. This stops the puzzles from being brute forced by picking any old wall and hitting it completely out of shape. Every puzzle in the game rides this fine balance of letting you mess around with the shape of platforms and the world around you, and making you think about what each element in an area is present for and how it is used to solve a puzzle. In a way it reminds me of The Incredible Machine: every element is there for a reason and while you don’t necessarily have to use them all, using them all properly is how you will solve the puzzle.
There is something delightful about shaping the world around you to solve a puzzle rather than getting doodad A to thingajig 1. It takes the idea of platforming and makes you think differently. Is that an impossible jump? Nudge it until it is an easy one. Hard to reach platform? Not a problem. Lasers vaporising you? Squish the platforms until they shoot harmlessly into a corner. All you have to do is reach the little nucleus of energy and make it out of the puzzle without dying. Do this enough times and the tree you are in will start to heal the hard crystal growth. Again that minimalism comes into play with the sense of mystery and clever soundtrack cues. How did this happen, and why? Has it happened before? What are the cave paintings you can find in secret rooms? I am sure on another platform the achievements would possibly reveal more, but on the Switch this isn’t the case.
Every puzzle in the game rides this fine balance of letting you mess around with the shape of platforms and the world around you, and making you think.
One of the biggest hurdles in a puzzle game is the frustration of when a puzzle stumps you. Sometimes you miss a piece of information, or your brain fixates on a certain section that you think is the solution but really isn’t and the best thing to do is step back or do something else. Semblance is well aware that puzzles can sometimes stump a player and the puzzles have been designed so that you can move past a puzzle and continue with something else until you are ready. Some puzzles will take less than 10 seconds to solve, while others have you scratching your head a bit until you work out what gets squished where. Sometimes moving on gives you a clue on how to beat a puzzle, or lets your brain mull it over a bit. Whatever the case is, this really removes that “I am stuck and can’t play the game anymore” problem that some puzzle games suffer from. Being free of that linear puzzle system sets Semblance apart and is just another way that the game lets players feel like they are in control here.
My biggest regret is how short Semblance feels. Yes, you need to beat every puzzle in the game to beat it, but I kept hoping for a secret area with optional puzzles, some real noggin scratchers to keep me entertained. Of course, I know how greedy it sounds to be asking for more puzzles, but I just enjoyed hopping around the world so much.
I am reminded of a documentary I watched on the making of Super Mario Bros. Before there was a level and a goal, the programmers just worked until it was fun to run around controlling the protagonist. Semblance reminds me of that, in how fun and satisfying it is to slide along the ground, to jump around or slide around a curve you beat into the floor. Semblance is a game about falling in love with a soft blob and saving the world and I want more.