Updated: Jan 25, 2019
I've mentioned before that I'm not immediately drawn to platformers, unless there's a unique mechanic that catches my attention. Sitting at the Semblance booth at Dreamhack, where I got to try out the demo prior to the game's release, I quicky encountered a fittingly catchy mechanic. Semblance is a puzzle-platformer where you explore as a squishy, blob-like life form. Similar to the protagonist, the whole world around you is squishy and malleable, and can be shaped to fit your needs. After this short demo, I was excited to play more of Semblance, as I was drawn to its very flexible and freeform world. This world is also intensely colorful and beautiful - the backgrounds are reminiscent of a futuristic jungle. Although the game first appears to be dominated by a purple color scheme, each following stage changes to a different primary color, keeping each area distinct and interesting.
Semblance was made by Nyamakop, a South African indie studio. On the game's official website, the developers pose the question "what if you could deform and reshape the world itself?" Sure, not every wall is moldable, but for the most part, they accomplished this concept through Semblance. They describe the world you interact with as made of playdough. For me, this definitely rings true, but the substance reminds me even more of a squishy stressball - which is kind of what this game feels like it is.
There's no dialogue at all in Semblance, but you could say there's inklings of an implicit story nonetheless. You travel through different worlds, each one with a different color combination, eventually restoring each one to its original form. There are small characters that you pass by, with a little more shape than the protagonist, making cute jingling sounds when you rush past them but not interacting with you much further than that. It does makes you wonder what part they play in this story. Along the way, you encounter what appears to cave drawings, which is the only other indication of a history of this world.
Semblance is a subtle masterpiece, because it appears so simple but is so genuinely fun and satisfying. You can mold a platform to help you reach a certain item, sure, but you can also mold a platform completely the opposite way and make it look weird, just because. It doesn't feel rushed, which I appreciate, and often times while you think about your next step you can just admire the landscape and the funny little characters. Many of the puzzles are actually quite challenging, but the games gives you a chance to continue to explore and come back after you've given it some thought. There's such varied ways to change your own form as well as the map, the possibilities make some really entertaining puzzles.
I have two very light critiques for this game. I do like that the story is not dialogue-driven, but even so, there could be more of it. I would have liked to encounter perhaps a small cutscene, or some sort of vision of what happened prior. Second, it is quite easy to get stuck in a wall or platform. It happened to me a couple times and only once I was not able to wiggle myself out; fortunately, the game is autosaving at all times so I was able to just restart and get back to normal.
Semblance is an excellent game to play on the Switch, it's perfect on the go (I played a good chunk of this game on a 3-hour bus ride). It's so fresh and colorful, it doesn't need to be "dark" in order to portray a strange, perhaps post-war world. It's just the right length, I don't feel that it was too short because it hit just about everything you could do and explore with this mechanic. I'd be curious to see Nyamakop come out with a similar game with a new twist, perhaps with additional characters or in 3D.
Semblance is available on Nintendo Switch and PC.
Played on: Nintendo Switch
Playtime: 4 hrs
How I heard about this game: Played demo at Dreamhack Austin