Released a few weeks ago, Semblance is a platform game for Switch and PC, with a bit of a twist on how it handles its platforms. The big hook of the game is that players can deform the game world – both the character and the platforms themselves – by jumping or dashing into a wall of a differing density.
For instance, if you ground pound a solid wall you'll become a flat pancake, able to get under small gaps but unable to jump well. If you dash sideways into a soft wall, you'll deform it, creating protrusions you could stand on top of, or use to block lasers, or change the angle that progression-blocking beams are directed at. Basically, it's all about manipulating the character and the world in interesting ways, and crafting custom routes through what would in any other platformer be impossible spaces to traverse.
I got to play around 45 minutes of Semblance earlier this year at a preview event and, at the time, one of my biggest concerns was with the variety of content that would be present in the final release. While the demo did a good job of offering up a multitude of varied puzzles, I was told by the developer that the game itself was aiming for a roughly four-hour long completion time. I was initially sceptical that the game's limited set of mechanics would provide enough consistently creative puzzle ideas, but playing the full game showed me that I'd previously underestimated Semblance.
Across the game's full length, every puzzle I encountered felt like a unique use of the limited mechanic set. It's clever in that, even though the mechanics are reused again and again, their application varies wildly depending on the location. I never felt like I was merely copying the same actions again and again. Semblance always kept puzzles feeling fresh.
However, I did encounter one pretty considerable issue with the game that held back my enjoyment of the game. Semblance is insistent on teaching its mechanics, and telling its story, completely without words. While it generally pulls off its shot at a wordless experience, it doesn't do a good job of explaining how the overall progression pathway of the game actually works.
So, here's how Semblance's level structure works: there are several worlds in semblance, each with a different core mechanic. Inside each of these worlds, there are several trees, inside which there are a number of puzzles. You can complete or skip any of these puzzles, or any of these trees in the short term, allowing you to just move on and try something else if you get stuck. Most of the minute-to-minute game design is telling you that it's totally okay to just jump around the game at will, not stressing yourself out if you fail to solve a puzzle, as that won't stop you from continuing to play.
However, I completed every puzzle I could across the first three worlds, then suddenly reached an impassable wall of vines preventing me from going further ahead in the game. Completing a puzzle lights up a branch of the tree the puzzle was in, but there's nothing that clearly says what percentage of puzzles need to be completed, and to what degree, in order to progress.
So despite the moment-to-moment game design telling me it was okay to skip some puzzles, the eventual wall I reached suggested otherwise; it seemed that actually, I needed to be a completionist, finishing every single puzzle without exception to continue. This ultimately turned out to be true, and was a huge frustration to me as I sat beating my head against a handful of puzzles which were considerably tougher than the rest.
Semblance is a unique platformer for sure, and one that managed to keep surprising me. But its initial leniency in skipping puzzles giving way to eventual progression gate feel very much at odds with each other. I still had a lot of fun with Semblance, but it was most enjoyable when I was allowed to solve the levels I enjoyed and skip the ones that stumped me. Having to bash my head against frustrating puzzles just to unlock a short ending section? Not so fun.