We all love a good platformer. Mario ensured that. Not one, not two, but three decades ago the template was set by the moustachioed hero, and sidescrolling through colourful worlds is as fun now as it was then. While the triple-A space may have veered off into 3D worlds over that time, the rise of the indies has not only seen the platformer enjoy a new golden age, but the boundaries of what can be achieved in the genre be systematically dismantled.
Take Semblance, for example. It’s made by a team of five developers from South Africa who go by the name Nyamakop. It’s an odd name with an odd meaning. It’s derived from a mix of Swahili and African and translates to “Meat Head.” No joke!
Nyamakop set off on a quest to turn the platformer on its head and they landed on Semblance. This is a platformer that doesn’t look at platforms as a static part of the environment, but instead an integrated, malleable element that ties directly into the puzzle-solving and gameplay. This is a world made of playdough, where the walls, floors, platforms, and even the hero itself, can be pummelled into new shapes.
Rather than just a visual gimmick, Semblance’s intelligent level design and freeform concept of puzzling-through-play makes for not only a unique experience, but one that’s addictive fun.
World of Playgoo
There’s little preamble. A greenish crust is manifesting across the land and it must be cleared. We like to think of this crust as that hard bit that forms in playdough when you leave it exposed to the air for too long. It ruins it! Thankfully whatever force it is that looks after this land takes action. It rolls a blob out of the ground, gives it life, and then even a name: Squish.
Thankfully time is on Squish’s side. Semblance is not a game about urgency, but one where the organic landscape, eerie background music, and puzzle-solving all act to chill you out and immerse you into its curious little world. Your presence in this world makes an impact whether you like it or not. Watching the ground deform slightly under your weight and any attached vegetation or onlookers move accordingly is mesmerising. It helps make the world feel alive.
At first, the puzzle solutions feel familiar. Can’t proceed because a laser is shooting across your path? Obviously you need to turn or block the laser, right? But it’s Semblance’s unique take on how you go about moving that laser you’ll quickly fall in love with. How about you bash your pretty little purple face into the wall holding the laser, so it bends out of shape, pointing the dangerous beam in a different direction?
This simple premise quickly levels up. Soon there are multiple lasers. Then multiple platforms. Then platforms blocking platforms that need to be moved out of the way before you can deform the platform behind it. You’ll come across areas that seem impossible to scale until you create a pathway out of the world around you, perhaps bulging out walls to create climbing spots on the other side.
Within an hour of play, you will start hitting some real brain ticklers. More mechanics begin to appear and add layers to the play. For example, you can change your shape by charging into hard objects. So you may be able to squish Squish down to get through small gaps.
In other places, force fields will revert any changes you make on contact. So if you are standing on a platform with a force field below you, you can slam the ground down into it. This will cause it to instantly revert back to a flat platform, flinging you upwards like a slingshot.
Navigating your way to each of these discoveries won’t satiate your bloodlust, but it will please your ego. The sense of reward is high, and you’ll be compelled to see what’s beyond the next wall.
Simplicity is Poetry
The deformable world is helped greatly by the lack of complexity in the character and controls. You are just a blob of playdough: a blob with two eyes. You have the ability to dash in any direction, which is what you use to deform the land. Just smash your face into it, and as long as it’s a block colour and not patterned, it’ll move just as you would expect. It will thin out and shift shape under the impact.
Then you have a reset button. A cluster bomb-like explosion of playdough our little blob can produce that turns a nearby area you’ve just manipulated back to its former shape. It’s a smart little mechanic. Even though “death” sees you instantly restart from the same area, the reset function helps keep you working at solutions and maintaining your flow. In fact, in some situations, tactically resetting areas of the world is the solution itself.
If there is a frustration in the level design, it is in the inconsistency in which the deformable objects behave. It’s clear that the walls, floors and other environmental objects that can be reshaped are of a block colour. However, they frequently move just a bit, then stop on no obvious barrier. This prevents you from venturing too far down the wrong path in trying to solve a puzzle, but it also shuts down good ideas before you’ve had a chance to discover it’s the wrong path on your own.
Trying and failing is better than not being able to try at all. It takes away from the sense of freedom Semblance otherwise exudes.
It’s also a shame there is no significant reward for exploration here, too. With such cool mechanics at its core, you want to go a bit sandbox. To try bending or reshaping bits of the world in the hope of finding something – anything – on the other side. It’s one of the most adored features of any number of Nintendo platformers, but one curiously avoided by the majority of indies, Semblance now included.
Meat Head Success
So yes, this soft world does have a few hard edges. But Nyamakop’s puzzle platformer still wins out thanks to its charm and its inventive twist on the genre. Throwing yourself at its doughy goodness may occasionally be frustrating, but it doesn’t hurt, and you’ll end up lost with Squish for hours.
Semblance is out on PC, Mac and Switch on July 24.