Semlance is a game that’s either going to put you in a total state of unimaginable zen or make you angrier than a gammon on Question Time (this is a very British joke- Ed).
For me, thankfully, it was the former. That famous line from 1999’s American Beauty sums it up best;
‘it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world’.
Semblance is pure beauty, and quite possibly genre-defining.
For the past two weeks I’ve been fortunate to have had the game on my Nintendo Switch, packed up with me ready to take wherever I found myself. To break this out and stick on my headphones and get lost in its intricate puzzles has been a delight. Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, I find myself at a loss with what else I’ve actually achieved this past fortnight other than slowly but surely making my way through this purple haze of stellar level design and audio that you’d listen to at a wellness retreat, reminding you how unimportant the world around you seems when a videogame can make you feel like this.
That’s what Semblance does, and does very well. This 2D platformer from South Africa-based Nyamakop – adjacent to Wakanda. It’s true, it’s on their Twitter bio and everything – is their first ever Nintendo release (and the first ever African developed IP to do so), a common story since the Switch launch and on the surface is another an indie side scroller. Visually it’s Limbo and Inside if they discovered what the colour spectrum was with the smallest hint of Ori and The Blind Forest. There aren’t many colours on display here though those that did make the cut have a huge impact and look delightfully crisp on the Nintendo Switch screen.
Dig a little deeper though and you’ll discover a game that makes the platforming a gameplay mechanic. Jumping into a puzzle you’ll find pure purple platforms that you can manipulate and deform in order to complete puzzles and complete an area. It makes the environment you’re in part of the gameplay, rather than being the frame that surrounds it, similarly to Team17’s Yoku’s Island Express, though this is an entirely different beast.
The minimalism of your character (I’m not even sure what it is so I’m not going to attempt to guess) allows you to see how they blend into the areas which you can deform, and the colour key is clear and present throughout. Essentially if you match the area you’re in, you can move the platform up, down left or right, whichever what you’ll think you need in order to complete a sequence. If you need to get higher, push your platform up. Push platforms down in order to cover the bright green spikes if you need to or use the ability to block off enemies so you can maneuver your way to your goal. The world is there for the taking and it’s interesting to see how creative you can be when you simply have no other option.
The joy of how the world is set up in Semblance though is that if you’re finding a certain puzzle a little tricky, you can simply crack on with another and come back later. There’s no order here so you’re free to complete the game however you like. Semblance offers the kind of freedom you seldom see in platformers, where you’re given little direction and just told to explore and work it all out.
There are areas that are very tricky and has snapped me out of my zen-like state a couple of times. I’ve been stuck on a single puzzle which halted my progress and didn’t allow me to see the solutions to any others that followed it. I put the game down for a couple of hours and came back to it, only to realise how to beat the original puzzle, which allowed me to tear through the rest of them in that area with little problem. Semblance isn’t easy, and you’d be forgiven for taking a couple of minutes to try and work out what the game is asking of you.
There’s a very simple control scheme of only two buttons, jump and restore, which allows you to set the puzzle back to its original state if you need to try again. Getting used to how the game works doesn’t take an awfully long time, like any good puzzler. It’s how you navigate each sequence and if you can get through the first world without throwing your Switch out of the window (or your PC/Mac, indeed), then you’re going to find plenty to love.
And that’s the joy, yet again, of a brand new indie finding its way onto a console that really suits its ‘pick up and play style’. As mentioned above, picking this up and just falling into it whether I’m on the train, in the garden, sitting on the docks at Cardiff Bay or just lying in bed, I’ve finished this game in more locations than probably any other. I find myself thinking about it when I’m not playing it, going over in my head just how I’m going to finally nix that puzzle that’s been bugging me for days. I’m scribbling on notepads possible ideas and trying to use my relatively small brain to overcome something which I’m sure my nieces and nephews would breeze through without a second thought. The last game that had this affect on me was Night in the Woods, and well, we all know how much I loved that game.
Yes, it can be frustrating, but it’s not exactly the games fault. It gives you all the tools you need to proceed throughout the game at the very beginning, and it’s up to you to work out how to use them. I only ever found myself getting agitated at moments where I knew I could work it out but I just couldn’t see it at that particular moment.
Semblance is yet another Switch title that’s easy to recommend. The excellent level design, the ‘platformer-is-a-mechanic’ headline lives up to its promise and then some, with a wondrous visual style and a heartbeat throughout which pumps the blood of a revitalised genre through every vein of its code.
Semblance, ironically, is unlike anything else, and that in itself makes it essential.
Oh, and play it with headphones in. You’ll be transported.
Semblance is out now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC and Mac.
Publisher: Good Shephard Entertainment
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a review code from the publishers. For our full review policy please go here.