Puzzle-platformers like Portal and Limbo are meticulously crafted worlds that pull players through choreographed steps and jumps. Semblance, out now on Mac, Nintendo Switch and Windows PC, makes a genuine effort to subvert this norm, offering up something both liberal with player choice and original in concept.
It stars a blob who inhabits a morph-able world of platforms, pits and puzzles. The blob can run and jump, but its main ability is throwing itself at walls, floors and ceilings, to dent and shape them. The objective is not to traverse an established world, but to shape and create. It’s more about making platforms than besting them.
Bang into a vertical cliff to create a sort of stairway. Flat flooring is just waiting to be changed into a nice ramp. A bridge can be turned into a trampoline. You’re doing these things to collect shining orbs, which are usually kept just out of reach.
Cleverly, the puzzles are stacked in such a way that they can be accessed at any time, without having to contend with gates. Multiple single-screen puzzles make up a branching tree, so that each level can be taken, and left, at any time. Even within the levels, I can bypass a tricky puzzle, and take on any other according to my whim. It’s a bit like wandering around a shopping mall, popping in and out of attractions that take my fancy.
This kind of freedom allowed me to explore the game at my own pace, leaving tougher puzzles to settle in the back of my mind while I tried my hand at something fresh. There’s a downside to this, of course: It’s easy to get into a situation in which half a dozen puzzles are sitting around, semi-solved. It takes perseverance to avoid changing the game’s world into a building site of not-quite-completed challenges.
But I found the puzzles intriguing enough that they seemed to demand resolution. Each one is a matter of physical manipulation, in which you make use of terrain as well as other surprises, like laser beams. The blob is able to change its own shape as the game progresses, offering complex new problems to resolve.
Semblance is only a few hours long, but the puzzles are individually challenging, and they demand experimentation. Each puzzle feels like its own little game, eschewing the repetition that’s so often a feature of platformers. Some puzzles are downright malevolent in their cleverness, which led to even greater celebrations when I bested them.
Developer Nyamakop has done a great job in making life simple for the player. Each element of a puzzle can be reversed at any time, so if I err shaping a wall on the left, the work I’ve done on the right wall won’t be affected by my resetting. Plentiful traps mean that deaths are frequent, but I always respawned just where I left off.
There are a few annoyances. It’s easy to feel a bit lost in this pretty, but slightly samey world of vines, obelisks and troughs. Although this isn’t a pixel-perfect platformer, detailed control is important for some of the puzzles, and I found the controls to be fiddly and frustrating at times. A few glitches here and there add to this small catalogue of irritations. But overall, they don’t get in the way of an enjoyable and admirable experience.
Semblance is a clever, intriguing world of likable, entertaining challenges.
Semblance was played using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by developer Nyamakop. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.