A simplistic visual design can be a tough sell in the current market. Semblance is anything but simple, placing players in environments designed to bend, stretch and be stomped on. The indie developers hailing from South Africa responsible for this creative puzzle-platformer is Nyamakop and they’re here to bring us a bit of South African flavor all doughy-like. Not for eating, however. More like play-dough, which molds interesting ideas into gameplay that left me wanting more when it was finished.
Simplicity boils down to its menus and control scheme, yet Semblance’s platforming and puzzle-solving built around only a few mechanics shows just how creative it can get. After a brief glimpse of the world ahead, players take immediate control of Squish, formed directly from the putty-like world itself from two eyeballs. With no designed backtracking and a straightforward path, players still have the choice to move to the next worlds ahead if they choose to do so. To that same extent, within each of the 4 worlds (large trees) are their own sub-worlds (smaller trees) and they, too, can be completed in any order. Each of these sub-worlds, or levels, contain a set number of puzzles to be completed and are placed in their own sections throughout the same interconnected level. This generally means you are free to complete any of these sections without interference from other parts of the levels.
Thematically, Semblance reminds me of a blend between World of Goo with a varied color palette and Super Meat Boy’s bloodiness without the red. Minimal in nature, the animate non-playable characters, backgrounds and shifting foreground particles does help its presentation. More believable to the gooey world are most edges you can touch, be them walls, ceilings or the ground you slide on, react to Squish, similar to how the yarn ground subtly bounces as Yoshi runs along in Yoshi’s Woolly World. However, the most bounce for your buck are in the individual platforms which can be protruded in a number of directions, compacted, elongated and have a change from their original position which is all beneficial to progression. The world of Semblance has been hit with a plague that crystallizes the lands with hard and dangerous material. This seems to spawn from prophecy, although it is unknown since the story is told in a bare bones fashion allowing players to softly place the pieces together.
Squish has 3 moves: jump, dash & ground stomp. And all 3 are absolutely crucial in solving almost every puzzle. Squish is kind of seen as the bad guy, at least from my take on it. Squish’s mission is to rid of the plague while freeing the world from its infection to let the inhabitants prosper once more. To do so, Squish is bound to go through traps and well-protected areas in order to collect special orbs (presumably life orbs which cleanse poison and give life, to…trees). When a number of orbs have been collected, the tree which the level belongs to will break off the dangerous green matter and regain the rest of its color. Collecting these orbs require more than just a simple hop-and-a-dash. They require a plan to deform the terrain in various ways and more than just to create platforms to stand (or slop?) on. The top-left corner of the screen displays the amount of orbs in a level and which ones you have collected. The orb for which puzzle you are currently at will slowly pulse in size, adding some nuance.
Pressing B will allow Squish to jump. Pressing Down anywhere in the air will thrust Squish straight down allowing the terrain below to be manipulated. One thrust will make a slight dent, but continuous pouncing will deepen the hole (I promise this is a family-friendly game). Likewise, the dash maneuver, done by pressing Y or ZR, is used to create the same effect in vertical walls and ceilings, but it’s also good for reaching collectibles and other platforms. It should be noted that it is only 4-way and that there is no diagonal dashing. The creative puzzles are built with this in mind. There is actually a 4th move. If at any time you’ve made an error in your plat-deforming, pressing A will allow Squish to expel a splash of gooeyness and reset platforms to their original position. Only individual platforms which are close to Squish will be affected by this and doesn’t hinder overall progression. Another welcoming touch has to do with keeping your manipulations in tact as long as you are in the level, since there is also temporary death. Should you come in contact with any hazard, players will only be taken back to the beginning of that section they were in without resetting any of the formations created. This is a nice way to ensure a steady gameplay flow without faulting players of a miscalculated jump.
Physics also come into play in Semblance. The game begins by buttering you up with the mechanics for you to get a good feel for them. Semblance allows players to go at their own pace and just when you think a bit of terrain tampering is all there is to it the game throws more mechanics your way. Some of these puzzles can be a bit mind-bending if you let them. You’ll come across sections with oddly positioned walls, enemy lasers, spikes, zones which allow no abilities, objects which reset formations and more. When you see a larger section with a number of these scattered in a puzzle, it may be daunting. A careful assessment will win the day, however. More than that, just having fun and trying out what works part of the beauty in it. There’s even terrain which change Squish’s dimensions, thus changing attributes such as speed and jump height depending on which way Squish…squished onto it. Nyamakop has implemented some creative ways to navigate in a platformer and within puzzles. Something says it’s just the tip of the iceberg because while I had a great time with the 5 hours it offered, it left me wanting more. The later half of the game gets real groovy that I’m only hoping enough success will warrant a larger sequel with even more fresh ideas. Still, not once was I ever bored. Platforming and puzzle-solving is like peanut butter & jelly; if you like peanut butter & jelly. Though I prefer jam and Semblance is mine.
Depending on the angle of your ground stomp or head bash (is Squish just a head or an entire body?), objects placed on terrains can be angled as well. Players can get through a puzzle by creating extreme openings or they can get by just slightly dodging hazards. You create some of your own challenge and it can be rewarding when you do so. There are some things the game just doesn’t tell you. For instance, and for completionists, there are shrines within each world. Finding them is a certain challenge and highlighted on the world’s tree reveals how many of them you’ve found. Though, the game never immediately tells you what they’re for. Also, there are flying insects within levels as well. Dashing through them will destroy them, but you also never know what for. To my knowledge, they are untold extra bits of challenge within levels for the player to see if they can reach them. Not a bad thing, but it could use more context. At times I was physically stuck in the terrain not allowed to move. However, choosing the “Reset Squish” option when paused allowed Squish to be placed back in the scene without resetting the terrain. Nice.
The music is also very fitting. Often it’s quiet, but it’s effectiveness comes in how chill it actually is. It’s a slow trance nice to relax to. To help with its atmospheric tone, an earthly ambiance can be heard in all of the levels; the sound of nature.
Semblance does run at a solid 30 frames per second in both docked and handheld mode. However, if you’re goin’ to town on squishing repeatedly, very fast and creating screen shake, you’ll notice the frames dropping a few notches. Nothing shattering, however.