It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
Sometimes you just need to play a game that’s relaxing and comfortable. For me, that’s usually 2D platformer games, a byproduct of spending untold numbers of hours playing Super Mario World when I was younger. Even when I’m playing a new platforming game, it still manages to tap into the muscle memory I’ve built up over time; a new experience can still feel very familiar. Semblance is a bit like looking at something familiar upside down.
In Semblance, you control an unnamed little blob creature who is trying to fight off a strange infection that has afflicted its forest home. You do this by collecting orbs that are scattered throughout a number of different stages, but require you to solve platforming puzzles in order to reach them. Aside from running and jumping, the only other way your blob can reach them is through deforming the terrain. You do this by dashing or crashing into a pliable surface, which causes the surface to dent, or you can undo the deformation of terrain that is near the blob.
For instance, in an early area there’s an orb that’s too high for the blob to reach by jumping. In order to get to it, you have to go under the platform below, then dash upwards into the platform to create a dent. Once you’ve done this multiple times, the dent becomes tall enough to make up the difference between how high you can jump and how high the orb is. And if you manage to dent the platform in such a way that prevents you from getting the orb, you can simply reset it to its normal state.
These sections can feel more like a puzzle game than a typical platformer. They’re more about figuring out how you deform the area to reach the orb than about how skilled you are at jumping. It’s perhaps in this way that Semblance gets its name, because while it appears to be a platforming game, it plays more like a puzzle game, one where you interact with the puzzles through platforming mechanics.
This is in part due to how the levels are designed. Each one has a number of puzzles in it, and each puzzle is discretely separate from the others. What you do in one doesn’t affect any of the others. It uses a sort of hub and spoke structure you see in platform games like Super Mario Odyssey where there is a central area (the hub), but different objectives or levels (the spokes) that can be completed in any order. So when you get stuck on a puzzle in Semblance, you can just move ahead to the next one in the level, or in the next level, or the next set of levels.
As the game progresses, the solutions to each puzzle feel less organic. It’s more like searching for the very specific solution for that particular puzzle. It makes the deformation mechanic feel less powerful, but even still, figuring out the solution to puzzles is still satisfying. It’s because Semblance’s platformer mechanics and structures are so familiar, so the deformation tool is almost like cheating — which is a comforting sensation in a game that is already comfortingly familiar.