Semblance – Nearly Sticks The Landing
South Africa is not exactly known for a wealth of video games (though 2012’s Broforce is one notable exception), but the team at Nyamakop have both developed and released quite an interesting one. When a bug in development suddenly creates a pivot in design that spawns a new game entirely, you know there’s an interesting gameplay mechanic in play, and that’s exactly what Semblance presents us with.
A puzzle/platformer, Semblance positions you as a purple blob named Squish, and with nary an introduction and a threadbare tutorial, you’re thrust into the action. The soft, malleable world that Squish once knew is being taken over by hard, edged solids, and it’s your charge to rectify the situation, the only way it knows how, by moulding and deforming it! Your goal is to move from level to level (these are standalone, connected by a simple, and fairly linear hub world), and complete a series of small puzzles to collect little orbs which allow for further progression. The sudden breakout of these harder surfaces then presents a range of increasingly more complicated platforming opportunities where the player must manipulate the playdough like surfaces to create platforms and avoid obstacles in order to claim each orb.
The concept behind the game is superb and created some wonderfully engaging moments, many of which left me scratching my head as I wrapped my brain around what I might need to do to solve the newest puzzle I had encountered. Like other truly excellent puzzle games, the solution often ends up being quite simple, but enough variables are presented to you that you, the player, often over-complicate the scenario, and that’s often what I found myself doing. There is scope for error however that clever platforming can offset, and I certainly found myself reflecting upon some puzzles, identifying what would have been a more efficient way to approach the problem, but rolled away satisfied none-the-less because I’d been able to apply my many years of platforming prowess to offset the difference. These circumstances don’t feel like they are the product of player exploits either, rather a result of the developers giving me the tools, and leaving me to my devices. Provided I came up with a solution, the game wasn’t at all fussed by how I came to that solution, and I appreciated that hands-off approach, and as new systems are added throughout the experience, this feeling of freedom over my experience persisted.
Not all was smooth sailing, however. Despite being a game about a squishy blob who can stick to objects and consequently change the environment, I, unfortunately, found the game to be too sticky at points, and not sticky enough in others. Not a product of the game’s design, but rather a lack of polish in the handling, I often found that I’d have to stutter my way up to a ledge (for example) because I needed to negotiate a tricky jump; and in other scenarios I’d have a tonne of momentum, need to execute a flying leap, but would then slip off the edge of a surface. I just found this facet of the game to be inconsistent, and it certainly soured my playing experience somewhat – though, to the credit of Nyamakop, not enough to stop me from reattempting the same puzzle again. Save states are fairly generous allowing for moments of redemption to occur quite quickly which is hugely beneficial for players stumped by a particular puzzle for an extended period, because there’s no real consequence for failure, save for perhaps 1-2 seconds of your life while it reloads.
Semblance is a simple, yet striking game aesthetically, the muted colours are punctured semi-frequent splashes of brighter hues. The musical backing is also quite simple, but is unobtrusive, allowing your brain to do the work it needs, distraction free.
Nearly every box is ticked in the case of Semblance:
Art/Sound Design: Tick Tick
Gameplay Polish: Unfortunately not
This one unticked square has the potential to make or break the experience for certain players, but should it push you away, well then you’re walking away from one of the smartest designed games available. This 2-3 hour puzzle platformer is one that takes an intuitive concept, and challenges the player in all the right ways, gives you more choice than you’d expect from most games in the genre, and looks as visually striking as it plays. The work that Nyamakop have done on Semblance should not be overlooked and makes a good case for players to watch the South African game development scene more closely in the future.
Born and bred on the Super Nintendo era, Paul relishes any opportunity to sink his teeth into an RPG, action or platformer. Despite being an owner of all major platforms, Paul does have a particular love of the Playstation family of consoles – take only a few minutes to skim through his Twitter and you’ll see him ranting about the next big thing on PS4. We swear he’s sane.