A little bit like The Floor is Jelly, which came out a couple of years ago, Semblance asks a similar question. What if everything you touched in the world was soft and could be deformed and turned from solid to whatever shape you wanted it to be? The difference is, once you deform the floor, it stays like that, allowing you to create crevices, peaks, and valleys in the world as you go through to try and figure out what is causing all of the malevolent crystals that are growing all over your beautiful forest.
Games like this, puzzle platformers about terrain deformation, often give rise to issues where you keep finding things that just feel mad bootsy, but it works, so you get through the level. Maybe it's not super satisfying but more like.... well hey, you did it, so it counts, right? I played Membrane earlier this year, for example, and I never felt like the levels were particularly fun, or my solutions were the ones the developers wanted, but hey, I made it through!
Semblance avoids doing that by giving you limits to how much you can deform things. Never in a way that feels frustrating, though, and when you run up against one of the limits without finding a solution using it, you know you need to just step back and ask yourself “ok, I’m missing something.... just gotta think about it a little more!” The game does that thing that the best puzzle games of this sort should do, and it does it very well: that is, introduce a new element in each area, and then layers them together to make final challenges that really feel like they’re encompassing the entirety of what came before.
It’s unfortunate that the game’s so short, then, because I was really having a lot of fun with it. Yeah, sometimes the way your character clutches the platforms is weird, and sometimes I got stuck in the wall, but regardless, the developers did the most important thing they could by making the act of deforming the world itself just feel good. The dash is not only fast but also feels strong, the kind of thing you’d want in an action game, so when you do it and can actually see the results pock the world’s surface, it feels surprisingly good.
Every new mechanic adds something fun to explore as well. I was worried that there’d be a lot of dodging or fighting enemies, but apart from a some small chase sequences at the end, that never really happened. Instead, the puzzles mostly took place on discrete screens that gave you everything you needed to solve them – you should never have to backtrack to find a different way to come in, and in fact, some of the mechanics in place make sure you come in at an entirely neutral state. All of the levels are smartly designed, and whenever I figured out a solution, I felt like a smarty.
I feel like Semblance excels at that sort of thing, where there are things in place, timing’s not a super huge issue, and you can just chill your way through a challenge. So, it’s weird that the last level suddenly focuses more on avoiding enemies, hard-to-time fast dashes, and chases. It’s a thing I see in a lot of games like this, that are casual and fun most of the way through, and then the last level suddenly requires a degree of dexterity and speed the rest of the game didn’t. It’s odd to see that such a friendly and open puzzle game suddenly turns the opposite – and while I get the momentum of the story makes it so this is like the Big Final Rush to get the villain (such as it is), it’s the kind of move that can turn people away, even as they’re right at the end.
Semblance is a game full of excellent and satisfying puzzles, marred only by some odd jankiness and a final level that doesn’t focus on the strengths of what had come before. While short, the experience was overall enjoyable, and a fun take on the idea of a world that can be deformed on your way to finishing a puzzle. It could definitely use more levels, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and in the end, isn’t it good for a game to leave you wanting more?