Guest Review: Semblance, by Ariel Jackson

Guest Review: Semblance, by Ariel Jackson

Ariel Jackson is an artist, currently attending University of Texas at Austin and working towards a Masters in Fine Art. She is also Rom’s girlfriend, and through a twist of his own stupidity, wound up with the review copy of Semblance. Rom mentioned it to the other writers, and they immediately started calling for a guest review.

This review begins with an accident. Rom, one of the regular reviewers for this site, is my partner. While I was traveling, he took the liberty to set my new Switch up with some games he thought I would like. I tend to play problem-solving narrative-driven games, and I’m currently playing Thimbleweed Park, a point-and-click detective story riddled with small town humor and colorful personalities. While Rom was logged in on my Switch as me, he got a new review code and accidentally entered it on my Switch. He told me about the mix up and when I got back I saw that he was already playing it. I saw the aesthetic of the game and was curious. Normally I like to watch him play games that I don’t think will be up my alley, but this one looked pretty entertaining. The character you play as is a cute blob and, using both timing and force, you shape the world around you in order to solve puzzles. The goal of each puzzle is to collect a glowing orb-like object that helps to bring freedom to other adorably round creatures scattered throughout the game. I wanted to play this game and help these creatures by bending surfaces to solve puzzles that would ultimately lead to their freedom. Semblance is a puzzle platformer, and I was all over it.

There are a series of trees you hop into which then transport you to a series of levels. Each level gets more difficult, but you are eased in by understanding the unique limitations you are confronted with, e.g. rays of light that reset a surface when it touches. Tactics like bending the rays so they don’t reset a surface helps you to collect some of the orbs. In other levels there are lasers that will kill your poor little blob - when this happens, you don’t start over (which drives me insane and at times results in me not wanting to continue a game) but rather you are brought back to the same spot and are allowed to try again. The downside of the game is that when you are jumping on a wall that you’ve shaped you might get stuck inside it, and no amount of button pressing will get you out. I felt like I either got lucky and my blob plopped out, or I had to exit the game and open it back up. Another downside is that not all of the puzzles are based on logic, but rather your ability to fudge how a ray is pointed or hoping that your blob can make the jump after a few tries.

For me, Semblance built a bridge between my interest in puzzle platforms and adventure games. The fact that dying doesn’t erase your progress enables me to play recklessly and learn from my mistakes in real time. I wish the story had been a bit more developed, although I appreciate the cave drawings that give you a sense of how the creatures have been captured. I enjoy puzzle platformers that embed the story in with how developed the games get. In Thimbleweed, each puzzle is determined by where you are in the narrative and I missed that in Semblance. I was more concerned with getting through each puzzle and so the story seemed to be secondary at best.

Stepping out of my comfort zone of purely puzzle platform games was more enjoyable than I expected given the forgivable nature of dying in Semblance. The anxiety I sometimes feel when faced with the fact that all of my progress can be erased is often a discouragement from finishing a game, but learning from my mistakes with less at stake makes me more willing to complete the game. The aesthetic of Semblance kept me engaged with the varying color collaborations of surface and invasive crystals covering the worlds that are yet to be saved. The fun nature of flexibility when transforming and shaping your surroundings in the game make it feel like there isn’t necessarily one solution to each puzzle.