From PAX East 2018: Semblance, A Must Play Playdough Platformer

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I wrote a preview about Semblance after SXSW Gaming and how it’s both difficult and adorable. At PAX East 2018 I was able to play a longer demo and explore the game’s level progression, story, and the added feature since my playtime in March. The first game developed by South African game company Nyamakop, Semblance is a “playdough platformer” that turns the entire world into one giant puzzle to solve.

A platformer is a game where the player controls a character or avatar to jump between suspended platforms and avoid obstacles, this excludes automated platforming which exists in games like Zelda. For Semblance, platforming and obstacle avoidance is taken to a new level with each environment made transformable from the platforms themselves to Squish (the ball of playdough you play as). Unlike other platformers, where you interact with stagnant objects (or maybe moving platforms or obstacles), space in this world is reactive to your movements. With so much love for this adorable and complex platformer, I think it’s best to list the features that make it  different from any other game I’ve played in the past based on my extended play-through of the demo.

The Story

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When I previewed the game during SXSW, I wasn’t aware there was a story. Squish’s world is usually soft and malleable – but an infection and infestation of hard material has entered the world, this hard material not only hardens pieces of the world but also provides you with obstacles to avoid. “A guardian of the world gives it’s own life to give life to a very piece of the world – creating Squish. Squish must collect the very essences of their world to bring the soft world back to life.” Each puzzle you complete is done to capture an essence and with every essence you capture, the less infection there is in the world. Each level is color coded and each level is attached to different trees you enter and complete. It’s a simple story, but one that grounds your objectives and lets you understand why you can’t just transform everything you see.

World Manipulation and Resetting

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Semblance is a game that awakens a ball of playdough from the world, and because it is a piece of that world it can manipulate platforms it comes across, moving them up, sideways, down, and ultimately making each jump interactive and each platform a different experience. With sensitive controls to guide the height of the jump it takes working out the jump and dash mechanic with the platform manipulation to make it to your objective. Not only can you deform the world around you but you can manipulate how your character looks as well, like flattening Squish to fit through cracks. As you move through the world you begin to understand what can be deformed and what can’t – I won’t explain this because building that understanding is part of the fun.

The reforming ability is a new addition from the demo at SXSW. On my first play experience, I purposefully died a few times to reset my platforms. At PAX East, Nyamakop released the new reforming feature — not sure if this is the exact name but it seems right. This allows you reform an area near Squish, resetting the play area and allowing you to try new strategies to solving the puzzle. By allowing a reforming of an area and not a single act, the ability adds both difficulty and clarity. By removing all changes, it gives you a clean slate to start experimenting again but it also means you have to take an other pass at a difficult manipulation or one that happened by chance it can be a “damn it” moment. That being said, this feature is an excellent addition and in a few areas starting again with an unchanged world was needed to step back and think through the puzzle.

Open Progression

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Unlike most games,  it was explained to me that the entire world is open to you from the start. Fall down one area in the start or jump over it, it’s your choice. You can jump out of a level and return. In fact, the moving through different pieces of the world (essentially knots in trees) is so seamless and untethered that you can move from one area to the next without needing to complete all objectives to try the next one. This feature is something that is needed for a game with physics puzzles that have a wide difficulty range and method of solving. Sometimes the best thing to do when stuck in a puzzle-platformer is to walk away from the game and come back later. With Semblance, you can just leave the level and attempt the next one, coming back when you’re ready and keeping you inside the simple but gorgeously styled adorable world.

Ladder Building

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Wall-jumping a mechanic in platformers is all about timing. Usually you will see it as two walls next to each other which you character must bounce between to shimmy to the top. In Semblance, wall-jumping is actually ladder building. In order to scale walls you must first manipulate the walls you need to move up. This includes moving pieces of the world out of the way in order to manipulate them, avoiding obstacles, and ultimately timing your jumps. Since it’s building, you either push the wall in or out from the center. Different puzzles call for a different method. Once the ladders are built you must time your jumps and side-to-side movements to move upward into the dents you’ve created. As you progress you have to both create and scale the ladder but also dodge moving obstacles that will require you to deform the wall further and making scaling it and building your next rung more difficult.

Puzzles with More than One Way to Solve

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One of the most exciting things about this game is that a puzzle doesn’t only have only one solution. You can take shortcuts, which can be a more dangerous route or you can take your time to carve out the perfect path to the objective. It is all up to you. Where someone may deform a wall left, my choice to deform the wall right might change my reaction to the other steps in the puzzle. With multiple malleable platforms and walls, you can try many different ways to move through the world and more than one can complete the task. This creative problem solving is something that not only kept me engaged but it also made watching my co-host and his wife play the game entertaining (pictured above). I wanted to tell them to do one thing but then they would solve the puzzle a different way.

The game itself is the right level of challenging and the creative aspect allows for a variety skill. If you aren’t able to solve it at first, the creative aspect allows you to try new ways of moving through the puzzle, keeping you engaged and not frustrated. I haven’t found a puzzle platformer that has kept me so engaged in a very long time — probably not since Limbo. It will be releasing on Nintendo Switch and PC this year. I plan to stream it, love it, and cherish all the time I play the adorable Squish. As a gamer, there are times where you want to change one thing about a game to make it better, but honestly this game has it all and I wouldn’t change a single feature.

For more information you can check out their website here. Also make sure to favorite them on the Steam store page to get updates and know when it goes live.

 

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Author: Kate Sanchez

As the in-resident scholar, most of my blogs will discuss heavier issues: representation, gender, race, etc. I believe that pop culture teaches us things and I look forward to letting you know what see when I watch movies, read comics, play games, and binge watch 26 episodes in one sitting. But don't worry some posts about my feels and I won't always talk about the heavy things (just a lot of the time).

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