Nintendo Switch boasts an abundance of 2D platformers in 2018, so it falls to developers to approach the genre with a neat hook or unique mechanic, lest their hard work be lost amid the console’s crowded eShop. Semblance tries to do just that, hanging its hopes and dreams on the power to shape and deform the platforms you’ll be leaping to and from.
You play a blob called Squish whose home becomes poisoned with a sickly green sickness. Handily, said world also happens to be soft and pliable, meaning the ingenious blobs among you can bend the environment to your will. Since you don’t have any weapons or means of offence, bar the ability to dash (press ‘Y’ or ‘RZ’ while moving in a given direction), much of your agency in Semblance’s minimalist setting will hinge on how creative you can get with the immediate terrain.
The first hour or so of the game eases you in gently, gradually drip-feeding you the myriad ways in which your terraforming powers work. You can jump with ‘B’, then smash down into the ground to make a dip (which can help you avoid incoming attacks) or smash up to change the height of a platform (thus enabling you to jump up and reach a previously inaccessible area). You can also instantly reform each bit of edited terrain by pressing ‘A’, as long as you’re close enough to affect it.
It doesn’t take long for developer Nyamkop’s clever approach to platforming and puzzling to yield some devilishly challenging brain teasers. Now you have to consider warping certain platforms to facilitate your movement across a trap filled area (you soon learn everything green is bad and touching even small spikes results in instant death). Thinking ahead two or three moves becomes a common template for Semblance’s environmental puzzles, and while that well does start to run a little dry as you push into the second half of the game, you’ll rarely feel bored or unengaged as you suddenly realise how to manipulate the environment to reach the other side of the room safely.
Deaths may be instant, but they’re far from punishing, with respawns dropping you right back at the start of the screen you’re currently on. The game also retains the changes you’ve made to the terrain every time you perish, so you don’t have to redo them every time you die. It’s a small touch, but a welcome one that doesn’t penalise you for using a trial and error method.
Controlling your blobby friend is, as you might expect, simple and fun to manoeuvre, although it does take a little while to adjust to its floatiness and the way you stick to the ground. Since you can dash so fast, this small little attribute enables you to avoid flying off a ledge too soon or plunging into a pit full of painful green shards.
There’s also a Metroidvania aspect to each area, enabling you to explore each of Semblance’s myriad levels in whichever order you see fit. With the basic premise to collect a set of pink orbs (which enable you to rid a series of trees of the green menace that’s poisoning them), there’s plenty of room to collect a handful from each area before progressing to the next, or simply max out each one as you go.
The game’s minimalist art style doesn’t make for the most captivating of settings, falling somewhere between Loco Roco and Hohokum, but its mixture of cute (or bizarre, depending on your outlook) creatures and dark and twisted backdrops certainly helps it stand out among Switch’s big platforming library. It’s a visual style that benefits from working on a smaller screen, although there’s no drop in performance or fidelity should you choose to play in docked mode.
Semblance offers an intriguingly fresh take on the age-old 2D platformer. Its story may be all visual and very much open to interpretation, but what it lacks in narrative density it more than makes up for with a generous helping of levels to explore where the platforming itself is a vital part of the puzzle to be solved. While it's lacking in long-term replay value, it’s a definitely worth your time if you’re looking for a new 2D challenge.