Semispheres is the sort of game that in recent years would have likely skipped Nintendo consoles, instead finding its home elsewhere; platforms where quirky indie games, bursting with unique ideas and an overly “artsy” feel, would thrive. As it so happens, the game was originally released on PlayStation and Steam (PC), but this time around has also now made its way to the Switch, offering a rather charming little puzzle-based quest for owners of the system.
The game starts by just simply ‘being’ – no directions, clues, or any advice at all is given as to what you should be doing – leaving you to work things out for yourself. You’ll find yourself in control of two characters controlled by one control stick each. These characters reside on one side of the screen each, almost as if you are playing a ‘split-screen’ game by yourself. The aim is to make both of these characters reach a goal on their side of the screen; when both characters are in place the level will end, allowing you to move on to the next. It’s not that simple, however! Most levels contain spotlights which will throw you back to the start should you be spotted, resulting in both a need for co-operation between your two characters, and clever use of items that are lying around the stage.
There are various items on offer: ones that can be used to attract a light to your call (allowing new routes to become available), ones that can throw a spotlight from its current side of the screen to a symmetrical position on the other, and keyhole shaped items that can alter the path of a ‘zip line’ of sorts. You see, thanks to this zip line, along with things such as portals and other specific items, your characters can either travel to the other screen to alter things for the other’s path, or affect the spotlights from within the safety of their own side. It likely sounds complex – and in some ways it is – but the interaction between both characters starts to become second nature and you’ll find yourself able to think ahead about how one’s moves might affect the other.
When you complete a level you are taken to a different screen which looks almost like a star constellation. Each ‘star’ in the constellation becomes complete when four or five levels are successfully beaten. When you have beaten all of the levels for a particular star, its centre will open, allowing you to view a set of sketches which depict a story. Until the first of these becomes available you’ll be completely unaware that any story is taking place whatsoever, but suddenly you’ll want to know what exactly is happening with this boy who seems to have been gifted a robot friend. The process of unlocking each set of sketches is a good thing for many reasons – mostly to break up the levels and give you smaller targets to aim for. Unfortunately, though, the story isn’t actually that clear in terms of what exactly is going on; unless this writer just had a particularly strong mental block whilst playing, the plot becomes hard to follow and keeping track of who is who isn’t easy.
The overall appearance of both this constellation map and the levels themselves, however, is absolutely gorgeous and full of wonder. It is instantly apparent that the developers were aiming for a stand-out, artistic aesthetic; it doesn’t look like your typical video game. The soundtrack also fits the image beautifully; waves of ambient tones will caress your ears as you play, giving the game a rather beautiful, ethereal feel.
Semispheres isn’t the longest of games, it has to be said – it took us around two and half hours to make our way through the game’s 13 level clusters. Of course, this time will be slightly different from player to player; some levels only took us a few seconds to figure out whilst others had us stumped for ten minutes or more, and each player could perform very differently with each puzzle. The levels are more simple at first but eventually start to get tougher, introducing new ideas regularly and at a very good pace. Usually you’ll find that the last level of each cluster is the toughest and brings together a lot of the ideas you’ve just learnt throughout its predecessors.
Thanks to the nature of the Joy-Con controllers, the Switch version does have a feature that arguably makes it stand out as the best version of the game. Although initially designed as a solo experience, by handing one Joy-Con to a friend you can of course tackle the game in a homemade, co-op style. Naturally this takes away the challenge of using two control sticks at once, instead using two minds at once and therefore generally making things easier. The choice is yours, though, and having multiple options to play is always welcome.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of things that let the game down slightly. Firstly, despite the new ideas being introduced nicely, there is a slight sense of repetition that will start to sink in and make you want to have a break. It’s only minor, as the game’s short length and the intermittent story points do help, but it is worth noting. Secondly, thanks to a rather annoying decision in design, when you complete the last level and gain access to the last sketch of the story you unknowingly only have that one chance to look at it. As soon as you move away the game resets to the very beginning, meaning that you can’t have one final look over each of the sketches together. It seems odd to have a story that is laid out and accessible from start to finish, but then take it away the moment you can actually appreciate it in full.
Overall then, Semispheres is a wonderful puzzle game with some incredibly clever level designs that will leave you stumped at times, a tricky but enjoyable twin-stick system, and a beautifully designed world with pleasing visuals and sound. A couple of things let the experience down slightly and the whole thing can be completed in under three hours, so it isn’t a bargain for the asking price, but you’ll definitely find enjoyment in getting to grips with the puzzles and character movement. A great buy for puzzle fans and a potential pleaser for everyone else too, Semispheres is certainly one to consider.