As enjoyable as they may be, puzzle games are often a regurgitation of once novel ideas. Tile matching games are without doubt the most famous sub-genre, and are proven to pull in huge profits, but fail in bringing anything new to the genre. Titles like Portal, Braid and Fez show more of a conscious effort to think laterally, but it goes without saying that this is easier said than done. What’s obvious about these examples though, is that they present innovative concepts, apply unique game mechanics, and, naturally, provide challenging and thought-provoking puzzles. In Semispheres, Vivid Helix has developed a game with the same qualities, making it one that future titles are bound to take inspiration from.
Semispheres is a top-down, split-screen puzzle game. Divided from top to bottom, each side contains a character that resembles a jellyfish: red on the left and blue on the right. The task is to manoeuvre them to the safety of their end goal, using the corresponding analog stick to control them.
Blocking their way are guards who, when they catch sight of you, send you back to your original position. To avoid this, the characters can pick up one ability at a time, including signalling to distract the guards, opening portals into the opposite dimension, or swapping the characters over into the different sides completely. Once a chapter has been completed, which generally consists of 4 or 5 levels, players are told a story of a boy and his robot styled as a storyboard.
The split-screen mechanic is what makes Semispheres such an interesting game. At first players aren’t required to use both sides at the same time, and instead one character can sit patiently whilst the other makes it to its end goal. Eventually players have to use the abilities from one side to help the other by using the portals and dimension-swapping abilities. The real test begins though when both sides need to work in tandem; the game requires both analog sticks to be used at the same time, often in different directions. I relate it most to trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time, just much more complicated. This test of how well your two thumbs can work together, with one side of your brain trying to do the opposite of the other, is a nasty formula for frustratingly ingenious puzzles.
In order to solve the puzzles, players need a combination of critical analysis, stealth and timing. With the start of each chapter a new technique is introduced, each more complicated than the previous. Initially the distraction signal can be used for a character to distract and then stealthily avoid the guard on their side. As soon as portals are introduced, players can distract guards on the opposite side for the other character to make a break, making timing essential. Towards the latter stages all abilities have to be used, meaning only those who have mastered the arts of stealth, timing and using your thumbs in tandem will succeed. The difficulty of puzzles are perfectly paced though, so whilst they are all challenging, rarely did I feel overwhelmed by them.
It sounds like at times the game can get frustratingly difficult, but it’s not the case. There’s an ambiance to it, a meditative vibe which relaxes rather than frustrates. The soundtrack is soothing, and the levels are styled like mazes from alternate dimensions, with soft, wavy edges and constellation patterns in the background. There’s no denying the challenge many levels of the game pose, and I often had the feeling that my brain was slowly melting right before my eyes (no pun intended). It’s difficult enough explaining the mechanics to you, let alone playing with them. Yet Semispheres feels different to other puzzle games, as if it’s okay if you can’t solve its levels first time around. Just sit, relax, and you’ll work it out eventually.
One aspect of the game which I didn’t see the relevance of was the ‘story’. Billed as a ‘heart-warming’ tale about a boy and his robot, it all seemed like extra padding to a game which didn’t really need it. As an indie puzzle game I wouldn’t have expected a storyline, especially one that seemingly has no relevance to the actual puzzles. This being said, I didn’t think any less of the game because of the story’s inclusion; after all it’s only a few brief pictures that can quickly be moved on from. I was just confused as to why it was there in the first place.
If you strip it down to its bare bones, Semispheres is a basic concept: the level designs are simple, there are only two characters to play as, only one type of enemy and just a handful of power ups to use. Yet what makes it so brilliant is that it takes this simplicity and turns it into something seemingly complicated. It gets the fundamentals of puzzle making right first, and the rest follows. Isn’t that what all great puzzle games do?
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