There’s a genre of games that has always existed but has never really been properly defined. It contains games that aren’t quite point and clicks, but clearly draw from them. Some people call them walking simulators, but I feel like that’s too broad a term for the type of games I’m specifically talking about. The Stanley Parable is defined as a first person exploration game on Steam, while also being called interactive fiction on Wikipedia. I think somewhere in the middle of these two descriptions is where I would put Asemblance. This recently released experience, for lack of a better word, by Nilo Studios is the first of this company but not the first of its kind.
The official Asemblance website describes the game as “the pilot episode of a mind-bending franchise inspired by The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and the Black Mirror television series.” To me that is the perfect description because that’s exactly what this game is i.e. a pilot. It’s not by any means a full game but rather a very well made demo of what could be a very well written, very scary gameplay experience. So while I will review it as I would any other game, know that my final conclusion is that what you get when purchasing this title is just a portion of what I would want from a studio for a $10 price tag.
Visually speaking, this game is beautiful . . . on the surface. And by beautiful I actually mean “oh my gosh this is what a game is supposed to look like” beautiful. The game is split into five areas. The second of the five areas is in a forest and at first glance it’s amazing. I was in awe of what I was seeing the first time I entered that area. Wind flowing through the grass. Leaves bristling in trees above me. Butterflies floating past my face. It was probably the first time I really felt like the PS4 was actually a step up from the PS3. But after that initial moment of paradise, I started to actually look around. The playable areas all look very good, but they definitely have their flaws. The butterflies look great from afar, but up close they are too mechanical. The background of this forest is just a single static, blurry image of average at best resolution. All the areas are similar in that at first glance they are very impressive, but once you take the time to examine them, which is literally the point of the game, you will quickly cease to be amazed. The other areas include an office, an apartment, a simulation lab, and outer space. The space area looks the worst of all because it had just a fraction of the work put into it that the other areas did. The game runs very smoothly but whenever it auto-saves you get a noticeable few seconds of lag that makes the screen skip a beat. My biggest issue was the lighting. Or more specifically the flashlight. You can find a flashlight, which is extremely helpful at times, but it doesn’t work the way a flashlight actually works. There are places in the dark that won’t illuminate even when you shine the flashlight on them. That really irritated me, but those areas don’t actually matter to the game’s overall plot and objectives.
Even though it’s just on the surface, the graphics are still quite good. But the even bigger issue is that there’s no way to know if the graphics underneath are intentionally bad or not. The game is full of minute details such as buttons, labels, book titles, and letters so you know they didn’t just softball the graphics in. But at the same time there needs to be some reason for the average at best underlying graphics. The purpose of this game is to experience past memories, which may be false, in order to find some underlying truth. Part of the game is trying to understand what’s actually real. It is quite possible that just like in movies and TV shows that deal with false world plots, Nilo Studios purposefully did the underlying stuff badly as a part of the plot. They want you to discover that it’s not real and that a computer simulation will have glitches and only focus on making the big picture look good in hopes that you won’t notice the finer things, because really the game wants you to notice those finer things and that there’s something not right about them. I can’t for sure prove that my theory is correct, but considering how great a lot of the stuff in this game looks, I’m willing to at least consider that the graphics in this game were intentional and not just the repercussions of limited time and budget. Visually I was very happy with Asemblance.
The gameplay is quite simple. All you can really do is walk around, look around, interact with key objects, walk a little faster by holding L1, end memory sequences, and zoom in on things. The game is not very active. The way you do things is mostly by noticing and focusing on certain objects. Your goal is to find “the truth”. The way you do this is by revisiting the same three simulated memories over and over until you do the right set of interactions with the right objects in the right order. Sometimes these interactions will teach you something such as when you play a tape recording. Other times they will move the time of the memory in a specific area. Time is actually a very important underlying factor in this game. Certain interactions can even warp you into other memories. Mostly you just walk around and zoom in on things and choose which memory to enter. Once you get the flashlight it will always be with you and automatically turn on in dark places. It’s not the gameplay that’s impressive as much as it’s how such simple gameplay is used to create a very interesting and creepy experience. Playing this game is scary. Yet it shouldn’t be. There are many dark areas, but the game doesn’t make use of jump scares or supernatural elements. You’re never really gonna get surprised other than in a few key occurrences which aren’t meant to scare you as much as they are meant to focus your attention and illuminate an idea to you. While I was playing the game I kept waiting for things to happen that never did that would have actually made this a horror game because that’s how it comes off. But really it’s just like The Stanley Parable. You get creepy settings mixed with normal settings that are just creepy because they’re empty but nothing scary really ever happens outside of a few sound effects and a faceless voice telling you what to do.
The gameplay may be simple, but it works very well for what Asemblance is meant to be. Other than the flashlight not properly lighting things, I was actually pretty happy with the gameplay overall. This changed once I hit the “late game” though. I was very fascinated by the gameplay at the start and for the first probably three-quarters of the game depending on how you want to split it up. The looking around and exploring to slowly unravel a mystery and hopefully find an exit was very enjoyable and important to me. I wanted to find the truth. It was the same sort of feelings I got playing Portal and other such simple first person games. But like with most modern games, this game devolves into achievement hunting far too quickly. There are only nine trophies and because of how short this game is, you will get the first seven in two hours or less depending on your puzzle solving skills. The eighth one takes a little more work, but it’s not too hard to solve. It’s just figuring out the right order and beating the clock. That’s where the experience falls apart. The last two trophies are time based and you will retry over and over again to get those last two trophies. It changes from trying to find the truth to fighting for an achievement. The achievement does enhance the plot so it’s still important, but the way you get there does not go well with the rest of the game. The ninth trophy is the worst of all. It requires down to the seconds maneuvers that weren’t actually possible to figure out without researching information outside of the game. The game’s Steam community had to work together for about two straight weeks to finally figure out how to do it. And doing it isn’t easy. Even after seeing it done on YouTube, I still haven’t been able to accomplish it. Totally ruined the experience for me. If they do go on to make an entire series, there are much more effective ways to make a game like this challenging without changing the overall style of how you’re supposed to approach the game.
The sound is what it should be. The site lists the soundtrack as being done by a local (Seattle, Washington) artist named Kid Smpl. Simple is right because there’s maybe three music tracks in the whole game and none of them are that in depth. It’s mostly light ambience with the exception of the credits music. What is good about the music is that it’s used in the right places to make the experience scarier. In a dark hallway you get a few eerie notes here and there. Throughout the game you get similarly appropriate tidbits of music but not an actual soundtrack. The effects are similarly sparse outside of dialog. You are constantly talked to by a formless AI whose voice changes to a more sinister tone at times. There are other voices you interact with such as what is presumed to be the protagonist’s wife and even himself at times. You hear voice recordings of unidentified people who appear to be coworkers. All the sound used in the game helps to build the experience towards an apex moment which if not for the trophies you may never know you’ve finally hit because of the nature of the gameplay. So by that logic I’d say the sound is quite good. The quality of said sound is not bad, but it does intentionally cut out or gets filled with white noise at times. But again, this all adds to the experience of the game in what I believe is an intentional way.
The writing is the main reason I played through the game past the first ending. There are multiple endings, each harder to reach than the last, but they aren’t actually endings in the traditional sense of the word. It’s not like playing The Wolf Among Us or Infamous where you can actually get completely different endings based on the choices you make. Rather the choices you make can be redone and changed an unlimited number of times in the same playthrough in order to achieve different results that add to the overall ending of the game. When you get an “ending” the game goes back to the main menu but it gives you the option to continue. This is because until you’ve reached the white effect ending (the final trophy) you haven’t actually reached the end of the game. The game just gives you the option of pretending you’ve made it. That’s expressed within the game as well. Each of the endings you reach before the final one feature a narrator that basically tells you that you’ve reached a truth but not necessarily the truth. The overall point of the game is that you are a scientist or quite possibly a test subject that is using some form of memory simulation machine to try and come to grips with some past tragedy. Without actually getting the final ending it’s very easy to figure out what the tragedy is/was. I’m pretty sure not a single player was surprised at what happened by the end of the game. But the purpose of the plot is to assemble the story through looking at these three different memories and using clues to piece the truth together. There are lots of different ways the plot is developed within the game. There are notes and letters scattered throughout the game that you can read by zooming in on them. There are voice messages and tape recordings. The wife shows up in multiple places and says things. It’s essentially a recreation of film experiences like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Source Code (2011) in numerous ways. I was really happy with the way Asemblance was written. It is way too short to be worth the money, but I would certainly play a longer game in the same or similar style.
Depending on how you categorize the ending of this game, there isn’t really any replay value. The game isn’t truly over till you’ve achieved the aforementioned “white shift ending” and once you do there is really nothing more to do. If you know what you’re doing and can get the timing all right, this game from start to finish can be 100% completed in under three hours. I would never play this game a second time because there’s really nothing to add to the experience. No plot unseen, assuming of course there are no non-trophy endings I don’t know about, no different way to achieve things, and certainly no leaderboards to beat. Unless you personally are tracking your completion time and want to go for speed runs, this is a pure one and done scenario. Because of its lack of replay value and how short it is, I think $10 is way too high a price for Asemblance. You will get way more gaming out of a single episode of any Telltale Games series and those episodes only run about $5 a piece without sales at release. Hopefully the next episode of this series, which I would definitely like to play, is a full-fledged game with a much longer runtime for the same price or less. Then it would be something I could endorse. I definitely think this game is worth playing. I just don’t think you should pick it up until it’s on sale.
Asemblance is a special experience. It has the serious overtones of something dramatic but plays like something simple. It’s thought provoking but not a huge commitment. The last two trophies aside, I really enjoyed it and I highly recommend at least watching a playthrough of it on YouTube if you don’t want to wait for a sale or pay $10. This was an excellent first release for Nilo Studios and I look forward to seeing more things from them.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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