There’s something delightfully fresh about indie puzzler Semispheres. It grabs some of the more obvious puzzle types found in videogamedom, and twists them into new and inventive ways. It’s a puzzler that’s as subtly-smart as it is blissfully chilled-out.
Semispheres is a co-op, single player, split-screen puzzler, with each analog stick controlling the almost-gelatinous sphere on the corresponding side of the screen as they head for the same end goal. Each side of the screen is its own reality, that’s laid out exactly the same, but feature their own obstacles to overcome. That’s intriguing enough a concept, but there’s a little more to it than that. Semispheres has an in-built story (told in three-panel comics at the end of sections), and also stealth.
At the start, the spheres deal entirely with the obstacles found on their half of the screen, from initially skirting round the sight cones of the oval sentries that form the game’s only adversaries, soon progressing to deploying one-time use noise emitters to distract the oval sentries so you can get your sphere to nip behind them and off to the exit.
Before too long, you begin to see how the two sides of the screen will be working together. One-time use portals become available, when the portal is deployed on one side of the screen, it opens up a small hole into the dimension adjacent to it. Now, the side that set the portal can affect the path of the sentries on the other via distractions that the other side doesn’t have. This too begins fairly simple, but evolves and unfurls into increasingly more complex, multi-part versions of that idea. Semispheres really does gradually impress you with the confident strides it takes in laying out its concepts and making them flesh.
A side effect of the increasing complexity is that your biggest foe becomes your brain, mainly in getting it on board with controlling two things at once. Remembering which stick you’re supposed to be moving can cause hesitancy when you need a quick reaction. Happily it tends to feel quite fair in terms of challenge, rather than a mechanical misstep. The problem is more in a gam stepping outside regular control constraints. The way the game eases you into its complexities is exactly the way a puzzler should, though make no mistake, Semispheres will stump you eventually, if only temporarily, but never in a needlessly frustrating manner. Die-hard puzzle fans will probably have little trouble finishing the 50 stages, but for a more general audience, it’s the perfect level of challenge.
It really lives up to its ‘meditative’ tag by remaining particularly serene even in the face of increasing challenge, and beyond the mechanical side of Semispheres, the audiovisual package is the standout reason for the surprisingly zen atmosphere.
The warm, glowing hues of orange and blue that make up Semisphere’s dual-realities have a calming influence, slowly pulsing in hypnotic fashion. The movement of your spheres and the oval antagonists are smooth as you like, all minimalist in action. It’s simple, clean, and nice to look at without chucking any huge bells and whistles on top, but it doesn’t need to.
The soundtrack is a beautifully serene, ambient, aural delight. It’s very in keeping with the overall meditative theme of Semispheres, and like all the best soundtracks, it’s just as effective outside the source material in conveying the sense of relaxation and calm. As events onscreen begin to get more complicated, the soundtrack helps to keep the player from bubbling up with frustration.
The only real fault you could lay at developer Vivid Helix’s door is perhaps a lack of replayability after the 50 stages are done with, yet the package is such a clever, original one, that it’s more about the experience of it than meeting hollow extra objectives for the sake of padding out perceived value. That may not be enough for some, sure, but I feel confident that there’s more than enough value to Semispheres as a whole.
I’m pleasantly surprised by Semispheres. It had my attention early on, but the deeper I got, the more impressive it became. The blend of familiar puzzle concepts with clever, and inventive mechanics is superbly handled, and the way in which the game introduces anything new is forgiving and informative without being insultingly patronising. In short, Semispheres is a superb puzzler.