Superliminal and I have some interesting history.
5 years ago there was a video of a perspective based game doing the rounds, one that many people regarded as being the next evolution in games after Portal. There were even rumours that the game which gave rise to the demo was actually playable however looking at the developer’s website no one could find a link to it anymore. So, like the good Internet citizen that I am, I started digging around and eventually uncovered the still active link that the developer had hidden. Not wanting to blow up their server (which is what I assumed the reason was for hiding it) I downloaded and rehosted it on this very blog, telling a few people on reddit about it so they could have a crack at it. Little did I know that, from that point on, I’d become the single source of the demo the world over.
Fast forward a couple years and, for reasons I can’t remember, I was looking for that link again and started Googling my own site to find it. Curiously though I started to find references to it everywhere, some even on YouTube videos that had racked up millions of views. Now I never really noticed anything on my end, my hosting is all done elsewhere and the bandwidth consumed was never that large. I did feel a little miffed though, figuring they could’ve at least given me a shoutout. I have however since learned that the devs said that they’d prefer people don’t play that one anymore, given how far their actual game, Superliminal, has come in the interim.
For what it’s worth guys, apologies if I’ve caused you anything untowards for rehosting it. Because honestly they’re right, Superliminal is far and away the better game.
As you fall asleep with the TV on at 3AM, you remember catching a glimpse of the commercial from Dr.Pierce’s Somnasculpt dream therapy program. By the time you open your eyes, you’re already dreaming – beginning the first stages of this experimental program. This is a world where perception is reality, where how you view things is just as important as how you interact with them. The puzzles put before you are meant to reframe how you perceive the world around you, forcing you to think of different perspectives that you might not otherwise consider until you were forced to confront them.
Visually Superliminal has a very standard Unity feel to it with many of the assets looking like they came from store packs. There’s nothing wrong with this, just that everything has this kind of bland feel to them with their unoffensive, basic construction. No doubt part of this is to try and combat some of the rather severe performance issues the game suffers from, most likely due to the intense calculations required for some of the game’s more unique mechanics. The level design is good however with the run of the mill assets turned into visual marvels through the incredibly inventive use of perspective, quite often getting a good chuckle out of me for how they’d managed to twist my own view of their world against me. I guess you could call it more of a cerebral experience than a visual one.
When the team from Pillow Castle Games first demonstrated the idea it was definitely an unique one; the idea that your perspective of objects influenced their size in the real world. Funnily enough this isn’t the first game I’ve played that has this mechanic, the other being the absolute horrorshow of a game that was Elementium. However the perspective mechanic isn’t just limited to objects that you interact with, it extends to numerous parts of the world, often parts that you wouldn’t expect. The devs have gone to great lengths to create visuals that on the surface look one way but are completely different when viewed up close or from a different perspective. For someone who’s played enough of these kinds of games it’s rare for me to be surprised by perspective tricks like this but Superliminal managed to do it often, even right up until its final moments.
The puzzles built around this mechanic are mostly simple endeavours, mostly focused on being in a single room with a few tools at your disposal to find your way out again. They’re made somewhat easier by the fact that objects you interact with, which therefore have some kind of special property associated with them, are very limited in any one space. There’s no puzzles that require you to bring in objects from previous areas or any other kind of non-linear puzzle mechanic that will spin you out. There are a couple where the mechanic isn’t well introduced and can lead to some horrendous confusion if you can’t figure out the logic path but nothing that’s more than a video or two away from realigning your internal logic compass back to the developer’s.
The game does have quite a few rough edges though, most of which I think are due to the novel nature of the mechanics which introduce all sorts of wacky edge cases that are going to be hard to come across in internal playtesting. The performance issues are something I didn’t expect, even on my now older rig, and I’m sure it’s to do with some objects getting their perspective calculated when the player isn’t interacting with them. Indeed the performance issue disappeared completely in sections where there were little or no objects to interact with. The game’s implementation of portals and other teleport mechanics is a little janky, freaking out in the weirdest circumstances and sometimes sending you right through the world. Strangely Superliminal also suffers from the same issue Elementium did, whereby some objects continue to scale themselves when they’re outside your vision. I don’t doubt that this is due in part to the object being flagged as “interactive” when you pick it up and that flag isn’t turned off until it stops moving. You can also completely ruin certain puzzles if you’re not careful, either making objects too small to interact with or just straight up putting them somewhere you will never be able to reach. Most of these problems are just a checkpoint restart away from being fixed but just be warned that there’s still a lot of rough edges to be found here.
MINOR PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The story spends an awful lot of time in the standard “subject trapped in a mad scientist’s experiment” trope that was made popular by Portal all those years ago. Indeed that’s one of the game’s most distracting features as you feel like you’re playing with a B-grade GLaDOS and the plot reveals itself in a rather predictable way. That changes right in the game’s final stages though when the main narrator begins to talk to you directly about why the experience was crafted that way. In a way it’s a subtle play on the game itself, setting you up with a perception that’s influenced by your biases and then flipping it on it’s head in order to give you a new perspective. Up until that point I was pretty much settled on Superliminal being a “good but not great” kind of game but it really won me over in those final moments.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Superliminal brings with it a new breed of game play that’s sure to have its share of imitators from here on out. The perspective mechanics are numerous, each of them playing on how we perceive things in order demonstrate how that can be twisted in fun and interesting ways. Even with it’s rather long development cycle though there’s still a lot of rough edges to be found, although I’m sure that over the coming months many of these issues will be stamped out. The story, in its summation, is a beautiful meta-commentary on itself and it’s final moments round out the game perfectly. I honestly can’t wait to see where Pillow Castle Games goes to from here.
Superliminal is available on the PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 2.5 hours.
There’s no denying that the original Monument Valley set the bar for what a mobile game could be. Its minimalistic visual style has since been replicated by dozens of other titles but none have come close to matching it in terms of overall experience. Indeed even when compared to games on dedicated platforms it still ranks up there as one of the best puzzle games I’ve played in recent history. Of course I was devastated last year when I saw Monument Valley 2 was released on iOS and not Android, leaving me wondering when it would be out. Out of luck I was browsing the app store and, happily, I discovered that the sequel had been released. What followed was perhaps the best 2 hours of my gaming life this year in one of the strongest sequels I’ve ever played.
Taking part in a different corner of the Monument Valley universe to the one Ida inhabits Monument Valley 2 puts you in charge of Ro, another keeper of the world’s geometry. However her story is not one of tragedy and reviving a world left barren, instead it is of Ro, her child and what it means to grow up in this strange world. The journey is one they start out on together but eventually, as it always is for members their race, is one where they must part ways. The infinite mothers of the past are there to help guide you but ultimately it is up to you to carve your path through the world’s geometry and care for the monuments.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that ustwo games had retained the same art style as the original but the differences between the two are night and day. Whilst the overarching style retains the same minimalistic aesthetic, with the signature elements of simple shapes and bright colours, there’s a much greater use of shading, lighting effects and more overall “modern” design elements. The developers have also been much more adventurous when it comes to experimenting with the visual style they created with a much greater variety between different puzzles. Backing all of this is the impressive soundtrack and foley work, all of which is tied directly into how you interact with the puzzles on screen. Usually I scoff at games that tell me to reach for the headphones but in the case of Monument Valley 2 you’d be doing yourself a real disservice if you didn’t. It is so, so rare to find a game that manages to execute all these elements together so well. Rarer still are sequels that manage to improve on a formula that they defined before (I can only think of Inside as another example). Once again ustwo has demonstrated their mastery in crafting experiences like this.
The same non-Euclidean puzzle mechanics return for the sequel, making up the bulk of the Monument Valley 2’s game play. Each level plays out in much the same way as well with the puzzle’s main mechanic being introduced early in a simple form before it’s exploited in more varied and complex ways. The experimentation in visual style extends directly into the puzzles as well as the designers have been free to integrate more wide and varied visual elements with which to play. There’s also the rather fun addition of letting you drawn your own spirograph thing at the end of each sequence, a simple thing but one that brought an immense amount of joy to me. I think the best way to describe it is that it is the original but improved in nearly every way, something few sequels manage to get right.
For players of the original or veterans of the non-Euclidean puzzle genre though there’s not likely going to be much challenge to find here. I remember the original having numerous head scratching moments, some requiring me to put the game down for a bit to mull over my approach. This time around there was none of that, each of the puzzles being solved pretty much directly without much fussing about. I’m in two minds about this as, on the one hand, the reward from completing a challenge is (to a point) tied directly into the effort required to solve it. On the other there’s something to be said about puzzles that are designed in such a way that the pace of the game, and by extension its narrative, are maintained (like in The Turing Test). That is perhaps the only true negative I can level at the game, if you could call it that.
I did have some slight issues with touch recognition again with some interactions not working exactly how I’d expect them to. Again this could be a hardware level thing and this being Android small things like this are somewhat expected. For reference I am using an original Google Pixel and I did give the screen a thorough cleaning after I identified the issue first time around. That certainly made it better but there were still times when touches didn’t seem to register properly. However these weren’t constant so my overall impression of the game wasn’t tarnished much. It certainly didn’t wipe away the huge smile I had on my face the whole time I was playing.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Monument Valley II is one of the greatest examples of the basic writing principle “show, don’t tell”. All the information you need to understand the story is shown to you on screen and some of the things are so subtle that when you notice them a whole narrative blossoms in your mind. For example when you send your child off she’s young, her footsteps moving in double time to yours in order for her to keep up. Your world then turns to grey and the soundscape changes to a set of cutting, piercing noises that show every moment is a burden without her in your life. After then however colour slowly begins to return to your world as you know she is on a journey of her own making. Then when she returns you see that she’s no longer a child anymore, she’s a woman, now ready to take the responsibility you’ll bestow on her. Few games manage to communicate such complex emotions through such a simple medium with so little dialogue. After playing through numerous games recently with such a derth of narrative playing something like this reminds me of why I love narrative-first games. To ustwo I’m thankful for being reminded of that as it’s far too easy to forget sometimes.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Monument Valley 2 is a true gem of a game, one that extends itself far beyond the confines of the original. The art style has been improved in ways that I could never think of, the unbridled creativity of the level designers shining through in each level. The mechanics remain largely the same and will likely pose little challenge to those who played the original. However examining each of these parts individually feels like I’m doing the game a disservice as the overall experience is so much greater than any one component. Really for a game this good and of such short length there’s little more to say than this: go play it, you won’t regret it.
Monument Valley 2 is available on Android and iOS right now for $7.99. Game was played on a Google Pixel with approximately 2 hours of total play time with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since games realised that they were no longer beholden to the Euclidean world we exist in the number of games based around messing with that idea has increased exponentially. The seminal title for this genre is, without a doubt, Portal which has then spawned a series of spiritual successors that have taken the idea of a non-Euclidean world to its logical extremes. They provide a special kind of challenge as they’re typically not the kind of puzzle game that you can simply bash your head against and get a solution to a problem, instead forcing you to think outside the realm of what would typically be possible. Parallax is the most recent entry into this genre, sporting an extremely minimalistic style and, as expected, mind bending puzzles.
There’s no story to speak of in Parallax, you’re simply unceremoniously dropped into a stark black and white world with a text box hover over a platform that says “Goal”. From there it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that place, usually through the use of the portals that bridge your current world to that of another where the only thing in common is the portals between them. I guess you could derive some meaning of the journey between two worlds that are inverses of each other, although even I’d struggle to find the imagery to support that one. Suffice to say you’re in a world that doesn’t function like you’d expect it to and you have to find your way to a portal at the end of a puzzle.
I’ve played my fair share of minimalist games in the past but Parallax really takes this to a whole new level. Everything is either one of two colours (which, if you so choose, can be something other than just black and white) lacking any kind of texture or lighting. I’m sure part of this is for aesthetic reasons, which in view isn’t misplaced at all, but it’s also definitely done from a game play perspective as the extremely similar environments do add another level of complexity in figuring out just where the hell you are. This is also what helps the game install down to a paltry 100MB, something I haven’t seen since the good old days of gaming when CDs were just starting to become popular.
As I mentioned in passing before Parallax is a non-Euclidean styled puzzler that has you making your way from point A to point B using all sorts of weird and whacky physics. There’s no combat or enemies to speak of but you’re never far from falling off the edge of the puzzle to your doom or potentially getting zapped by one of the laser traps. The puzzles start off relatively simple, only requiring you to understand which portal to go through and which way to point it, but it quickly raps up to add in relative gravity, timed switches and boosters that launch you great distances. It might not be as complicated as Antichamber but it does a pretty good job of emulating many of the things that made that game great.
The puzzles are for the most part challenging, often requiring you to experiment a little bit in order to figure out what the sequence of events is that is required to get you to your goal. Checking my achievements I managed to get just over half of the puzzles done in the “perfect” amount of moves, most of which I was able to do on either the first or second try. Don’t let that number fool you though, some of these puzzles took upwards of 15 or 20 minutes to solve, and some of them I simply lucked out on figuring out the developer’s logic before getting stuck in a downward spiral of doubt and black and white surfaces. The puzzles towards the end are truly mind boggling with the particular one below completely disorientating me numerous times over, forcing me to find a reference point to try and centre my brain again.
Probably my main complaint with Parallax is the amount of back-tracking that many of the puzzles put you through. Quite often you’ll find yourself all the way to the point where you’re flicking that one switch that you need to hit to open up the puzzle only to find yourself having to undo everything you just did in order to access that last door. Sure I get that that can be a challenge at times, especially given how easy it is to lose your bearing in this game, however when you’re doing it for the 5th time in a hour it really starts to grate on you and the pay off just doesn’t feel as good as it could be. Some of them are done well, like the one where the alternate world has numerous boosters all through it and you have to switch the laser gates around to access different sections, but the majority of them are just irritating.
The minimalism also starts to get boring after a certain point. Whilst many lamented the idea of Diablo 3 having such pretty and bright colours it’s hard to argue with the logic: we’re simply not wired to deal with the same kind of monotonous environment time and time again and so visual variety drives engagement. Parallax does a good job of this with the different environments however the stark black and white does make it a rather easy game to put down, as I found myself doing multiple times. Perhaps changing it up every so often ala Lyne could help to alleviate this.
For those who’ve been seeking a game that bends the rules of physics as well as it bends your brain it’s hard to go past Parallax, a great first entry from Toasty Games. It’s scope might not be as large as the big name titles that have come before it however Parallax manages to an incredible amount with the minimalistic stylings it branded itself with. The puzzles could do with some work however, forcing you to retrace your steps all too often adding tedium where there needn’t be any. The style also gets boring after the 3rd hour or so and, whilst you can change up the colours a bit, it doesn’t go far in alleviating the visual boredom. Suffice to say though I think it’s worth a play, even with those few caveats hanging over its head.
Parallax is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 3.9 hours with 69% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve become a really big fan of titles that challenge our expectations and perceptions of what constitutes a game. Usually this comes down to mechanics, like how Half Life 2 introduced physics based puzzles (something that was essentially impossible previously) but there have been many titles that have up ended the traditional idea of how games should operate. Quite often this leads to novel experiences that you just won’t find in other games, although there have been some notable exceptions. Antichamber is one such game that takes your preconceived notions of traditional game mechanics and continuously breaks them down in order to build them back up and does so in an incredibly intriguing way.
Antichamber throws you into a dark room with 3 walls that look like chalkboards and one that’s a window, with the apparent exit sitting behind it, tantalizingly out of reach. You’ll then turn your eyes to what looks like the beginnings of a map whereby a single click will transport you into a room. Things seem somewhat normal at first but it doesn’t take long before you’re seemingly trapped in a world that’s constantly changing the rules on you, forcing you to break all the conceptions you have about how things should behave and reforming them to fit into this strange new world.
The world of Antichamber is one of stark contrasts with the primary colour being white which is then offset by heavily saturated colours, all blended together in cel-shading to give everything this slightly surreal cartoonish feel to it. The visual style reminds me of The Unfinished Swan which similarly used white as the primary colour and it works just as well when its transported from that whimsical world to the cold, unforgiving world that is Antichamber. This combined with the decidedly organic sounds that proliferate the environment make for an unique experience that’s hard to put into words accurately but it certainly does work well.
Now this is the point in the review when I go over the core game mechanics which, for most games, typically consists of a few well known ideas with an unique twist. Whilst there are some familiar mechanics in Antichamber they are really only a distraction when compared to the variety of ways in which the game world behaves differently to that of any other game. Looking at a wall from one side could should you one thing while looking at it from another could show you something entirely different. You could walk down the same path dozens of times, seemingly going around in circles, only to find that if you turn around the correct path suddenly appears before you. Just when you think you’ve figured them all though you’ll likely be surprised by yet another strange twist on how this reality operates, forcing you to rethink not only the current puzzle but all of the ones that you encountered previously.
The non-euclidean geometry is only the beginning as well. Part way through you’ll be given a gun, for want of a better term, that’s capable of removing, storing and then placing blocks ala Minecraft style. Initially the use of blocks is relatively limited, usually used in order to trigger switches, hold doors open or as ledge for you to jump on. However as you go through the various levels you’ll be able to find upgrades to it that will allow you to draw blocks in a line, required for some puzzles where you can’t place blocks directly, and another which allows you to tell blocks to move to a certain point. The mechanics sound simple on their own but their use is really anything but leading to a whole bunch of highly frustrating yet satisfying puzzles.
The use of all these tools as well as the non-euclidean nature of most the puzzles is actually fairly intuitive for the most part which most puzzles having a pretty obvious solution should you be familiar with this particular style of game. This is primarily due to the not-so-secret hints that are contained within every little pictograph that’s lying around before/after each puzzle which gives you a bit of indication of how to go about solving it. Without any tutorial to speak of however there are some mechanics that aren’t really explained at all which can lead to you getting stuck with no way of progressing until you haphazardly figure it out or look it up online.
The prime example of this for me was the ability to generate an unlimited number of blocks if you drew a hollow square on a wall. Upon completing said square it will fill itself in, generating a large number of blocks for you to use which can then be used to generate even more, ad infinitum. The “Too Many Lasers” puzzle is a prime example of a puzzle that you will simply not be able to solve unless you’re aware of this mechanic and a quick Googling around reveals that most people discovered this mechanic by mistake, not by intuition from the game. It’s probably the biggest criticism that I’ll level at Antichamber as whilst I can understand the idea of making discovery part of the game you at least need to include a decent way of discovering the core mechanics, especially when its as vital as the one I mentioned.
There’s also an incredible amount of emergent game play possible once you’ve got the fully upgraded manipulator gun and a decent supply of blocks stored up. Whilst I’m sure this has been taken into consideration during Antichamber’s design there were a couple puzzles which I put in the too hard basket early on only to come back later and breeze through thanks to my stash of blocks. Not all of them can be done like this due to the use of the block destroying gates but there are quite a few that you can break severely should you manage to bring your blocks along.
For a game with potential for so many game breaking bugs I’m happy to report that my experience with Antichamber was mostly trouble free with the exception of trying to get it to run at the start. There’s a rather unfortunate bug in earlier versions of the PhysX engine which conflicts with the UDK which causes Antichamber to die before you can even get into it. Thankfully checking the discussion forums on Steam led to me finding the required update and the game ran smoothly after then. This solution isn’t working for everyone at the moment so your mileage may vary.
Antichamber is a truly mesmerizing and challenging game, filled with puzzles that will break down your preconceptions, rebuild them and then unceremoniously break them again just to keep it interesting. So many of the puzzles were incredibly cheeky in their implementation, teasing you openly for thinking that something should have worked which simply didn’t. It was one of those times where getting a puzzle wrong was actually one of the most enjoyable aspects as I know the coding behind this must have been an incredible challenge developer, something I really appreciate. Antichamber is right up there with titles like Portal for its innovative game play and definitely makes my list of must play games for 2013.
Antichamber is available on PC right now $19.99. Total game time was 4 hours.