Semispheres Review- Getting Two Sides in Sync

Posted February 13, 2017 by Thomas James Juretus in Video Games

Developer: Vivid Helix

Publisher: Vivid Helix

Release Date: February 14, 2017

Available on: PC, PS4 (reviewed), coming to Xbox One in Q2 2017

Ever since Tetris puzzle games have had their place in the videogame realm. At their best they provoke thought (like The Witness) or provide an undeniable charm (like Hohokum). And it can be tricky to come up with something new that fans of the genre haven’t really seen before. Developer Vivid Helix attempts to do just that, with what it calls a “meditative puzzler” in its new title called Semispheres.

Semispheres has players controlling two jellyfish in a split screen puzzle maze. Each jellyfish needs to be guided, via the left or right analog stick, to a portal. But it’s not just as simple as negotiating a maze, for in the path of each jellyfish lies a sentry light. Get caught by the light, and your jellyfish is zapped back to the beginning. Aside from evasion, the game introduces multiple tricks to aid you in getting your jellyfish to their respective goals. Noisemakers are employed to send the sentry lights off to investigate while you stealthily make your way around them. Later on, portals are introduced, so one jellyfish can aid the other with distraction. Other tricks like teleporting and creating fast travel points also come into play in the later stages. Each stage builds on what has gone before, with some puzzles employing multiple tricks to help you reach your goal.

The problem comes in when trying to operate both jellyfish simultaneously. There are times you need to get both sides in sync, and any slip can send one or both jellyfish back to the beginning, necessitating you to start all over again. Having steady hands and the ability to keep one eye focused on one side while your other eye is focused on the other is the key to successfully solving the puzzles. As this is supposed to be a “meditative puzzler”, meaning it’s meant to be more of a relaxing endeavor rather than a real head scratcher, a majority of the puzzle solutions are not that difficult to arrive at. Some later puzzles can be a bit more obtuse, though through trial and error a solution will be arrived at eventually. Unfortunately, the jellyfish are not very fast, and you’ll need a good head start over the sentry lights to get away.

This fact adds to the frustration, especially in the later levels. Even with the sentries not being overly persistent in hunting you (they follow a set pattern) they are very quick to strike. One later stage requires you to simultaneously distract the sentries through portals, move the jellyfish to a teleport, swap sides, get to a safe zone, and swap them back so they can enter their respective portals. It demands a precision that can be tough to arrive at, resulting in multiple failures before you finally succeed. Those with steady hands and sharp eyes can blow through Semispheres in two to three hours. Those with less steady hands may take a bit longer. For myself there were multiple times I got frustrated enough that I just had to take a break from the game. Breaks always helped, as on returning I would immediately hit on the solution and proceed to the next puzzle. But for me, it never felt satisfying. I never really had the “Aha!” moment like I did with a game like The Witness. Instead, it was more of a relief to get it behind me so I could move on. The game has 50+ levels, and towards the end I just kept wishing each next puzzle would be “Game Over”. It almost felt as if it wouldn’t end, and while that can be a positive for some games, it works to this game’s detriment.

Pulling you along through the game’s puzzles is a story. After completing a certain amount of puzzles (it seemed random- one time it was five, than it was four, then it was three) you’ll get a three panel, hand sketched comic strip. The strips tell the tale of a boy and his robot, which starts off pleasant enough and naturally peril arises later on. The strips are static, and while the story is serviceable, it never felt compelling or even endearing. It followed predictable beats and never offered any real surprises. It was a neat idea to have a story unfold in tandem with the puzzles. It just would have been nicer had it been more interesting.

Visually, the game does have it’s own unique bichromatic art style. One side of the screen is orange, while the other is blue. The colorization is done in an appealing and soothing style, not too dull so that it’s boring or too bright as to appear gaudy. Portals are color coded to match the jellyfish that use them. The main screen where the story unfolds has hints of green in it, and the strips are white line drawings over a brown background, instead of just being black and white. To go along with the visuals is the soothing soundtrack composed by Sid Barnhoorn (Antichamber, The Stanley Parable, Out There). The music is pleasant enough, and meant to help you relax as you solve the puzzles, but it never varies a whole lot to be interesting. It does aid in keeping a consistent tone throughout, and it matches the art style of the game. So in that respect it works as an advantage.

In all, Semispheres tries to set itself apart from other games in its genre, and to a point it does succeed. The puzzle solutions vary enough so you never get truly bored, even though be the end some may just be wanting the credits to roll. The story about a boy and his robot is decent enough, and it is nice that it unfolds in tandem with completing the puzzles. Had it been a bit more compelling and charming, it would have done much to elevate this game. As it is, puzzle fans may find it to be a nice little distraction, but nothing more. Those looking for something a bit more cerebral would be better off with games like The Witness, and those looking for something that relaxes but also exudes charm may be better off looking elsewhere. The controls feeling clumsy in spots where they need to be sharp and precise takes away from the mood the game’s designers desired to create. After all, frustration does not enhance your calm. But to be sure, some are bound to enjoy this different take on the puzzle genre. Perhaps the next effort from Vivid Helix will build upon this, and truly deliver that meditative experience they aimed for here. For that, Semispheres does fall short of the mark, and as such, I can only really recommend it to die hard puzzle game fans. Others may want to wait to try it out. It was a good idea to try and get two sides in sync. But when one side is frustrated, it just doesn’t work out too well.

About the Author

Thomas James Juretus