We all seek and strive for balance and harmony in the world. We, as a species, work every day to try and create a situation in which we are at peace and happy with our surroundings, and even those who strive to create chaos and mayhem are ultimately doing so for their own satisfaction. Puzzle games exist to give a vessel for folk to create an artificial enclosure which they can correct, complete and see results of their efforts. But we cannot always do it alone. Semispheres is here to remind you that even when working by yourself, you must be of two minds to see the whole picture.
This category almost got overlooked because, a story technically exists but the story of Semispheres seems to have almost no bearing upon the game on initial view. Every few puzzles you are treated to a snapshot done in a hastily scribbled sort of comic that shows the progressing story of a boy, a robot and family. Part of me wants to dismiss the panels of storytelling as justifiable filler, as something that was inserted by the developers to merely be a sweet interlude between all of the stages of progressively mind-bending puzzles. On the other hand, I do think there’s some validity to link between our robot friend, DF-64, and how the game as a whole can be interpreted.
Without giving too much away, there is a large passage of time in these brief shots and you do see a robot, which is basically a tool, become a friend, a companion, and then a discarded, saddened memory. But DF-64 still has purpose and a future ahead, with a new generation, and we can all marvel how the synchronicity comes together as families can be in harmony and experience joy, overcome adversity and live a peaceful, balanced life. Yes, DF-64 is a wonderful robot, but he cannot live alone nor do everything by himself, and it’s when everyone comes together that we finally find our purpose.
I guess the only complaint is that since there isn’t really any variation to the storyline and it’s little more than a backdrop to Semispheres, it’s not terribly involved and I wouldn’t find it interesting if it weren’t framed by this game. You could say that about a lot of stories but for one told so non-verbally and very statically, it needs to be stressed this is kind of a one and done tale.
On the surface, Semispheres appears incredibly simple in theory. You have two glowing orbs on two nearly identical maps that need to get to the goal and they both need to be touching it at the same time to finish. The first few levels really just get you used to seeing dual screens and kind of working together with having left be left and right be right. It’s a good setup and Semispheres doesn’t rush you into the really difficult stuff until a few worlds in. Especially because you get to realize that there are plenty, plenty of controller throwing moments in a game that I prefaced with a bit about harmony.
Semispheres is ultimately, a stealth puzzle game, one that reminded me a little bit of an all-time favorite, Dark Echo. There are plenty of guards waiting with wide light beams of vision who will immediately tag you and send you back to your spawn point. An early ability that you pick up creates a soundwave that will draw the sentry to you and it’s important to note, you can draw guards from the other maze through the use of wormholes that permit sound, not physical matter, to traverse the divide. If this already sounds complicated, it gets even more complex. You can, after time, start to teleport the spheres between their mazes, sometimes initiating your own and, at others, sending the other piece flying. The hardest aspect of this is you can only hold one ability at a time. Semispheres did an excellent job with a minimalist control setup but the result is needing to rely only on the shoulder button to do everything and needing quick thinking as a result. Creating a wormhole, dropping a soundwave and then teleporting the other player requires coordination, timing and frantic running to grab the next tool, which may be at the other side of the screen.
Speaking of the increasing difficulty, I applaud Semispheres for giving serious variety to their puzzles and how they get solved as I was a bit worried in the beginning. I knew the first few puzzles would be easier, it would be criminally cruel otherwise. But even when the push-back from the game started to create stronger and longer times in the mazes, it still didn’t feel like a full use of potential. I had several puzzles that felt like it was two pieces being moved at two different times almost like I was just doing two back-to-back puzzles. I’d move one piece, then another, and they’d take turns until I was finished and that was fine, but it didn’t feel like the full picture. After about the ninth area was unlocked things took a dark and frustratingly enjoyable turn. I had to start moving in tandem, forcing myself to keep both eyes on two different points to successfully navigate, activate and accomplish my goal. I’m not a piano player, I have a godawful time trying to get my body to do anything in sync, so this was a wonderful, desperate challenge for me. I think I took a good ten minutes on one puzzle, which I figured out the answer to fairly quickly, because my stupid muscles weren’t working together and I kept running into the damn sentry beams. Once I got it, I celebrated, put down my shaking controller, and had a beer to congratulate myself. I don’t think that’s happened in about a decade, so cheers to Vivid Helix for creating that rush in my gaming world.
My biggest, absolutely saddest complain is the fact that completed levels are locked down once you play them. That’s it. If you are thoroughly satisfied with a puzzle you just accomplished, I hope everyone was watching that you wanted to see, because that’s it for now. You cannot move backwards, you can only move forwards (probably analogous to the background story, but I digress). The only real way to go back and experience one or more stages again is to start the game from the very beginning or beat the whole thing. You can’t pause the journey mid flow.
As a result, I can’t say that I’m going to return to Semispheres anytime soon for the puzzles. The easy ones were crazy simple, and the hard ones, now, I think I’ll remember the solutions forever, but still won’t be able to do them on the first try due to my waning reflexes. Still, I think it could be a fantastic revisit after a few years have passed and my vision is cleared of orange and blue dots.
The way Semispheres presents itself is elegant, if quite simple. The glow effect that permeates throughout on both your spheres and the enemy orbs is beautiful, giving a real sense of energy and an almost mystical force that you’re controlling. The maps themselves are well designed, with the walls and corners having a slightly wavy, hand-drawn effect to them all. The way the additional blocks are placed in lieu of just a straight wall gave a sense of runes or glyphs that had meaning and message. The game wants you to focus on the spheres themselves and nothing else, so that you are totally into the journey with these seemingly connected balls of light. But the color tones give a great balance to it all, with cool blues and the fiery oranges standing starkly against one another when phases are shifted and places swapped. You don’t need a multi-million dollar art investment to make players sit up and pay attention, and Semispheres commands you to keep an eye on the ball.
I really enjoyed the haunting ambiance that played through the entirety of my journey of Semispheres. I don’t use the word nuance enough, but there’s so much of it in the continual sounds and soundtrack. There are some distinctly dissonant notes to being discovered by a guard, there’s an otherworldly suction when wormholes are activated, and the sound of being shot to the other side of the map matched up with what I imagine the sound an ansible will eventually make. And, throughout it all, a slowly shifting, ebbing and flowing, ethereal sound will be the aural wallpaper for the entire picture. I was pleased, but not altogether surprised, to find the music was done by the same person who did Out There, Siddhartha Barnhoorn. Sid definitely has a distinct sound, and I’m amazed that he hasn’t gotten offered to do the next great “alone in space” movie score, because I think he would fit in perfectly.
Semispheres is incredibly unique, and I have to credit the creators for making a puzzle game that I saw through to the very end. I sometimes felt like I was inserting a bit too much of my own theories into the game, and that can be dangerous, as interpretation and guessing at meaning could overly complicate what is a more pure and genuine experience. Artistically, the design and sound is gorgeous, and it certainly doesn’t give you many softballs in terms of discovery, trial and error, and missing obvious solutions. For fans of puzzle games, this would be an amazing addition to your collection, and even non puzzlers may find themselves invested in deeply furrowed brows and guttural mumbling of frustration, but in a truly enjoyable way. Though I still can’t speak to replay value, the entire event is quite fresh in my mind, so let me relax and dream of worlds colliding, and, maybe someday soon, I will, again, enjoy the music of the spheres.