Our hero is trapped within a sleep experiment about dreams – Inception minus the DiCaprio – and we become stuck in a loop, moving through many levels of subconscious to find the ‘exit’. To do this, we solve puzzles, and they vary wildly.
Perspective is used throughout – it’s always the key to the level’s doors. Let’s say a chess piece sits on a table. We can pick it up and move around with it. If our view of the chess piece becomes closer, the object is effectively growing. By moving around and looking at things from new angles, we can change shapes and sizes, or even conjure objects from thin air by lining up perspectives.
Some levels stop you from taking objects; some play with light, others replicate the object by clicking on it to produce hundreds of copies of that item. There’s a very loose story playing along in the background, but most of the ‘wow’ moments come from the puzzles themselves, or their outcome.
You might click on an object, expecting it to act as it had on previous levels – for it to replicate and force you to, again, change your perspective. It feels too simple to just say ‘Superliminal is remarkably clever’, but perhaps that’s the best way to say it. Superliminal is remarkably clever.
Early examples of puzzles include decreasing the size of an object to squeeze it through a gap into the next room, where a switch awaits its pressure to open another door. Tiny dice can be blown up in scale, providing a leg up to a yawning doorway. You can even use a wedge of cheese to create human-sized ramps.
The developers lull you into a false sense of security only to swiftly pull out the rug. Just when you’re comfortable with these random physics, things could literally be tipped upside down.
Step by determined step, the game sprawls out through labyrinthine corridors, vast ballrooms, underground corridors, and hotel suites, each area a figment of dreamlike imagination. It’s not only physical perspective that’s constantly changing, but our assumptions and what we take for granted.
Old-fashioned boom boxes lie throughout, playing tapes from an unseen Dr Pierce as he attempts to free you from this endless path. Gradually, the puzzles become more surreal. You click on the exit door only for it to detach from its hinges, revealing a brick wall behind. Or clicking on another simply creates a cascading number of doors, creating a faux stairway.
Towards the latter half of the game, some levels can feel as if they’re outstaying their welcome as the developers try to cram in a few too many ideas, but it’s hard to be frustrated when everything looks and sounds so sublime; you hear melodic harmonies as you pass through open-plan art deco lobbies, then through a doorway into a basement with echoing screams bouncing from its dingy walls. And is that blood splattered about the place?
I lost count of how many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ I let out while playing Superliminal. Some came from finding a solution, one from simply clicking the mouse, creating ever-smaller objects, like a digital matryoshka doll; others occurred while simply noticing patterns occurring throughout the game, enforcing the idea of our subconscious ruling our dreamscapes.
M.C. Escher would have had a field day with Superliminal, as the last hour moves into brain-warping levels of trippy. It’s abstract and surreal, like walking into a painting and exploring at will.
Imagine walking through a door and it leading to a new world, but you can move the door, pick it up, shrink it – shrinking yourself in the process – and emerge on the other side faced with a huge vending machine, like something from Land of the Giants.
Superliminal wields a special kind of magic. It’s only towards the end where the game jumps the shark, stripping everything down to basic functions, but in doing so, it forces the player to rely on trial and error rather than tried and tested, previously discovered solutions or ideas. But it all leads somewhere, and that final destination is something special.
I’m not ashamed to say that the final moments misted my eyes, as the game changed once more, yanking the rug a final time and enveloping me in its world, passing on a message of beauty. I played the entire game in one sitting, never wanting to drag my eyes from the wonders of the journey.
While in places Superliminal lacks an original spark – every game in this genre owes at least something to Portal – it still feels like a breath of fresh air, especially if you’re fed up with the same old perspectives in the world around us.
The way Superliminal messes with your perceptions is a definite highlight: you’ll click on an object and get to know its weight and heft, only to click on the same object later and watch as it crumbles into dozens of smaller pieces. In Superliminal, there’s never a comfort in knowledge.
Perhaps lacking in originality, Superliminal makes up for it in design, charm, and ‘wow’ moments.
Developer: Pillow Castle
Publisher: Pillow Castle
Release: Out now