Reviewed on Xbox One (also available on PS4, Switch, PC)
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You can see this throughout the games industry with developers taking ideas and concepts from their favorite games or films and working them into their own work. It’s a normal part of any creative process I think, to be influenced by the things that you love. Well, assuming that’s the case, the developers behind Superliminal must have absolutely adored the game Portal.
In this 1st person puzzle game, you play as a test subject and must make your way through a series of rooms, solving puzzles and challenges to advance. As you progress you are guided by a monotone voiced woman who throws out the occasional bit of encouragement or thinly veiled threat. During certain areas of the game, you’ll be able to find ways to duck behind walls or over obstacles and discover the behind the scenes workings of the operation, where things might not be as peaceful as they seem. Sounds familiar, right?
The similarities to Valve‘s masterpiece were kind of jarring at first, my impression being that it went a little bit past ‘inspiration’ and veered into ‘imitation’ territory. Thankfully though, while the packaging in which they chose to present their puzzle game is clearly borrowing from Portal, the game does have a distinct story to tell and the puzzles themselves are unique and clever enough for the game to stand on it’s own merits.
The basis of the story is that you are a part of some kind of sleep study and have been placed into a dream state where you must make your way through a variety of puzzle rooms. Most of these puzzles are based on the idea of forced perspective. Meaning that objects that you interact with in the world are altered by your perspective of them. For example, you pick up a chess piece on a table, and as you hold it in front of you, you turn and face the wide open room behind you, when you let go of the item it drops into the far side of the room but is now 10 feet tall because of your current perspective of it. Neat, huh?
The game uses this concept in a number of very clever ways, like picking up a doll house and moving it so that you can walk through it’s doorway, or trying to view fragmented pieces of a cube from just the right angle so that it looks whole, allowing you to then pick it up. They do a good job of adding new ideas and mechanics throughout the 2 hour or so game, ensuring that there was always something new for me to try and wrap my head around.
Like the puzzle classic from which it takes inspiration from, the further you go into the testing, the more interesting things become in Superliminal. Eventually you’ll start discovering cassette players containing messages from Dr. Glenn Pierce, the man behind the experimentation. And the further you progress into your dream state, the weirder things become as you get lost in a labyrinth of unconsciousness.
One of my favorite things about the experience is just how bizarre and trippy things become as you wade into the deep end of your mind. It becomes less about “solving puzzles” and more about just trying to find a way out. One night in particular during my playthrough, I stayed up a bit too late with the game and kept dozing off while trying to escape my dream state. That was some serious meta type game playing and I was a little bit disoriented when I snapped out of it.
While the concept behind the game is very clever and there were many moments that kind of blew my mind, the puzzles themselves are also one of the more disappointing things about the game. As neat as it is when you figure out what it is you’re supposed to do to get past a room, the puzzles are never very challenging. One of the things about a great puzzle game is that moment when you feel like a genius for figuring something out, but I never got that sensation with Superliminal.
Also, it’s a little weird that you can usually only interact with items that are essential to getting past a puzzle. So I can pick up an item in one room because I need to use it to get to my exit, but when I find that same item in another room I can’t pick it up. Many of the challenges come down to just finding the right item that you’re allowed to pick up and figuring out how to use it. They’re still entertaining, I would have just enjoyed a bit more of a challenge.
Superliminal is a clever game that gets more interesting the further down the rabbit hole you go. It has a lot of neat ideas and you’ll constantly be impressed by the visual trickery that it pulls, even if you’re not going to be very challenged by the puzzles themselves. If you love puzzle games though, you’d be wise not to sleep on this one.