Review – Superliminal (PS4)

Puzzle games, while being one of my favorite genres, are a dime a dozen these days. Many of them rehash the same ideas over and over, with a new coat of paint to make them seem fresh. This was my fear when I first saw the trailer for Pillow Castle’s Superliminal. It appeared unique, but I’ve been fooled countless times before. Still, the gameplay looked like nothing I’d seen in the past, so I decided to give it try. That was one of the best surprises I’ve had in a while.

There’s not too much a of a story within Superliminal. You play as a nameless protagonist who has checked in to a facility to be a part of a dream therapy program. However, you soon learn that you have gone past the known limits of the program and have to figure out how to escape. The only way to do so is to solve the puzzles laid before you, all while being judged by an AI. It’s a premise similar to many we’ve seen in the past, like The Spectrum Retreat and Portal. It’s not terribly deep (until the end), but it provides enough motivation and intrigue to keep you going.

Superliminal

Is this the Truman Show?

The real reason Superliminal stands out is its gameplay. This game almost solely revolves around perspective. While in other games perspective is mainly used to find your goal or discover a hidden element to a puzzle, Superliminal uses it as its primary gameplay feature. Played from a first-person viewpoint, you’ll have to manipulate objects to fit your needs by playing around with the very notion that sometimes things are exactly how they appear. Perception is reality.

Superliminal

Do you want a paradox? Because that’s how you get a paradox.

Allow me to elaborate. In one room I needed to get through a door that would only open if two buttons were pressed at the same time. The only thing I could grab and toy with was an exit sign. I grabbed it from the far side of the room and when I swung it around to place it on one of the buttons, it was tiny. Or rather, it remained exactly the same size it had appeared from far away when I grabbed it. I stepped on the other button and the door opened, but when I stepped off it shut again. So I had the problem of trying to hold down two buttons with only one sign.

That’s when I realized that if I could make the sign tiny just by interacting with it when I was far away, the reverse must also be true. I then got as close to it as I could so it looked as large as possible from my view and moved it to the other side of the room and dropped it. It was now significantly larger than before. I ran back up to it as close as I could again and repeated the process. It was now so large that it easily hit both buttons once I set it down. This is just one example of a very early puzzle to give you an idea of what the gameplay is like.

Superliminal

This is about how many alarm clocks I need to wake up in the morning.

There are plenty of other optical tricks in here as well. In some rooms you’ll see something painted on a wall and some furniture, but you won’t understand what it is unless you move into the exact right position. Then when everything is aligned properly, the image will become clear and you will be able to pluck it right out of its space. Imagine you’re looking at one of those Magic Eye illusions (those 3D pictures with the hidden images that you can only see when you relax your eyes) and when the image comes into focus, you could take it right out of the book and hold it. This is yet another example of the kinds of optical perspective puzzles you will find along the way.

Chess Piece

This is the weirdest game of chess I’ve ever played.

Another big credit I have to give to Pillow Castle is that they know their audience. The developers are clearly aware that most players are going to go through extensive searches of these surreal environments. There are often times multiple solutions to a puzzle and many hidden items and branching paths as well. They not only encourage players to think outside the box, but they reward them for doing so.

Being someone who thoroughly explores every nook and cranny in most games, it didn’t come as much of surprise to me when I started finding blueprints in unexpected, harder to reach areas. I even laughed when I went through a boarded-up doorway that had been hidden behind some debris, only to hear the AI scold me for not sticking to the correct path. Then I received an achievement for my little detour, so I knew that the creators were clearly the same kind of overly curious types of players as I. What did surprise me was when I stumbled upon a hidden room full of constellations.

Constellation Room

I found something in my constellation room.

This is when I realized that they were encouraging players to go off the beaten path whenever possible. What started off as me inspecting what I thought was a glitch, turned out to shock me with a secret area. It reminds me of the stars in The Talos Principle. In trying to find ways to break the game and exploit glitches, you’re actually rewarded for your efforts. I guess curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat.

The graphics in Superliminal might not be the most hyper realistic and mind-blowing, but the game is still beautiful in its own right. My one complaint is that some of the levels are a little too basic and boring compared to others. Although, considering the mind bending perspective manipulation you’ll be encountering, it’s still quite visually striking. Regardless of whether you’re in a simplistic room with a couple buttons or in a locker room that would make M.C. Escher jealous, everything is clear and easily recognizable.

M.C. Escher Locker Room

Did M.C. Escher design this?

The sound design is a bit of a mixed bag. There are only two voices you’ll hear throughout the game, that of Dr. Glenn Pierce as well as the AI. You’ll hear the doctor through tapes as he attempts to guide you through the dreamscape, but while he tries to sound soothing, he sometimes sounds disinterested or like he’s reading his lines right off the script. The AI is much better, with an often condescending and snarky tone, not unlike Portal‘s GLaDOS. She’s nowhere near as great as GLaDOS, but I still enjoyed her occasional presence and only wished I could have heard more of her.

The soundtrack starts off largely unmemorable with its smooth jazz tunes that you would likely hear in a dentist’s waiting room. However, that’s kind of the point. About halfway through when things start to get a bit more serious, the tempo picks up and the songs get progressively more and more intense. By the end, the music is at a fever pitch with heavy percussion, which fits the frantic tone of the later stage of the game perfectly.

Wake Up

I’m trying!

Superliminal is a breath of fresh air for fans of the puzzle genre. It has a truly original concept that is well executed and will have you hooked. While the story isn’t that deep, there is a message at the end that will really resonate with some players. It’s a short game, taking about two to three hours to complete depending on how long it takes you to figure some puzzles out, but it’s well worth your time. I would also recommend playing it all in one sitting as that will make the whole experience more impactful. If you enjoy puzzle games in the vein of Portal and The Talos Principle, then you shouldn’t let Superliminal pass you by.

 

Graphics: 8.0

A bright and sleek game that doesn’t go for crazy amounts of detail, but renders its simple beauty well.

Gameplay: 8.5

A first-person puzzle game that relies on manipulating your environments through forced perspective. The controls are responsive and work well once you get the hang of it.

Sound: 7.0

The voice acting for Dr. Glenn Pierce is at times hit and miss, while the AI is delightfully snarky. The soundtrack is purposely conventional for the first half before building up to more dramatic scores later on.

Fun Factor: 9.0

Superliminal drew me in right away and held my attention throughout its entirety. It uses a wholly original gameplay concept with a heartfelt message at the end. It’s best played in one sitting.

Final Verdict: 8.5

Superliminal is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.

Reviewed on PS4 Pro.

A copy of Superliminal was provided by the publisher.