From developers Pillow Castle, Superliminal is a first-person narrative adventure that pits you against the absurd constructs of your very own subconscious. Superliminal will force you to reconsider the nature and power of perspective, as you navigate a dreamworld by manipulating your very surroundings.
Superliminal strives to be the apex of the fusion of the two increasingly compatible genres of walking simulators and puzzle games. It aims to deliver a compelling storyline with an engaging problem-solving gameplay loop. In theory, it should provide players with emotional fulfillment whilst also having them engage with a solid mechanical framework. But how does it do?
STORY – TIME TO WAKE UP
Enter Dr. Glenn Pierce and his Somnasculpt dream therapy programme. In essence, dream therapy is the process of subjecting yourself to induced dream cycles in order to more fully understand what exactly makes one tick.
The theory is – you delve into your subconscious mind in order to revitalize your conscious and waking mind. Indeed, the programme is meant for those who feel stuck in their lives. Enter the player character. Or you. Unfortunately, your treatment soon goes wrong when you miss your allotted wake time. An unprecedented event. Your guide, the AI system administering the therapy, begins to malfunction as a result. She tasks you with triggering the ‘Emergency Exit Protocol’ in order to jolt you awake. Dr. Pierce himself will also aid you in your journey.
You soon find yourself descending further and further into your dream layers, unable to wake up, with your dreams becoming increasingly surreal. It’s hard to talk about what works and what doesn’t work without spoiling that which makes it so.
I will say that I’m glad that what exactly made the protagonist initially seek out such a form of experimental treatment is never revealed. This is essential as it makes it very easy for you to imprint yourself onto the character and, as a result, resonate wonderfully with the core of the game’s message. The game might’ve benefitted from more playtime to really establish this. But regardless, I found the experience and its conclusion refreshing, heart-warming and satisfying.
GAMEPLAY – OPTICAL HIJINX
On a small table in an empty room, there are strewn about several chess pieces and a note that reads ‘perception is reality’. Upon interacting with the pawns, you discover that their size is wholly relative to your perspective. Any interactable object will scale depending on how you’re looking at it. Think of all the photos of individuals with their back on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s the same principle.
This is the crux of the central mechanic. With this, you’ll be able to navigate the fantastical and seemingly impassable obstacles that make up your dreamscape. But it’s not the only visual trick Superliminal has at its disposal. There are trompe-l’œil illusions, anamorphic illusions, non-Euclidean spaces and even a corridor that simulates something akin to an Ames room.
Whilst these mechanics are undoubtedly innovative and almost guarantee a flash of delighted bewilderment at almost every instance, they are limited. The game unfortunately fails to develop these mechanics in any more meaningful or challenging way. Far too many puzzles are simply a case of ‘enlarging’ an object in order to scale a wall. I haven’t the sharpest mind when it comes to puzzles, but there were very few times I had to spend longer than a minute or two on any given dilemma. If you’re looking for a head-scratcher, this isn’t really it.
Additionally, Superliminal’s puzzle elements seem to fizzle out towards the end and give way to a more regular kind of visually intriguing walking simulator. This might be fine for some. The very short run time doesn’t help either. I beat the game in just under two hours which seems a little short for its retail price of £15.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – KALEIDOSCOPIC SPLENDOUR
Superliminal looks great. Whilst it isn’t going to blow you away with next-gen graphical advancements, it showcases a solid visual style with a consistently pleasing aesthetic. The key is the game’s use of colour, or the lack thereof. Superliminal’s earlier levels utilise a vibrant spectrum of colourful corridors in a seemingly endless series of silent hallways and lobbies with racks of forgotten luggage strewn about and forgotten.
The game uses light and dark to the same effect, integrating wonderfully with the puzzles and narrative flow. Shadows obscure hidden entrances and you’ll need light to navigate some areas. Later in the game, Superliminal discards colour all together and opts for a monochromatic section that remains thematically relevant whilst looking just as good.
Just as much quality and care is taken with the sound design. Your only companions in your subconscious are your own light footsteps and the buzz of the air conditioning units. It feels unreal. The size of any scaling objects determines their weight. A normal chess piece hitting the ground makes hardly a sound, whereas a towering chess piece thunders and reverberates across the room, just as you’d expect.
Of course, you also have the soundtrack. A pianist will accompany you through the majority of the game. It ranges from sombre and serious to undeniably funky with some jazzy overtones and then suddenly quite ominous and heavy. Later, it pivots into an almost transcendental orchestral piece. It all fits wonderfully.
Superliminal was reviewed on PC via Steam.