“When the brain is whole, the unified consciousness of the left and right hemispheres adds up to more than the individual properties of the separate hemispheres.”
-Roger Wolcott Sperry
Ever feel like a game is smarter than you?
I’ve just finished Semispheres on the Nintendo Switch and I felt just that. Well okay there were wavering moments when I thought, after besting a puzzle in a few seconds: “Psh c’mon, this game was clearly made for those with an intelligence quotient still in the triple digits…” But then of course that’s when I would hit a stage that took me between ten to twenty minutes to complete. Pride before the fall!
Semispheres is a cerebral puzzle game by Vivid Helix. As its name suggests, it is a teaser for both halves, both hemispheres of your brain. It is a dual-stick puzzle game in which you control two jellyfish on either side of a split screen. Each jellyfish’s controls are linked to one side of the controller or the other, thereby demanding that you awkwardly draw upon the powers of your left and right gray matter for precise actions you’re not used to completing. The challenge in demanding this of your brain is compounded since your right hemisphere controls your left hand, which controls the blue jelly, while your left hemisphere controls your right hand, which controls the orange jelly… but when the jellies switch place, making a leap from one color to the other, that’s when things become really confusing.
Not to mention it’s impossible to watch both jellies at once! Two eyes but you can’t really get those to move independently. At least not that I’ve had success with.
The goal is simple in each of the game’s sixty-plus rooms: maneuver both jellyfish to a swirling vortex by avoiding the fields of vision of guards and utilizing unique abilities and portals. Both jellies must cooperate to reach the vortex on their respective sides of the screen. What isn’t simple is having to control both simultaneously, essential in the latter levels. This isn’t a game where you can just switch back and forth between avatars, let one rest while you advance with the other.
Semispheres features a variety of other obstructions and objects to interact with in order to reach your goals. For example, you can see the sentry with its field of vision in the image above. Just below it, on the south side of that wall, there’s an orange hole on the blue side and a blue hole on the right side. You can maneuver the jellies into the hole which acts like a window into the opposite screen, allowing you to interact with things the color-coded jellies can’t normally reach.
In the room above, the orange jelly needs to grab the icon on the orange side to the right of the portal, which lets it emit a brief call, alerting the blue sentry to investigate. That’ll allow Blue to sneak past the guard to the vortex. After that, Orange can catch up by grabbing the sound icon again and distracting the orange sentry, swimming swiftly past. Yes, that means this is a stealth-puzzle game on top of everything else.
Things just get more complex and confusing: more sentries, more portals, lines of teleportation which let you jump from one point to another, even across screens, more abilities like the sound emitter, the window creator, and even an ability that lets you swap guards over to the other side of the screen! So while the goal is simple, the process itself can be incredibly complex. You’ll bump into many a catch-22 where the exit can only be reached by collecting and using abilities between the two jellies in an exact order, even using the guards’ visions to purposefully respawn.
I actually once shouted at my screen: “That’s impossible!”
I feel like this is the kind of puzzler where you have to plan out what you need to do at the start of each room, rather than trying to solve through trial and error or lateral thinking. There isn’t even a time limit so you can actually camp at the start and observe as much as you want. You’ll certainly need to. The game never tells you what to do, not even with a tutorial, so you’re on your own from the get go and some of the solutions require you to get creative with the minimal tools available to you. In addition to that, Semispheres isn’t only about jellyfish. It’s also got red herrings… just like word problems, some puzzles include extra, irrelevant features that aren’t necessary for solving the room. Maybe there are more solutions than one for some puzzles?
Semispheres’ puzzles are both rational and kinetic.
There’s an emphasis on the interactivity of the game rather than merely figuring out what to do outside of the game. You’ll frequently need not just your problem solving skills but also the coordination to pull off your proposed solution! The game puts demands both on thinking ahead and on reflexes, on planning and on action, especially when maneuvering both Blue and Orange at the same time. It’s taxing on the brain but engaging. I felt the mental equivalent of a layer of sweat and a good pump after throwing down on this game.
One of the best things concerning Semispheres is that I had the chance to ask the man behind the game a few questions! Radu Muresan (@VividHelix) was the developer, designer, and artist who created most of this game’s content and he was nice enough to answer some of the queries I had. Semispheres seemed like such a unique puzzle game to me so I was curious about what inspirations and influences were at its nucleus.
Mr. Muresan replied:
“I was mechanically inspired by Brothers-Tale of Two Sons which features a similar control scheme. Early on, when the game was leaning more towards being a stealth game, I really liked the approach Mark of the Ninja took with providing all the information and focusing on solving a problem, rather than dealing with uncertainty like some other stealth games do. Finally, I aimed for the tutorial-less approach that Portal took, where the game is structured so that it’s one cursive learning experience. The dual nature of the game came from the game’s inception (as part of Ludum Dare 30 – “Connected Worlds”).
Bringing those concepts together really makes Semipheres a unique collection of influences. Additionally, I was surprised to find the germ of a real storyline threaded throughout the game. I expected Semispheres to be a straight forward series of interactive riddles and nothing more. However, once you complete a handful of rooms, you’ll clear an area (numbered I through XIII) and you’ll be treated to a series of paneled illustrations not dissimilar to a comic strip.
Spoilerey territory below.
The story features a young man and his robot, their lives together, the fun they have, and the accident that separates them. The robot is struck by a car and the young man, who spent all his time playing games and having a ball, doesn’t possess the know-how to fix his mechanical friend. Years later, the man’s daughter (presumably) discovers the remains of the machine and helps fix it, bringing the robot back to life. I thought this was an interesting representation of the right and left brainers and their capabilities.
We all know about the theory which posits that those of us dominated by the left sides of our brains are analytical, rational, scientific, logical, mathematical, calculating, strategic, organized, realistic, linear, and categorical while those of us under the sway of the right sides of our brains are conversely creative, passionate, artistic, poetic, imaginative, holistic, intuitive, random, adventurous, emotive, and aspiring.
The left is algebra. The right is jazz. The Manhattan Project vs the Renaissance.
While the theory itself may or may not be a myth (and considering it’s firmly embedded in pop culture, I guess I lean toward it not being fact), it is at least fascinating to talk of personalities and the strengths of our brains. It seems to me that the young man in the story was a “right brainer” all fun-loving but unable to operate mechanically on his robot, whereas the girl, a “left brainer” was able to translate the manual and fix the machine. Together they’re able to restore the robot by the end of the story, demonstrating the crux of the gameplay in narrative form: both “sides” of the brain must work together.
The concept of duality with the two hemispheres in the human brain and the split screens of the game is further illustrated in Semispheres‘ color palette. Many infographics about left vs right hemispheres used the colors blue and orange, blue to depict the left brain and orange the right. I wondered why! Why the similarity? A bit of research brought to memory that blue is a color symbolic of peace, tranquility, wisdom, knowledge, depth, and intellect. That sounds like the left brain. On the other side, orange symbolizes much more pizzazz. It’s a “happy color” associated with fire, joy, sunshine, enthusiasm, and creativity. That’s definitely in the realm of the right brain.
I had these hunches about the purposefulness of the color choices for the game, so I asked the developer if there was a reason for the left side of the screen being blue and right side orange.
“Well I picked the colors before discovering this, but then it all clicked in when thinking about [the] analytical/emotional split between hemispheres (left-brained/right-brained). When I picked the name and theming of the game, I went all in on the brain aspect, and I thought the colors were specifically a good fit. So I ditched the part where the colors would shift throughout the game because orange and blue fit the symbolism of the game (and the story).”
What brings all of the story about a robot and the game about jellyfish together, to my mind, is this: (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Do robots dream of electric jellies? When asked about it, Muresan confirmed that it’s “all in the head of the robot”. The background is meant to be a neural mesh and the jellyfish are neurons, their tails axons, the guards neuro-inhibitors, and so on.
That’s subtle, indeed! That’s what I love about the smallness and the “secretive” storytelling of indie games. When you see it, everything suddenly clicks.
The 8-bit Review
This also speaks to the focus of Semispheres‘ utility and purpose behind everything packed inside of it, but I felt that the color palette was effective and also quite beautiful. Blue and orange look great together and they’re thematically important. On top of that is the artwork in the comic strip story. It resembles chalk art or street art shimmering with static animation, and it’s almost a juxtaposition. It feels much more free and expressive than the actual game with its puzzle solving Medusozoa, which could be a strictly visual representation of the left-brain vs right-brain theme of the game.
Two more visual effects are worth noting. When entering a room, the image slides from one combined screen into two separate ones, blue and orange. After you complete the room (if you complete the room), the images join back together to form a whole centered around the greenish combo of colors where the jellies meet at the exit. I thought that was neat and again it fits the theme of the game.
The effect which absolutely must be mentioned, though, is the game’s sense of lighting. You can see from the images that the jellies emit a soft radiance, and there’s of course the spotlights of the sentries, as well. What you can’t see unless you watch the gameplay itself is that the bare effulgence displayed by this minimalist cast of characters actually bends and changes with the environments as the jellies or the sentries move. It’s distinctly gorgeous. Rays of colored light pass and fade around corners, weave through gaps in the walls, casting shifting shadows, creating a sense of physicality and realism to an otherwise surreal world. To me that spoke to an attention to detail that really didn’t need to be there, yet it enriched the game by its presence.
The music is integral to how the player experiences Semispheres. This game has been described as a “meditative” puzzle game with “entrancing ambience”. Those descriptions would’ve fallen flat if not for the soundtrack created by film and game composer Siddhartha Barnhoorn. I remember there were palpable moments in this game when I actually noticed how the music was keeping my heart rate from rising and my blood from boiling, even during the most difficult and demanding challenges.
Truth is, puzzle games can be particularly frustrating. We can easily put ourselves on the defensive if we feel our ego being tread upon by some video game that’s pretending to be smart… but here I felt like this was a great choice in music. It kept the gameplay from feeling frantic, which in turn made me feel more at ease to pause and ponder and solve when I could, rather than feel patronized or insulted. It felt like an invitation more than a provocation.
It’s sort of strange that this game popped in my head as a comparative, but consider the music in tile-hopping puzzle game Pyramids of Ra from the Game Boy with its faster beats maintaining a hectic pace. Heck, Pyramids actually made fun of you for losing! In contrast, Semispheres’ OST allows you deep breaths and time for a yoga class before having to solve the next room.
Given its category as an indie, there’s not a whole lot of musical range here nor is any part of the music particularly memorable, but as background sound this soundtrack serves the gameplay best. The music matches the elegant pace of the swimming jellies. At least it isn’t just another indie chiptune soundtrack!
Defying several other puzzle game conventions, there isn’t a frequent need to manually restart a room. More often than not you can purposefully bump into a sentry’s scope and respawn both jellies at their starting points. Coming off of playing FEZ for the first time, I appreciate the differences between a game which wants you to really toil for solutions to puzzles via note-taking, deciphering, and doing some ridiculous lateral thinking outside of the game and Semispheres which puts all of the tools right in front of you every time and says “now solve it”.
I felt like the game played upon the dual controls gimmick as much as it possibly could, with focus and brevity enough to keep it from becoming tiresome. More importantly, it felt mentally captivating to force my thumbs to move two digital objects simultaneously in ways I’m not used to thinking about, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. When using the teleportation lines which appear later in the game, both jellies must sometimes share the same side of the screen or swap sides. Seeing Blue on orange and Orange on blue after trying to think about the two in terms of left and right made the gameplay baffling enough that I had to consciously stop myself and think “Okay, right trigger press, left thumb up, left trigger press, right thumb down.” Bravo.
No in-game tutorial or hints for the truly challenging rooms (or any rooms at all) means you’re on your own. Sure, there’s the internet for solutions and whiners but this is still a relatively new game! Good luck finding every solution you want and shame if you do because having the puzzles beaten for you is like having someone over-explain the punchline to a joke.
In the end, Semispheres isn’t really that hard. That’s of course going to sound arrogantly elitist to anyone reading it who hasn’t beaten it themselves. Truth be told, the last handful of rooms kept me up at night. The final room in the game I just could not get. I had to leave the game and come back later to get the solution. I didn’t time myself but if I had to guess I’d say the solution for that room came to me after spending around forty-five minutes on it. I thought I sensed that there was still about a quarter or a tenth of the way to go after that, but no, that was the end. So while the game as a whole was challenging, it wasn’t the hardest puzzle game I’ve ever played. Given the enjoyable qualities of swimming around to such relaxing music, maybe “hardest puzzles ever” wasn’t even something Semispheres wanted on its coffee mug.
With only two controls apiece, the jellyfish can be maneuvered easily. The joystick directs their movements and the shoulder button triggers one-time use abilities picked up from icons scattered throughout the rooms. This is a measure of an effective puzzle game, in my opinion, one in which the controls don’t get in the way, in which they’re easy to learn but hard to master. There’s a lot of value in that clichéd adage. Fundamentally, Semispheres is easy to play but it’s Pilates for your cerebrum.
Perhaps the biggest complaint that Semispheres might find against it involves how short the game is. Playtime is lengthened based on how hard you find the individual rooms and their puzzles but once you complete them and the game starts over, there’s no reason to replay it all with the solutions you discovered and can bring to bear on a second playthrough. Semispheres did leave me at that happy medium where I still wanted more but I was satisfied with what I encountered. It was enough to get me started on a second playthrough, at least. Still, those looking for a more robust puzzle game may find this to be just a one-time curiosity.
I could swear I encountered something like Semispheres’ twin-stick gameplay in a mini-game or some such recently, but really I couldn’t think of a specific example of an entire game built on the idea. I’m certain it’s not entirely unique to Semispheres but the presentation here is, as a whole, what makes this game stand out to me.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Semispheres appears on other platforms, but it really seemed perfect to me on the Switch, given the dual Joy-Cons and their versatility in my hands. Detaching the Joy-Cons and holding them separately, my hands at my sides, seemed to best facilitate the duality of the gameplay. Let it be said though that I did not resort to having another human hold a Joy-Con to control one jellyfish while I maneuvered the other… though that is possible. *wink*
I’d like to thank Vivid Helix and Plan of Attack for giving me a review copy to critique this game! Kinetic and rational, intellectually engaging and serene, Semispheres is a neat little number that I’ll remember for a good amount of time. It’s got some great gameplay to tax your talents and your reasoning with, though its brevity could be its Achilles’ heel. I suppose the best course of action after completing the game yourself is watching someone else squirm their way through it. Odds are they may not want to put it down once they get into this mental exercise.
Aggregated Score: 7.0
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Categories: Game Review