Puzzle games are enjoying something of a resurgence of late, and developers Vivid Helix have bestowed upon us a series of dual conundrums that require both sides of your screen, and possibly your brain, to resolve. Semispheres continues the lineage of impeccably designed, ambiently abstract brain-teasers, in the vein of Mini Metro and Osmos, but going back in gaming history as far as Klax, Marble Madness and Mercury Meltdown. Too often of late these kind of games find their home on the small displays of phones, tablets and other handhelds, but with precise and simultaneous control of two distinct elements required, this one is arguably best experienced on your most sizeable screen.
The gimmick here, seemingly directly inspired by the wonderful Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, is that each analog stick controls a separate entity, in this case two glowing orbs with tiny comet-like tails, horizontally separated into two distinct realms. A swirling exit point is mirrored in both, but the obstacles for each ball of light can be very different, and in most instances will require some level of mutual assistance to get there. Figuring out the extent to which one side can affect the other is the real meat in this challenge; while the first few levels have little to no interaction to help you get the feel of the game, you are soon introduced to powers which can affect the other side. Symbolic tiles appear which grant a certain one-time ability, triggered with the shoulder button.
There’s no tutorial or guidance to speak of, but the different tiles’ purpose and usage are fortunately easy to interpret; for example, the one with little emanating sound waves engraved on it grants the ability to create a distracting sound which spreads within a certain radius, causing nearby guards to come to investigate. These little oval sentries diligently stand watch with their vision cones clearly visible; floating into their view instantly zaps you back to your starting position and likely scuppers your solution attempt. Sometimes, arguably counter-intuitively, you might need to lead a wayward sphere to ‘get caught’ in order to send it back to its rightful side and complete the level.
With the halves divided in an orange and teal colour scheme one could be forgiven for thinking of Portal, and indeed one of the abilities afforded your spheres is to create a small window between worlds, allowing the dots to enter each other’s territory and work together to find a solution. New powers are unveiled at regular intervals over the course of the game’s fifty stages, with complexity and possibilities growing as powers stack and interact. Running through the outcomes in your mind before having a eureka moment and discovering the correct sequence remains, as with all puzzle games, uniquely satisfying.
Ardent puzzlers might blow through the entire game in an hour or two, but the difficulty curve is gentle enough to coax newcomers. Starting out, the two halves can be performed asynchronously, but as the trickiness ramps up you’ll be called on to string some actions together where the timing of the sentries’ movements is a critical factor. Sometimes this can arguably be more difficult than working out the puzzle itself, requiring a dose of co-ordination as well as logic, especially when the spheres cross over to opposite sides but are still controlled by the same stick. Oddly for a puzzle game, Semispheres is highly reliant on you having a controller hooked up, and states as much when you run it. While it is possible to play using just the keyboard, doing so doesn’t feel anywhere near as responsive as usual dual analog sticks.
Completing a group of five levels treats the player to a portion of a crudely drawn yet endearing comic strip tale of a boy and his robot, and while it is mildly entertaining and doesn’t detract from the presentation, I struggled to see its relevance or connection to the game. The best I could come up with was that somehow the puzzles were an abstract representation of the robot’s thoughts, but the game never hints at the answer.
Backed by a delicate ethereal soundtrack by Sid Barnhoorn, who also scored the considerably more infuriating Antichamber, this is a well-designed and presented yet soothing and relaxing challenge which will gently tickle your frontal lobes. Granted it’s a little on the short side and it would be great to see some additional stages added as DLC, but it works as an excellent entree to accompany your gaming main course du jour.