Going ‘Round The Mindbend
HIGH The bouncy house/pool level is a classic.
LOW That EXIT sign isn’t a good enough clue.
WTF The Parking Lot.
As much a head trip as it is a puzzle game, Superliminal exists only to show off how clever its developers are. Over the course of a couple of hours, minds are bent, every rule of logic and common sense is broken, and perspective will never again seem like a constant. As every new mechanic appeared, I could almost hear the developers clapping one another on the back for how clever it all was. In fact, it would be a little on the insufferable side if it weren’t for how good it feels to solve its puzzles…
Perhaps the most innovative first-person puzzle game since Portal, Superliminal is less narratively ambitious than that classic, but makes up for it with truly outrageous flights of dream logic fancy.
Players control an unnamed protagonist taking part in a dream study. The machine in charge of their slumber goes haywire, and they’re forced to explore a series of increasingly surreal worlds full of perspective-based platforming puzzles. Things start simple enough, although “simple” isn’t a word I’m entirely comfortable associating with this game.
Players start with one mechanic — any item they pick up in its 3D world immediately transforms into a 2D item. When they let it go, it becomes a 3D object again, but its size is determined by where the 2D object was hovering when it was released.
For example, if the player picks up a normal can of soda and holds it up and close to the camera so that it blocks the view of a hallway, when they release it, it’s suddenly a giant soda can that is physically blocking the hall. Conversely, if the player grabs the moon out of the sky and holds it up to a wall just a foot away from their face, it will be the size of a dime when they let it go. In the two hours I spent with Superliminal, this effect never stopped baffling and amazing me.
That’s just the start of Superliminal’s tricks, however. Each new level of the dream introduces ever-more-bizarre variations on the theme. There are monochrome worlds where pits and platforms can be almost anywhere, pitch-black rooms that force the player to navigate using shadows, and portals that cause extreme size changes. One moment the player will be towering over a model, the next they’ll be sliding through a keyhole to climb into it.
Playing Superliminal is like navigating rapids of constant innovation, and nothing can be taken for granted — at any moment one mechanic can stop working and be suddenly replaced by something entirely new and unexpected. Used to shrinking doors to pass through? What if clicking on the door creates a copy instead of picking it up?
The whole world is a set built to confound and delight players, and for the most part it succeeds. However, there are just a few small problems with Superliminal, but they are worth mentioning.
For starters, the story is nothing special — it’s just standard ‘british guy blabbers medical and business nonsense’ to build the world out a little, but none of it lands. The gameplay is so completely disconnected from traditional narrative that it would be an incredible feat to have any kind of meaningful story built around it, but the devs don’t do more than the bare minimum in their attempt.
The lack of a hint system is also a problem. While I was able to make it through most of the levels without too much trouble, two were so bizarre, esoteric, and so utterly unrelated to the kind of perspective-based construction that unites the rest of the experience that I found myself forced to go to the internet for help — something a player really shouldn’t have to do.
Superliminal isn’t a long game, but then again, neither was Portal — this kind of rapid-fire innovation can burn out quickly, and it’s probably best to impress people and get out while their jaws are still dropped. And really, it’s so absolutely jam-packed with magnificent, eyebrow-raising surprises that I can’t hold a lack of greater ambition against it. Superliminal exists to blow minds and that’s exactly what it does, so what more can anyone really ask for?
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Pillow Castle. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: This game was not reviewed by the ESRB, but it contains Blood… which actually turns out to be paint. This is an all-ages game. While it’s kind of slow and confusing, it’s the perfect thing to play with kids to help them learn about strange, M.C. Escher-style takes on perspective and reality!
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no vital audio cues. I played about half the game without sound and had no trouble. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.