It’s rare to play a game that does something I’ve straight-up never seen before. The feeling of witnessing a unique, jaw-dropping idea is both highly uncommon and undeniably special. Superliminal has some mechanics and features that stunned and intrigued me, but does it keep it up for an entire playthrough? Or is it a one-trick pony that runs out of steam after bursting through the gate?
The answer to the former is, sadly, “no.” Which is a shame, because Superliminal reaches some dizzying heights during its early parts. But I soon started to worry that there was no way for the overall game itself to live up to its premise. I’m honestly not sure it could have, but there are some things in this game that deserve to be paid attention to. And if they could influence someone else to expand on their potential, something truly unique could be waiting further down the line.
That candy-colored clown they call The Sandman
Superliminal‘s premise is somewhat interesting. You’re a patient at a clinic seeking treatment through lucid dreams. You go under and are placed in a dream world where the unfathomable becomes possible. Along the way, things naturally go wrong. You’ll come across small stereos that contain recordings meant to reach you from the outside world. Plus, the dream protocol AI assisting you chimes in from time-to-time.
The game seems to strive for a similar type of narrative to Portal or The Stanley Parable, but the writing fails to make much of an impression. The story isn’t all that interesting or engaging, with writing that, though it tries to be amusing, mostly feels superfluous and falls flat. Events do ramp up as the story moves along, true. However, there just isn’t much of a sense of impact, and I found it fairly difficult to care.
A bit of column A
If Superliminal was purely a puzzle game, the aforementioned lack of interest and impact would be fine, but it isn’t. It appears to be one at first, but it wavers between focusing on puzzles and being more akin to a somewhat tedious walking simulator. The big issue here is that the game excels at neither, even if it can be rather stunning at times.
The truly impressive thing about Superliminal is its game mechanics. It’s a first-person game where you can pick up and rotate specific items you happen upon. But the kicker is that perspective changes everything. These items can be picked up regardless of how close you are, and this temporarily sets their perspective size. For instance, if you pick up a small piece of cake on a plate and then place it on the opposite end of a room, its size remains relative to how big it was while you were looking at that other end.
Repeatedly moving items relative to your position can make them much larger or much smaller. The most common type of puzzle solution is to make an object larger and to use it as a platform. As a game mechanic, it’s kind of incredible, but the puzzles themselves aren’t typically all that intriguing.
There are some other truly awesome things to see in Superliminal, though. The game will sometimes use perspective to make it appear as if there’s a doorway when there isn’t, which has the truth slowly dawn on you as you get closer. This is always cool. Also, you must sometimes create objects by looking at the environment in such a way that they look real, which allows you to manifest them.
Falling apart at the seams
Unfortunately, Superliminal fails to one-up these ideas. To make matters worse, even they work better in concept than in practice. The game doesn’t do a good job of making it clear how to utilize perspective to make items the size you want. It also fails to continue to add interesting new types of puzzles. After the early parts wowed me with their originality, it was disappointing to see the game switch to other puzzle types that don’t have much to do with them.
A bit before the game’s midpoint, for instance, you visit an area where it’s pitch-black. Two puzzles required to progress here have you grab an illuminated sign and simply use it as a flashlight. But the game does nothing to prepare you for this. You simply need to know to use it both times, and it never comes up again. And the game repeatedly does this. Basically, any time I got stuck was the result of a different puzzle type being introduced that the game just immediately assumed I’d know what to do with.
Superliminal even has some puzzles that pretty much operate as if they came straight out of Portal. Only, I had no idea I could even do what the game was asking of me, as it just sort of drops them in out of nowhere. Puzzles need to have some kind of build-up where you learn the basics of what can be done before having to utilize those basics in increasingly complicated ways. Failing to have that just leads to frustration and a distinct feeling of unevenness.
All aboard the walking simulator
And then there’s the fact that, partway through the game, the puzzles mostly stop. This is where the walking simulator sections come into play. As I said earlier, though, the game’s narrative aspects are weak and it’s difficult to really care. Walking simulators are driven by story, and that means these sections in Superliminal become boring. There are occasional puzzles, but they’re more temporary distractions while the game tries to wrestle with themes that it doesn’t seem to have a particularly good grasp of.
It doesn’t help that these sections are also very visually unappealing, as they show a lot of white spaces and other sleepy avant-garde areas. At this point, Superliminal really isn’t all that different from a game like Layers of Fear. You walk through an area and things change around you, so you keep walking. Only, the latter game had enough narrative hooks to keep your interest.
And it certainly doesn’t help that the game just isn’t visually interesting most of the time. Much of the game takes place in generic interiors, such as regular buildings and industrial areas. For a game about dreams, there are almost never any interesting or creative locales, which feels like a missed opportunity. That being said, the way the items scale in size is very well-done. It’s really neat to see just how tiny the engine allows for items to get.
Great premise, weak execution
I enjoyed Superliminal at first. Some aspects of the game demonstrate a great deal of creativity and are positively mesmerizing. But no matter how excellent some of its ideas and concepts are, they can’t carry a mediocre experience. As much as I like how the game toys with perspective, it simply isn’t able to keep the creativity level up, even despite the game’s three-or-so-hour playtime.
As a tech demo for some truly intriguing concepts, Superliminal has some impressive things going for it. But its tedious puzzles, dull narrative, and very uneven pacing end up squandering almost all of its potential. I’d really like to play a puzzle game one day that’s able to offer a compelling experience with the building blocks put forth here. But this just isn’t that game. I wish I could recommend it for the first three chapters alone, but they can’t cover up for the rest.