What draws many of us into our fixation for first-person puzzlers, is the hope of catching those instances of absolute astonishment found solely within the game’s mechanics. Based on that alone, Superliminal’s hyper-focus seems to revel in perpetually breaking your brain. Even whilst you’re still picking up fragments of your last mind-implosion; the game will make a point to mess with you further - and you’ll love it.
The title and logo alone suggest that the game’s modus operandi is to play with your idea of perception. Most of the puzzles hide in plain sight, as to highlight the relationship between you and the space you inhabit.
Superliminal sees you as a patient at the Pierce Institute, a clinic dedicated to dream therapy - with subjects given tests during their lucid dream states. However, the study goes awry and you come to find yourself imprisoned underneath the deep layers of your own dream cycle. The only way to escape is through your subconscious, and manipulating your interpretation of reality as to keep control; with the intention to wake up.
The majority of the challenges come by way of toying with forced perspective. A key example being able to hoist a moveable object and adjust its volume depending on where the object is in relation to you and the environment: Expanding or shrinking the size of a dollhouse to reach the next area.
The game flirts with optical illusions every now and again, having the player angle their view on a specific point, be it from negative space or 2D art, to form the shape of a tangled 3D object. An absolutely brilliant addition that flows effortlessly with the aforementioned forced perspective trickery and something I wish saw more implementation during gameplay.
At one point in the game, we’re given the power to duplicate objects. It was an interesting concept that had its purpose, even if it was a brief encounter. Like illusions, duplication is something I hoped played a larger role in the endgame; expecting to chain each learned game mechanic in a crescendo of mind-melting magnificence…
The closest I ever got to becoming frustrated with any of the puzzles, was whenever light and shadow-play were afoot. I will say that the introduction to the concept was spot on, being set within a nightmarish realm, framing the stage like a horror game.
My gripe with these puzzles was admittedly partly due to my inability to solve them as fast as I’d care to disclose, but also that the pay-off usually felt cheap comparatively to other types of puzzles. The intention was to deceive my perception after all, and deceive it did. Did I feel good once I figured out those light and shadow puzzles? Not really.
Luckily, the game isn’t ever overwhelmingly difficult. Though there were times when the game turned into a point-and-click adventure; hovering the reticle over anything and everything in hopes of solving through a blasé bout of trial and error. And with a short runtime of two and a half hours, these grievances become more apparent by the endgame.
Though Superliminal might have missed the opportunity to go play with all the toys they’ve accrued, the true underrated genius of this title is how developers Pillow Castle used humour in their perspective pranks and gags woven into puzzles and environment throughout. It pulled visceral reactions from me; from unrestrained bursts of laughter, to hand-to-head befuddlement while I tried to comprehend what just happened. The game excels in its unexpected slapstick, tickling that little nugget in my brain where the convergence of what is fun, funny, and fantastically thought-provoking rarely gets stimulated.
It would go remiss without touching on the parallels between Superliminal and the influence left by its contemporaries. The game benefits so much from environmental storytelling, and ideally should have leaned more towards that approach as achieved by The Witness, and less so by the oversaturated use of exposition within the first-person puzzle genre via voice-over made popular by the Portal series.
Contextually, the disembodied voice of Dr. Glenn Pierce aiding your recovery is warranted, going as far as to say it’s pivotal to the narrative - but in execution over-delivers on expository explanation of events and by the end, tells me how I am meant to feel. I don’t mind so much the twist ending, but it comes off as disingenuous and controlling (intentional or not) that doesn’t leave me wondering about the meta-ness of perspective - but robbed of coming to my own conclusion of events.
On a slight tangent, there’s a trend of puzzlers that take the general concept of the experiment room aesthetic that’s synonymous with Portal that, at this point, needs to stop.
I won’t be surprised if Superliminal is overshadowed by the Portal-likes that oversaturate the first-person puzzle genre, but the core mechanics genuinely supersede any expectation of that stigma, and well worth experiencing first hand. Here’s hoping that if Pillow Castle decides to make a sequel, that they take a few pages out of Valve’s assessments on how they expanded the mechanics from Portal: Still Alive, into a definitive experience in Portal 2.
Superliminal (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
The forced perspective game mechanic alone makes Superliminal an essential buy for those looking for a new first-person puzzler. Both mind-bogglingly clever and hilarious use of environmental storytelling, the potential to be a classic is limited by its short play time and unnecessary exposition.