The newest release from the makers of Anodyne is a 3D platformer with a slippery take on running and jumping that has me bouncing off of it.
- Title: Sephonie
- Release Date: July 21, 2023
- Price: $19.99
- Suggested Audience Age: Rated Everyone 10+ by the ESRB
- Availability: Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation, Xbox, Steam, GOG, Itch
- Recommended for fans of: 3D Platformers, Puzzle Games, and Surreal Storytelling
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
Anodyne is a game that will always hold a special place in my heart.
I played through that sleepy, surreal Link’s Awakening-inspired adventure shortly after my son was born when I was sleep deprived and confused, and absolutely enjoyed it. Since then I have kept an eye on everything the developer, Analgesic Productions, has put out, but none have quite hit the same way.
Their most recent release is Sephonie a 3D platformer with an odd puzzle game as a secondary mechanic that is dreamy, surreal, and frustrating.
Like all great stories, Sephonie opens with some sort of a godlike being recounting the story of how they fell in love while you ride with them on public transit through the post-apocalypse. As far as I’ve gotten in the game, I am still not sure exactly what is happening with this framing device, but it is so weird that I love it and I cannot stop thinking about it.
The actual gameplay in Sephonie has you playing as a crew of three scientists who end up mysteriously trapped on the mysterious island they set out to explore. Each of the characters has a pretty well-realized personality in text-only cutscenes, but play exactly the same. In fact, you can swap between them on the fly at any time, including mid-jump, just by hitting the shoulder button. It doesn’t really matter who you are playing as, but having three different characters available is nice, especially since they each have different pronouns.
Gameplay in Sephonie is split into two different activities. As whichever character you are playing as you explore open 3D environments and maneuver through them by walking, running, jumping, air-dashing, and wall-running. The mechanics start out pretty basic at first, but the game gets more complex when it introduces destructible platforms or pick-ups that give you a single-use double jump. The areas you explore are pretty sparse, so it's usually easy to see which direction you are supposed to go, but I ended up really enjoying the obstacle course-like feel of making your way from one checkpoint to another.
The major hurdle in the platforming side of Sephonie is the way that your character moves, especially while running. Analgesic Productions makes games that always feel like they are half daydream and your character sort of glides in an extremely surreal way. When you hold down the run button, they actually move forward automatically, and you sort of steer them left and right, almost like they are ice skating instead of moving on foot. It is extremely odd, but after a few minutes of play it starts to really feel good, and moving around started to feel very trance-like. Unfortunately, whenever there was any kind of precision necessary the controls felt like they got in my way, and whenever I put the game down for a day or two it took me a few minutes to remember how to play it.
There are a lot of 3D platformers out there, and it is one of my favorite genres. Because I have played so many of them, though, this game's twist on the way that a 3D platformer feels ended up being more of a roadblock than an interesting hook.
As you explore the island, you are always on the lookout for native fauna, who you “study” through some sort of McGuffin that allows your character to sync with the creatures. In the story, this lets you understand the creature on a psychic level, while in gameplay it means playing a really cool puzzle game. Each link process is represented by an irregularly shaped grid of squares that you fill in with Tetris-like bricks. There's no falling here, so you can place bricks anywhere you want, and instead of trying to fill in a row, you are tasked with making large swathes of connected colors. When you’ve filled in as much of the board as possible, any group of 3 or more matched colors disappears, turning into progress toward the linking process.
I adore this puzzle mechanic.
Linking is extremely low-pressure. The only way you can fail is by not making enough matches over the course of multiple turns. You could probably click through this super quickly and make progress just fine. However, seeing the majority of the board get wiped all at once was so satisfying that I found myself really taking my time with these puzzles, in order to try to strategize my placement. As far as I can tell, the outcome of this puzzle game is binary: you either succeed or you don’t, so the fact that I tried not just to succeed but to succeed as spectacularly as I could just for the satisfaction of doing it really speak highly to this design.
I really want to love Sephonie. I feel like I’ve been watching developer updates with gifs of the character wall running over giant chasms for ages, and its Lofi art style and bizarre storytelling are captivating. Then there is the puzzle mechanic, which I didn't even realize was part of the game until I started playing it, and is now one of my favorite puzzle systems of all time. Unfortunately, I have several times gotten stuck on platforming challenges that I feel are only challenging because of the weird way the character moves, and that’s soured my taste for the whole thing.
Sephonie does include some Celeste-style accessibility options, including the ability to give yourself infant air-dashes or jumps, and I may turn those on to continue through the rest of the story and puzzles. It just feels like a shame to have to skip out on such a big part of the game not because the design is challenging, but just because the controls don’t feel quite right.