Superliminal Review | Silent lucidity in the lab

Alex Santa Maria
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In theory, dreams exist to relax you. They allow your brain to eject every stray thought and play out stressful scenarios without acting them out in real life. This works just as well, as you probably wouldn’t want to fall off a cliff in real life. However, if you find yourself particularly stressed, not even the calming effect of dreams can get to job done. That’s where therapy can help, and that’s where you find yourself as you dive into the world of SUPERLIMINAL. A first-person puzzler that takes place wholly inside the mind’s eye, you’ll need an open mind and plenty of outside the box thinking to get through this session. And it’s got some surprises packed within its puzzles even though, much like a real dream, it doesn’t quite have a focus.

Superliminal Review | A mid-afternoon nap

Starting life as a simple tech demo, Superliminal has an appropriately minimal story stringing things along. The game starts with a cheesy ad for a sleep therapy clinic located right next to an overflow parking lot. Despite the warning signs, you end up going in for treatment, with the game taking you through the dreamscape. You explore the boundaries of reality, get in a bit too deep, and learn some interesting philosophy along the way. Not only are you navigating nonsensical Euclidean corridors, but you’re also constantly reconsidering the context of each level. Superliminal does a great job of toying with your expectations and surprising you with more than just gameplay tricks.

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But Superliminal‘s gameplay mechanics are not run of the mill. On the contrary, there’s a reason you might know this game even if you don’t know the name. The main mechanic involves grabbing an object and resizing it based on your perspective. You can both shrink and grow various tools in the environment, some given upfront and some hidden from your initial view. Once resized properly, you’ll solve everything from standard block and button puzzles to platforming challenges to tasks that are a bit more complicated. The game does a great job of building from and twisting your expectations, especially if you’ve played a lot of these types of puzzlers before.

Superliminal Review | Recurring dreamscapes

That nitty-gritty of what you’re doing from room to room is best when the secrets are withheld, mostly because of how interesting and bespoke each individual puzzle can be. Although, without spoiling anything, Superliminal lets you go over the top with whatever mechanic you’re playing with. During one section, you have the ability to clone items. Some games may limit how many items you produce, but Superliminal will probably let you crash the game if you’re not careful. My tests of the limits led to a room so chock full of apples that I could hear them rolling around and shifting for the entire rest of the stage.

That is Superliminal at its best: a surprising deconstruction of puzzler expectations surrounded by mind-bending brilliance. At its worst, Superliminal runs out of ideas for its gimmicks far too quickly. There’s a sense of a sampler platter here, a little bit of every idea they had rather than a deep dive on mechanical expertise. Even though every room is a surprise, that can throw you for a loop as often as it pleases you. It’s no fun to just sit around mashing buttons while you try to stumble your way to victory, and a few of the solutions here feel like they’ll lead to nothing but frustration. Thankfully, these moments are in the minority, but those with little patience may want to keep a guide handy.

Superliminal Review | Unconscious comparisons

Aesthetically, Superliminal draws more than a little inspiration from The Stanley Parable. Besides the distinctively generic menus and loading screens, both have you gleefully destroying and rearranging an office setting with vaguely undefined powers. The juxtaposition of extraordinary happenings in the most sterile of environments is always intoxicating, and both games have that in spades. The difference comes in tone, and few games — of any — can match Stanley‘s pitch black commentary. Instead, Superliminal feels a lot more introspective. At times, that means it has a lot less impact than its peers, but the overall message is well worth the trip.

Speaking of the loading screens, it’s worth calling out that Superliminal hopes to bend expectations in even its most rudimentary moments. It adds to the air of mystery when even the reliable aspects of the game are shifting in ways you don’t expect. Superliminal even achieves all of this without the use of a traditional “gun” type apparatus. Most Portal-type games introduce some sort of magical science device for their mechanics, but the dream storyline lets you play with the world with nothing but a mouse cursor. It is way more natural and fits in beautifully.

Superliminal Review | Feeling well-rested

Since it’s a PC only release (for now), Superliminal ships without support for gamepads or other alternate controllers. This is a real blemish on the experience, especially considering how simple the controls are. You need maybe four buttons for the most complex rooms, but no dice. I was able to route the game through Steam to use a controller through their system, but running two clients one on top of the other is never ideal. It’s very rare that any game of note ships without gamepad support in this day and age, and hopefully the developers consider patching it in for those of us who can’t use the more traditional setup.

Despite a few limitations, Superliminal succeeds where it counts. It’s only a few hours long, giving you a tour of interesting mechanics wrapped in an intriguing scenario. There should have been a bit more focus on the main ideas, though, as there’s plenty of untapped potential and not a lot of room for a traditional sequel. But perhaps that’s the point. Rather than repetition, Superliminal wants to keep you guessing until the very end. It might not be for someone who is brand new to the genre, but veterans will spend a memorable afternoon trying to wake up from this hard day’s night.


GameRevolution reviewed Superliminal on PC via Epic Games Store with a copy provided by the developer.

REVOLUTION REPORT CARD

3.5
Rating
A smorgasbord of interesting puzzle mechanics.
Surprises around every turn, especially for genre veterans.
Excellent setup that allows for natural gameplay.
So many apples, so little time.
No controller support in 2019.
Lack of focus leads to some real troublespots.