Sephonie review

This 3D platformer features a PlayStation 2-style low-poly aesthetic. While this art style is usually reserved to evoke a sense of nostalgia, that isn’t the case here – Sephonie is far removed from the cutesy, mascot-starring, platformers of the early noughties. Instead, it’s an experience far more ‘out there’ and contemporary, being a combat-free experience involving a trio of biologists charting a peculiar island home to primitive lifeforms.

The first character we’re introduced to is a skeletal entity fascinated with our trio of intrepid adventures, particularly their feelings and memories. This culminates into a dream-like adventure that dares to be different.  

The adventure starts on a small beach peppered with spinning icons that detail the controls and other mechanics. Anybody who has played a 3D platformer in the last twenty years will instantly notice a lack of fluidity within the controls, with character movement best described as being rigid. The tutorial itself even describes one of the optional methods of traversal as akin to a skateboarding sim, holding RT to run forward in a single direction. A wall kick takes the place of a double jump, which is used in conjunction with a rather ineffective dash. By dashing into an object at very close proximity, your chosen biologist – who can be swapped between at any time – gains extra height to ascent taller structures. This set-up feels rather restrictive, being borderline functional for the platforming feats exploration calls for. Not broken, but certainly very stiff.

Sephonie screenshot

It also takes time to adjust to how the developers intended Sephonie to be played. The ‘B’ button is used to return to a checkpoint, and you’re going to be doing this a lot. Not just while falling from great heights, but also when venturing too far off course to collect memory capsules. Often there’s no way to return to the beaten path, resulting in having to return to a checkpoint. A similar thing happens after large lifeform confrontations, where after a story-progressing cut-scene, you’ll then have to find your own way to progress to the next area instead of being automatically taken there.

In lieu of combat, there are grid-based puzzles, not dissimilar to Tetris. These are set on differently shaped grids, many with objects that impeded your progress or a one-off twist such as gravity. The idea is to place block formations and join those of the same colour to fill a gauge at the top of the screen. This is to ‘connect’ to the island’s creatures and learn more about them, ergo the ecosystem. If you run out of spaces to place blocks before the gauge is filled, the connection is served. These puzzles ended up being Sephonie’s most engaging feature, with the larger grids – reserved for the island’s five story-progressing ‘key’ lifeforms – occasionally calling for a retry or two.

Worry not if you aren’t a puzzle whiz, as an easy mode is available. A few other accessibility options feature, including an infinite jump that grants free roaming.

Sephonie screenshot

Just to hammer home the focus on exploration, Sephonie lacks a map and other customary features to help usher from one objective to the next. Instead of traditional levels, the island is formed of layers – and you’ll need to find the exits within these to access the next. The only form of guidance is a diagram on the menu that shows which layer you’re currently in, along with your current objective. The layers are abstract in design – the cave system features a rendition of a typical office, for instance. Most generally veer on the dream-like side of things, full of narrow platforms suspended over voids.

Some smaller locations tie-in with lengthy cut-scenes, including an underwater encounter that leads to one of the biologists recalling the day they misguidedly microwaved a fish dish in the office kitchen, which then devolves into a monologue about commercial fishing. Indeed, Sephonie is pretty ‘out there’ at times, which is likely to capture and confuse in equal measures.   

The way the experience is structured can be described the same way. The first half of the adventure involves exploring the three main layers while connecting with creatures as and when they’re discovered – with each layer having a ‘key’ creature to locate. Then for the game’s second half, you’re granted new ways to get around, which in turn leads to the discovery of new paths and creatures upon a return visit to each layer. The problem here is that during the first visit, before gaining said newfound traversal abilities, items and platforms often appear within reach, when this isn’t the case. Often, I also found myself on the outskirts of an area that was inaccessible at that point, leading to mild confusion.

Sephonie screenshot

By the time the credits rolls – with 10 hours of play on the clock – I had revisited and re-examined each layer several times over, leading to a sense of over-familiarity. There’s some generous post-game content for those still hankering for more, including a story-expanding epilogue that you’re encouraged to play.

My time with Sephonie conjured mixed feelings. The opening held much intrigue, only for it to diminish upon becoming frustrated with the controls, which led to gradual acceptance upon discovering Sephonie is less about precision and more about discovering paths and following routes. When everything finally clicked – which took around two hours, due to this being a far from conventional platformer – I did feel like I was part of a one-of-a-kind off-worldly voyage of discovery, which was presumably the developer’s intention. However, there were many times I also couldn’t shake the feeling that Sephonie was weird for the sake of being weird.

Sephonie is published on consoles by Ratalaika Games and available now. Developed by Melos Han-Tani and Marina Kittaka.

SCORE
6