Superliminal is a first-person puzzle game which incorporates forced perspective and optical illusions, so perception is key. I consider myself a puzzle game enthusiast, so I wanted to know how the game holds up to all the classics it takes inspiration from, like Portal and The Stanley Parable.
Superliminal has actually been around since November 2019 but managed to slip past me completely unnoticed until it came to GamePass earlier this month. So, while I may be late to the game, I’m sure there are others out there who have just noticed it and are wondering what it’s all about. Although this perception-warping game may have you questioning if your eyes can be trusted, this review will be exactly what it says on the…tin / website? So let us begin. And be warned, there are spoilers ahead but no solutions to puzzles.
Superliminal is all about dreams and dream-logic, or lack thereof. We play as a patient of Dr Glen Pierce, testing out his dream therapy program called SomnaSculpt. As part of this program, patients are put to sleep and placed in a testing environment constructed in their dream world. The aim of the therapy is for patients to find a peace of mind by completing a series of challenges. In doing so, they overcome the negative emotions holding them back, such as self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. The program wants us to be able to view our real-life problems from a different perspective. Seems logical, doesn’t it?
Within this world, perception is going to be of high importance, which is demonstrated using some chess pieces before you encounter the first puzzle. Basically, if you were to take a small chess piece from the table and hold it in front of you, it would appear large against the background. Obviously, this isn’t the case as it just appears larger due to being close-up, but this game flips this basic law of physics on its head. As soon as you release the chess piece, it becomes the size it appears to be. Once you wrap your head around this unique concept of first-person perspective, solving the puzzles becomes relatively straightforward. This mechanic for resizing items is extremely satisfying, especially when you take something tiny and turn it into a gargantuan fan that crashes into the ground in slow motion. It works the other way too: you can lift something large and far away, and reduce it so it could fit into the palm of your hand.
There are also optical illusions where an object appears to be solid, but as you move closer it’s actually just painted on the wall and floor. These illusions actually managed to make me feel slightly motion sick, and I had to stop playing when it got particularly bad. I am susceptible to motion sickness though and really struggle with VR games for this reason, so I think most players would be relatively unaffected. Whilst feeling somewhat nauseous, I was pretty impressed that the game even managed to trigger that reaction in me.
You can interact with other objects that spawn infinite numbers of duplicates, objects that only appear if you observe them at the correct angle, and many more. So, while the signature gimmick of this game involves perception, there is so much more to it. For this reason, the game never really felt stale to me, and managed to keep the old brain working right until the end.
While we are having so much fun within the dream world, we don’t wake up at our appointed time, ending up back in it. This prompts some concern from Dr Pierce, who explains that he has lost track of us as we progress through more and more dream layers, which become progressively more disorientating. An AI who is administering the therapy advises us to initiate an “Explosive Mental Overload” in order to trigger the “Emergency Exit Protocol” and escape the dream world. Naturally this leads the game spiralling into a truly surreal direction.
I wouldn’t say the puzzles are too easy, but most of the time they didn’t keep me stumped for too long. There was a certain hallway puzzle towards the end of the game that I remain unimpressed with. It doesn’t use the depth-perception gimmick, which is fine because some of the puzzles do involve other mechanics, but to me this puzzle just made no sense. I’m sure you’ll realise exactly which one I’m talking about if you play this game. In the end I searched YouTube for the solution and instead of giving me a lightbulb moment that made me slap my forehead and proclaim how dumb I am, I questioned how anyone was supposed to work that out. This was the only puzzle that made me feel this way, so overall it didn’t give me a negative view of the game. I just found it frustrating and it broke the seamless flow I had enjoyed so far.
For a short game, it dragged in places. The only thing moving the story forward is voice clips from Dr Pierce over the radio, which didn’t really drive the narrative forward enough. I was also occasionally chastised by the AI for not dreaming properly. For a game so cerebral, the story was really lacking, especially when compared to The Stanley Parable and Portal, both of which prove that you can have a compelling story embedded within a series of puzzles. Superliminal definitely delivered on the puzzles, but I could discuss pretty much the entirety of the story without feeling like I’m really spoiling anything. There wasn’t a big twist at the end, simply an inspirational message about how to overcome challenges in the real world.
The game was first conceived by Albert Shih back in 2013 as part of a programming assignment while he was an undergraduate at the Entertainment Technology Centre (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2014 he founded Pillow Castle whilst improving on the initial concept. A six-member team developed the game which finally saw release on Windows and the Epic Game store in November 2019, followed by PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Switch in July 2020. Finally followed by Steam in November 2020 and GamePass in September 2021. This staggered release at least goes some way towards explaining how I managed to totally miss it.
In short, Superliminal is a fun but brief puzzle game with a unique concept that doesn’t quite feel fully fleshed-out. The lack of narrative hurts the game, but the well-designed puzzle mechanics take the edge off any disappointment. As a fan of puzzle games, I enjoyed it and would recommend it if you’re looking for something to kill an afternoon, but it did leave me asking: ‘Is that all?’
Guest edited by Catherine.