The puzzle game genre has felt stale for some time now. Portal and The Witness were excellent additions, the first for its unique physics puzzles and off-the-rails sci-fi feel and the second because of its uplifting, peaceful, and creative premise. With a unique take on perception, physics, and reality, Pillow Castle’s Superliminal feels like a combination between the two puzzlers, but is this a puzzle worth solving? Find out below – this is our Superliminal review!
At the outset, I had no expectations for what Superliminal might offer outside of a puzzle experience of some sort. Accordingly, graphics and sounds didn’t offend me, but neither was I wowed at the assets necessarily. Colors do add to the themes, with a different theme for each ‘level.’ The colors and themes were implemented well enough that I have to give the designers credit for crafting something that visually feels special, despite no particular element of the visuals standing out. Audio felt the same – the sounds weren’t outstanding, but they contributed well to the overall experience in a real way. Similarly, the voice acting wasn’t over the top and was minimal, just enough to add to the narrative without detracting from immersion.
The basic premise is that you, the nameless protagonist, have enlisted in a new program that uses special technology to modify and manipulate dreams as a form of therapy. The theme is adhered to throughout Superliminal’s 2-3 hour playthrough and features prominently in the storyline. Without spoiling much, Pillow Castle’s Superliminal sees the program going off the rails, so to speak, and features the player trying to set things right as they progress from one end of a level to the other.
Central to Superliminal is the idea that not everything is as it seems, and if you don’t like how it seems, some creative maneuvering can change it. For example, pressing a button on a soda machine causes a can of soda to eject, which can then be picked up and moved around the screen. If the can is dropped on a part of the screen that has floor in the distance, the can will be placed on the floor in the distance, but at the same relative size that the player sees from their current view. Confused? Well, after placing the can in that manner, you can walk up to it and it will now be huge because your perspective when placing the can changed its actual size. Similarly, if you click on a door in the distance (which looks small), you can drop it in front of you and it will be small, rather than real door-sized. Most puzzles play off of the theme of perceptions changing reality and are stretched, twisted, and turned in creative ways.
Superliminal features nine levels… eight of which are puzzle levels, the ninth of which is a story-type level that draws everything together. As mentioned, each level features its own theme and story progression, often with new puzzle elements and variations. The storytelling is light, but its execution is superb. The number of characters is very small and is present through most levels – two aside from the protagonist, both of which are only heard. As such, Superliminal feels lonely at times and certainly evokes the sense of being in one’s own dreams.
Controls in Superliminal are rather simple. Moving is very similar to most FPS games, with the exception of the mouse’s manipulation of items. Rotating and resizing items features prominently in almost every level. Although praiseworthy for its unique and fun nature, this mechanic can get really annoying when specific sizing is needed. I found the mechanic broke down at very large sizes, but otherwise, it worked well.
Puzzle difficulty also varied. Generally speaking, I found the difficulty increased from the first level. The difficulty was mostly shallow and linear in its increase, with some spikes at the end. Granted, some of those spikes were due to a bug that caused items to disappear when a larger items fell on top of them, but a convenient ‘Return to Checkpoint’ feature allowed me to pick right back up from where I started from. That said, I found Superliminal’s difficulty to be lower than Portal, the Witness, Quern, and really every other puzzle game I’ve played. The downside is that the ending, which I enjoyed, didn’t feel earned the same way that The Witness’s ending felt.
Nevertheless, I am genuinely grateful that I had the opportunity to play Superliminal. Much like What Remains of Edith Finch, Superliminal feels like an experience as much as it feels like a game. My chief complaint, other than occasional mechanical jankiness, is that it’s so darn short. I understand that the story can only carry on so much and that Superliminal’s mechanics can only stretch so far. Even so, I hit the end and asked ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ I think this is a better problem to have than had Pillow Castle milked the mechanics and story too much, but I’d bet that I could have played twice the content and enjoyed it even more.
At the end of the day, though, Superliminal is a puzzle game – a very short puzzle game. Although its difficulty isn’t high and the occasional bug can be distracting, the storytelling is on point, as are the novel mechanics and great thematic elements. I really liked the uplifting message at the end and found it worth playing through for. I strongly recommend Superliminal for those who enjoy puzzle games but don’t demand a brain-melting challenge. This is also a great game for someone who wants a zen-type gaming experience. Frankly, I felt better as a person after playing Superliminal, and I think you might, too.
Editor’s Note: A PC game key was provided for this review.
COMPARE TO: Portal, The Witness