We seem to be in something of a blessed time for puzzle games. Alongside the big names are an ever-growing pile of previously unknown indies creating really inspired ideas, and right near the top of that pile is Semispheres [official site]. A single-player split-screen mind-fuck that's at once deeply relaxing and brain-rippingly smart.
Levels begin with a single screen that horizontally pulls itself into two similar halves. On each half is a small jellyfish-like blob, individually controlled (ideally with a controller, each jellyfish on an analogue stick), with the intent of reaching their separate goals. At first this is about each negotiating their individual way via pick-ups that offer one-use abilities. Quickly you'll learn how to distract guard-blobs with noisemakers, diverting their cones of view so you can slip past, for instance. But it doesn't take long before it's about mind-twisting interactions between the two halves, whether by portals, teleports, place switches, and so on. And it does it all rather brilliantly.
Controlling two jellyfish independently at the same time is not simple for a human brain to do. The game doesn't require you do the impossible, but it does provide the opportunity to try to do things simultaneously if you want to. And it's extraordinary how my mind tries to fight it, flipping its focus to one and sending the other off in some silly direction it didn't want to go. But with practice you get better at it, start doing things you didn't think you even could. I stress there's not a need, you can move each separately, but still.
That doesn't make it simple though. I found my brain tying itself in confused knots as I forced it to think about yellow distracting a guard on the opposite half through a portal, such that I could then switch places between yellow and blue, and duck behind a wall, while blue grabbed the icon for switching them back...
Semispheres pitches itself as a meditative game, accompanying the puzzles with a super-dreamy ambient soundtrack (that's still pleasantly swimming around in the background as I write this), and the presentation is soft-focus, calm muted oranges and blues, objects gently shimmering. Although I think rather than help relax you into a state of bliss, this serves to keep you from going completely mad as your brain starts adjusting to its requirements. I'm not kidding when I say after playing a few puzzles of this, I find it hard to remember how to interact with the real world again, my mind trying to understand my keyboard as two separate halves that only interact through complex portal dimensions. Without the dolphin tunes I'd probably go doolally and start drawing spirals on the walls with both hands.
But it introduces these concepts with a deft hand, letting you have a more immediately understandable experience of a new pick-up before then asking you to divide your consciousness into two distinct personalities to employ it later. And rather pleasingly, puzzles that are grouped together don't necessarily all use the same new abilities. You might be introduced to switching blobs between screens, or figure out that the only path to success is failure, and then the next puzzle drops the lot and has you try to remember how to do things more simply in the wake of recent complexity. That's quite brilliant, it turns out.
I completely love it. This is such a smart game, cleverly delivered both in style and execution, taking familiar puzzle ideas and making them feel bewilderingly original via its split-screen single-player co-op. I'm 31 levels into its 50 or so, and I'm currently completely stumped, but working at it. What a treat that is. This is one of the good ones.