During lockdown, many of us have had stranger than normal dreams. Whether they have been more vivid or more surreal than normal, this unique situation has produced myself and others with some stand-out night-time visions. However, if Superliminal was an actual dream we all had, it would probably take the biscuit for being the most unusual.
Superliminal is a first-person puzzle game. After falling asleep in front of the TV watching an advert for a strange type of treatment known as Dr. Pierce’s Dream Therapy Programme, only when you ‘wake up’ are you in fact still dreaming, but now you are in the Dream Therapy Programme.
At a first glance, Superliminal will remind you a lot of Portal, but it quickly carves out its own niche. Instead of using a portal gun to get around these levels, you pick up objects and alter their size through playing with your depth perception. By altering the shapes and sizes of objects, players must progress through these levels, descending further into a dream state.
Some objects will need to be enlarged to allow you to reach platforms higher up, or they contain a doorway that is too small for you to fit through. Superliminal throws other ideas your way too, including levels based around cloning objects, or others predominantly set in the dark, complete with the sense of a jump scare around every corner. Thankfully though, there aren’t any.
It isn’t long before you are able to ‘escape’ this control environment, and by climbing up and over the walls you start to see that things aren’t quite as they seem. Once again this reminds of Portal when you first broke out: were you there of your own accord or is there something more sinister at hand?
Throughout your journey, Dr. Glenn Pierce will leave cassette tapes with insights into his mind, providing a bit of backstory. By the end of it, his ramblings start to become more profound and poetic, and you as the player get the sense this is all some sort of reflective journey. Having started so silly and just a bit of fun, the ending is an unexpected but enjoyable conclusion.
Superliminal has quite a linear path throughout it’s 4-5 hours runtime, as it has you getting from point A to point B mainly through a series of corridors. What it does also allow is a lot of time to play around with the tools it gives. Often, the game has large rooms where you can quickly figure out what you need to do in order to progress – it is worth noting that Superliminal isn’t a challenging puzzler in that sense – but happily offers one or two distractions to play around with in an enclosed sandbox. One such puzzle required me to open a door at the top of a large staircase using an apple on a pressure plate. However, there was also an oversized fan that would blow apples across the room. Safe to say there were a lot of apples in a pile in the corner of the room before I put one on the pressure plate.
It isn’t all about altering the size of objects in order to progress, Superliminal has a few other levels built around unique mechanics. Some levels require lining up objects to reveal another – similar to lining up the QR codes in Watch_Dogs – and other levels are all about figuring out the mechanisms of a labyrinthine series of rooms. Unfortunately, these have a nasty habit or overstaying their welcome, or being too few and far between. Superliminal has you wandering through a lot of corridors in between these main sections before either dropping you into another puzzle similar to the one just completed, or something really cool and imaginative that only happens the once. The balance doesn’t feel quite right throughout.
At times, when you are cloning objects or you have shrunk yourself down to the size of a pea in amongst towering monolithic chess pieces, Superliminal struggles. The music gets choppy, and the framerate drops significantly. Superliminal puts steps in place to avoid bombarding the screen with too many cloned objects, but by the time you reach the limit the game has already stuttered to a halt.
But Superliminal does offer a lot of repeat playthroughs. Alongside the number of various collectibles and secrets to discover, is the level select that unlocks after each level. Collectibles come in the form of fire extinguishers, fire alarms, hidden chess pieces and constellations, so there is plenty to go back for on second and third playthroughs.
These collectibles extend into Superliminal’s achievements. There are 21 in total, and in amongst those for finding everything that is on offer, there are plenty for playing around in the game with the objects such as the soda cans and apples. For the completionists however, alongside an achievement for completing Superliminal there are additional achievements for speedrunning: completing the game in less than an hour, and a final one for completing in less than 30 minutes.
Superliminal on the Xbox One offers the tools to fully enjoy this concept for what it is. Playing with perspectives is a novel idea and you can have a lot of fun with it. Repeat playthroughs are encouraged with plenty of secrets to uncover, but there is a bit too much repetition within individual sections of Superliminal. However, the story more than manages to hold it all together and it is certainly a surprise with how profound it ends up being.