It’s easy to dismiss Superliminal as just “Portal with perspective puzzles,” but by the time you've used a slice of cheese as a nifty ramp or a tiny fan to blow away a giant block of jenga, you'll realise that there's more than meets the eye to this first-person adventure that explores the world of optical illusions. There are definitely similarities to Valve's iconic puzzler – trapped, as you are, in seemingly never-ending corridors with the unshakeable feeling of being watched by a morally ambiguous presence. But Superliminal soon transcends these basic tropes to present an incredibly surreal and inventive journey into a dreamscape you'll be sad to wake up from.
You start your adventure gently falling asleep to an advertisement highlighting the wonders of Somnasculpt, a new dream therapy which can, apparently, cure feelings of self-doubt and offer participants new leases on life. Surprise surprise, the next time you “wake up” you're already dreaming, having given the experimental programme a go for yourself. Of course, as with any story centred around new technology, things don't appear to go quite to plan. Instead of eventually returning to consciousness, you find yourself falling further and further into an increasingly abstract series of dreams as a frantic robotic voice and the soothing but audibly confused sound of your doctor, Glenn Pierce, try to work out what's going on, and perhaps more importantly, get you back to reality.
The idea of exploring areas of the human brain has already been done with great creativity in games such as Double Fine's Psychonauts, and Superliminal pushes this intriguing idea to its most absurd. You freely roam about using WASD, with your mouse controlling the camera. A left-click of the latter picks up items (with a pleasing “pop” sound effect), whilst right-clicking allows you to rotate the object you're holding. Finally, tapping space lets you jump, though you won't be doing any tricky platforming. That's all the controls you need in your arsenal for Superliminal – that and your ability to think, often quite literally, from new perspectives.
Most of the puzzles here involve simply trying to progress to the next mind-bending room of trickery, which will hopefully lead you one step closer to waking up. Unlike most adventures, however, this game plays wonderfully with the idea of forced perspective, so picking up a cube and holding it in front of you in the foreground against a distant backdrop suddenly makes it actually bigger if you let go, but holding it up against something close makes it physically smaller when released. So, a door that once appeared unreachable is easily within grasp when you drop what were once tiny cubes from what appears to be a great height when viewed up close and climb up them when they land, now enlarged to the size of the background. It's the small, far away sketch from Irish comedy classic Father Ted played out in spectacular video game form.
The game gently introduces new puzzle elements as you progress, with the efficient pacing never making you feel too tired or bored. At first it's just a case of transforming objects into different sizes to climb them to new rooms, but other obstacles require placing items on pressure plates to progress, with even objects you wouldn’t necessarily think are interactive available to pick up and use to escape. Later on there are some clever challenges involving forced perspective points in which you need to stand in just the right place to make a depiction of an apple or cube suddenly appear “real” so you can pick it up. You'll also have to contend with being too big or too small to get through doors, and objects that slide away from you or collapse into smaller versions of themselves.
Whilst I found I could complete most rooms easily, there are one or two more taxing puzzles that did need a bit of lateral thinking to get my head around. I would have enjoyed even more of these, as some scenes are either nearly empty or don't pose much of a challenge, but with new ideas continually being thrown at me, the variety if not the difficulty made the game a joy to play through anyway.
As you might expect from a game based around the volatile nature of dreams, some of the last few phases descend into M.C. Escher levels of surrealism. There are nine chapters in Superliminal, each with its own puzzle theme, and as you travel deeper and deeper through levels of your subconscious, the game injects an even greater sense of absurdity into every interaction. You'll find yourself picking up the very building you're already in, or falling through endless black and white tiles – some solid, some see-through, all filling up the screen as if you've suddenly dived headfirst into an exhibition of optical art. The developers at Pillow Castle have done a great job of pulling the rug from under your feet again and again with the levels of imagination involved in these later sections; every door I walked (or tumbled) through left me unsure what on earth I'd be encountering next.
To complement the uncanny sense of place, Superliminal's 3D environments, whether the long claustrophobic corridors of apartment-like buildings and warehouses or inflatable bouncy castles, are rather simply designed but almost all brightly coloured. The music has a pleasing elevator “muzak” quality, mostly jazzy piano refrains that drift in and out as if piped in through your sleeping subconscious. You won't encounter any physical human interaction in your travels, but you will hear the occasional input from a more and more bothered computer and the voice of Dr Pierce. The calming dulcet Scottish tones of the latter, found as recorded segments on radios scattered throughout the game, are often amusingly at odds with the alarming content of his messages, another touch of absurdist humour which the game carries off very well.
It took me roughly four hours to complete Superliminal, but I was led through quite a journey in that short amount of time. The final reveal, whilst not entirely unexpected, is an emotional one that conveys just the right level of seriousness to be believable without feeling too forced or explanatory. You may start out by comparing this game to similar “sinister technology gone wrong” titles, but you'd be wrong to not look at it differently and give it a chance. Thanks to Superliminal's outlandish gameplay, constant ability to reinvent itself, and thought-provoking final message, a different perspective will ultimately reveal it to be far outside any such neatly labelled box.