Sometimes I wonder what my cat would say if I could somehow connect to his brain. Perhaps he would have thoughts on the strange interaction between himself and two large monkeys. Neither party can truly understand the other, communicating only by recognising gestures and routines, and yet we feel the link deepening just by being there for each other. Most likely though, he’d just ask when dinner was. This was one of many questions that were raised by Sephonie.
It also raised a sticky question for me. Should I review a game based on how much I personally like it or how subjectively good I believe its individual parts to be? It’s tough because I like the questions that Sephonie raises. It’s taking a stab at some deep themes of place and identity and doesn’t put them through the tortured metaphor wringer. A shame, then, that it can’t combine these questions with satisfying gameplay.
ONYX, I Choose You!
Let’s keep it positive for the moment. Sephonie opens with three researchers on an expedition to visit an unexplored island. As they approach, an electrical disturbance causes a shipwreck and they find themselves stranded. These researchers all have nice, distinct personalities which unfold as you play. Amy takes the role of leader, somewhat reluctantly, but keeps the team together. Riyou is clever, but self-destructingly single-minded. Ing-wen has a big heart but wrestles with her own meekness. I also like that they are LGBT characters, but without that forming the main drive of the characters. They feel like real people. The dialogue writing is a bit strange, something we’ll get to in a moment, but it made them very endearing.
What’s more, I like that it doesn’t shy away from the mundane. A monologue that starts about a coworker microwaving a fish evolves into one that explores how much the places we live in affect us. It was nice. There’s a strong theme of change underneath it, like our characters are being swept along and they’re trying to figure out how to turn from their past selves into their present. It’s also telling that Sephonie was made during the Covid pandemic, something which forms the core plot – we’re trying to prevent a virus from escaping. A lot of the game is wondering how the future is going to change things. Shops close, people change and new memories are formed.
Probably best not to tell them that things didn’t change as much as expected. The other side of things is linking with wildlife. Our researcher chums have implants in their heads called ‘ONYX’, which allows them to connect to different beings. We basically go around chatting up everything from big lizards to strands of kelp. It’s bizarre. The writing in general is very strange. This is a game where the physical manifestation of the island will start comparing train networks to slime mold. Admittedly it’s a sound comparison, but a simple ‘Hello, how are you’ might have been a better opener. If you’ve not got a high tolerance for the weird, it might put you off a tad.
A Dash Of Frustration
I do have a high weird tolerance so I rather liked it. Characters evolved well throughout, at least until the end which seemed to cut off rather abruptly. So that element of things I rather liked. You might now have noticed that I haven’t spoken about the gameplay. That’s deliberate. See, I like Sephonie and I didn’t want to lead with a blow to the gut. But let’s get to it. Sephonie‘s gameplay is in two halves. The first is a third person platformer. It’s a lot of precision jumps, combined with a dash that richochets you off walls to get you a bit more height. New ideas are introduced right up until the end, which is good. It feels… not great though.
There’s no one issue with it. Jumps feel very floaty, so it’s often difficult to tell whether you’re going to reach a platform or not. The sprint doesn’t help things either. Sephonie describes its sprint as akin to riding a skateboard. Had a double take at that. Skateboards are nice but aren’t generally used for precision platforming. What it means is that you run forward immediatly in the direction your character is facing, causing the camera to lurch around. Combine that with the awkward wall running, that often had Amy slamming into the wall instead of running along it, and you have one frustrating gameplay mechanic.
Yet Sephonie wants us to explore its world, as its main cave system is vast and full of weird creatures to connect to. I couldn’t bring myself to explore though, largely due to the graphics. It’s a deliberately old-school style, which wasn’t really doing it for me. It also made it hard to figure out where I was going and I never knew whether I was going in the right way or even doing the platforming correctly. So, sweep that away, what about the other gameplay half? Well, when we link to wildlife we play a strange little tetris game. You lay down blocks, making them all connect up, and score points for three or more colours. It’s nice enough, if a little weirdly easy.
Gotta Link ‘Em All
What got me though, is that Sephonie refuses to connect all of its parts together. The nice writing sections are presented as a sort of slideshow, where we put the controller down and politely read. The platforming doesn’t connect well either. We can choose any of the three characters, but they all play exactly the same so I just used the first one it gave me. Then there’s the linking bit, which is a nice, if far too easy, little puzzle game that’s crammed into the middle of a frustrating platformer. Nothing links together, ironically.
Which brings me back to that question. How do I score something that I like but I feel has problems on a fundamental level? Well, the big score below will be my answer to that. Ultimately, Sephonie has a lot of interesting things to say. Its characters are pleasant and it poses good questions about identity, place and our connections to each other. If Sephonie could use the medium to push that message, then it would be perfect. Ultimately though, games are driven by gameplay and if that can’t stand up by itself, then it doesn’t matter how many giant angler fish we can link with.