Labelling Superliminal in a few words is a challenge because it’s not entirely a puzzle game and not wholly a guided exploration game. Both elements flow between one another without much fanfare or notification, the only signifier being a loading screen when transitioning from one chapter to the next. Despite how organic the games’ progression is, its own story partially betrays the gameplay resolved only by its ending.
Don’t let the concept of dreamscape puzzle-solving intimidate you as the marketing implies, as the overall gimmick here is playing with perspectives and cheating the rules of (meta/physical) space. How you interact/look at objects, including their distance or proximity, are your bread and butter here*. The puzzles are relatively easy enough to figure out with enough experimentation, as there’s nothing dextrously complicated like particular timing or setting off multiple flags/triggers in a row. Superliminal doesn’t stay on one mechanic for long, as it’ll introduce a new puzzle type for a few rooms then move onto the next. Encountering new things happens at a steady rate which is impressive for a game that takes around two hours or so to complete, leaving no time for needless fluff or filler.
The story is ultimately moot as your role is that of a faceless, voiceless player character visiting the Pierce Institute to participate in patent-pending dream therapy. This premise is fine, but Superliminal’s campaign does little to expand on this and disconnects the gameplay. From voice-overs advising that you’re off the intended path or not following the treatment course correctly, for what’s primarily a linear experience, the tone feels needlessly snarky for what ultimately isn’t your fault. So infrequently is there anything resembling a therapeutic experience, and it ends up feeling like you’re a test subject instead of a patient. There are multiple instances of being faked out that you’ll wake up so that things reset or get back on track, but just as quickly do things continue to go off the rails for the sake of new puzzles.
They’re effective fakeouts by way of sudden cuts or misdirection; I’ll give Superliminal credit for that. It’s also quite funny when perhaps not intended: Placing a tangible object down only to find it’s become intangible and smeared onto the wall and floor, using a bouncy castle to change your size or even causing a catastrophic paradox by accident. The puzzles frequently made me have strong reactions through surprise or laughter upon realizing the concept or solving them, even if they’re ones I got stumped by. The direction and programming of Superliminal are fantastic that way, and even if these ‘dreams’ feel imposed and transposed, I was eager to chug along to the next puzzle or downright cinematic setpiece.
… That is until chapter four, Blackout. For those with nyctophobia like myself, this chapter is less a test of puzzle-solving skills but keeping one’s nerves intact while traversing mainly in the dark. It’s also the weakest stretch of puzzles by far, relying on using little light and purposely surrounding yourself with darkness to proceed. It’s a profoundly unpleasant part of the game that, to its credit, has no instances of inappropriate jumpscares and even uses perspective for a couple of gags. That’s the only real blemish on the campaign, as the chapters preceding and following Blackout are far more enjoyable and make better use of the games’ warm lighting and soft colour palettes.
Most of my criticisms about the story get wrapped by a nice little bow upon reaching the incredibly touching (and I’ll dare say emotional) final chapter and ending. Still, I just wish these dreams were more… Dreamy. There’s no getting around that the puzzles, rooms and so on are imposed by the Pierce Institute’s therapy, but it always ended up feeling like the treatment itself was breaking at the seams and not the dreams themselves. The ending implies this was intended, though that comes across as a cop-out.
I can think of many games that better provide a puzzle experience or a guided exploration experience. However, I can’t think of many that come close to riding that middle ground as nicely as Superliminal does. Up until its finale does the story disconnect me from the gameplay, but that’s ultimately my biggest gripe outside of the fourth chapter being beans. Nevertheless, strong puzzles surrounded by well-realized and well-executed premises and programming make Superliminal an easy recommendation.
*Discussing the puzzles in great detail would be spoilers, of course, and I do think they’re worth experiencing with little to no context going in.