It isn’t often that people make 3D narrative-focused platformers. Similar games are either 2D or angled more toward collectathon aspects. Sephonie is a rare game that combines engaging platforming and world design with visual novel-esque presentation and line-matching puzzle gameplay. The story isn’t as good as it could have been, and the visual presentation is undeniably dated. However, the game has a whole lot to offer anyone who enjoys complex 3D platforming, unique narrative trappings, and a willingness to experiment with convention. That alone makes the game stand out in a space that isn’t actually all that crowded.
Sephonie is all about three researchers who have come to the titular island to study. They are Amy, an American of Taiwanese descent, Riyou, a Japanese-Taiwanese man, and Ing-wen, a scientist from Taiwan. Like a lot of the game’s incidental details, all three of them being Taiwanese despite being part of a multinational research crew comes off feeling contrived. Not in a bad way, mind you. But it’s hard not to notice some story elements are thrown together somewhat haphazardly, and without much care.
Sephonie‘s story is told through voiceless dialogue, with writing that is verbose and colorful. The author certainly has demonstrable linguistic talents. However, the visual novel sections are meandering, fractured, and dull. The regular sections are better, but the characters aren’t likeable. They have few traits, and their dialogue doesn’t succeed at granting them unique voices. The cast just comes off as robotic. Sephonie also has a lot of long chunks of text where the screen shows an image and displays text for minutes on end.
Two of the three main characters are gay. And, as mentioned before, it’s another element of the game’s storytelling that doesn’t avoid contrivances. The game tells us that Ing-wen is gay once or twice, which feels like a natural amount of mentions. But it reminds us that Riyou is gay to an overzealous degree, which makes me feel like sexuality is being used as a prop here. A fourth major character shows up at the end and he too is gay. We know this because one of the main characters looks at him and goes, “you look gay!” Which he then confirms. It feels like pandering.
Running up the walls
The game begins by dropping the three leads on the island of Sephonie, which is home to a multitude of strange organisms. The three eventually find that the island is home to a virus that’s set to plunge the world into chaos. It was clearly inspired by the Coronavirus pandemic and feels shoehorned in, much like nearly every other time Sephonie attempts to say anything.
You start off with a brief tutorial that explains the mechanics. All three characters can be swapped on the fly and control identically. They jump, wall run, and use environmental elements to move around. Sprinting feels weird, almost like skating on ice. It works, but I believe it would have been better had a more normal method been chosen. The sprinting will sometimes result in you jumping off into an unintended direction, which is annoying.
Regardless, the platforming feels great, as do the controls in general — save for the aforementioned sprinting. Platforming is surprisingly demanding and varied, and they open up as you gain more moves. Doing so, however, requires some ground work. You can, while controlling your researchers, interact with animals. For some species, this is optional, but there are a handful of special organisms required for study. Interacting with these major organisms grant you new abilities that allow you to progress or explore previous areas, making Sephonie a bit of a Metroid-like.
It really feels quite nice to platform around the game’s environments. The signposting is also quite good, as it’s usually not hard to figure out how to progress. Sephonie can really be a bit of a puzzle platformer and there really is quite a bit to the platforming. I never thought I’d be this impressed by a 3D narrative platformer in this respect, but it absolutely worked out here. Some sections can feel a bit much at times, however.
Of course, then there’s the puzzle gameplay, which is also quite good. You play a puzzle every time you interact with an animal, and you get a new piece akin to a Tetromino every time you make a connection. The game can be quite challenging later on, but generally feels fair.
Line ’em up
The puzzles are almost all so easy that I didn’t fully learn how the mechanics worked until the game’s final challenge. You merely need to place pieces of colored blocks in a grid so that you put as many colored blocks as you can next to each other, which will fill up the bar you need to win further and further. You have a couple of lives, which you won’t lose as long as you’re able to fill up the bar to a certain point.
If you don’t fill it up enough, you lose the life; lose them all and you have to start over. The puzzle spaces are all shaped differently and have their own obstacles to overcome. Thankfully, the puzzle solving remains intriguing, and it’s fun to track down and make use of new pieces. There is also fair amount of optional content in Sephonie, plus beating the main game unlocks the episode with the aforementioned fourth character. The last puzzle is so much harder than all the others that I had to switch puzzle difficulty to easy. It still took me more than one try, which I thought was unnecessary.
The game is about seven or eight hours long depending on how much you explore. But, honestly, Sephonie is something all fans of 3D platformers should play. It might look like a GameCube title and the story is contrived and not nearly as profound or likeable as it tries to be, but it’s well worth slogging through the odd, overlong visual novel sections to get to the good stuff.
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