Sephonie is an ambitious title from the small indie development duo that created Anodyne 1 & 2 – two excellent games that punch well above their perceived threshold. Sephonie is their latest title which merges together a story rich narrative, 3D adventure parkour platforming and a match 3 style puzzle mechanic. There is a lot going on here but that comes with a health risk. Some of it is very rough around the edges.
Starting with the positives, the story is a fascinating one that unfolds a slow burn over time. You play as three research scientists who shipwreck on the island of Sephonie. The scientists planned to reach there, just not shipwreck. They are visiting the island because it has a unique biodiversity and they want to connect with it using a link system that merges thoughts, emotions, memories and consciousness together. The idea being, if we all know more about each other, we could perhaps build a better understanding of each other. Sephonie itself has a consciousness though and so it begins to manipulate the scientists own minds in a way that builds new levels out of memory fragments for them to traverse as they link up with more creatures and fauna to better understand the island. It is a fascinating story, that asks some deep questions in a poetic and sympathetic way. It is easily the strongest element of the game although gamers will get most out of it if they are thinkers and ponderers themselves.
In order to traverse the island, its caves and forests and the memory levels it creates, your three scientists (all interchangeable as they have the same athletic skill set) will parkour around the island like a 3D platformer. Here is where some extreme marmite level design and control set up comes into play and most of my frustrations with Sephonie comes from these areas. Your character can quite fluidly run, jump, double jump, wall run, hang glide, bounce pad, lasso and sprint around Sephonie as new abilities are unlocked. The same caves you’ll revisit time and again but with new skills comes new areas to traverse and if you can see a ledge somewhere, chances are you can chain up all those moves to get there. The graphics are early 2000-05 era blocky abstractions of walls and the dark cave style doesn’t let the stylistic choice shine as nicely as it does outside and that hides some of the retro charm. That retro charm seeps out in the control and camera issues though.
I was reminded of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness when it released with very binary on/off sidestepping and lining up of jumps in an era that allowed character more fluidity in movement. Whilst Sephonie allows fluid character movement, a lot of control is mapped to the sprint and jump buttons. Your character starts off sprinting then overly clamps to a wall run when you want to bounce and bounce when you want to wall run. The camera is constantly moving into awkward positions meaning that as need to line up chaining your moves because of the games over excited nature of clamping you to walls or bounce pads, you’ll then jump off into the abyss repeatedly. The level design is often set up to challenge you but occasionally it feels meanspirited too, like mushrooms that bounce you off of a wall that you are trying to wall run and double jump across. The game cannot be relied upon to feel consistent each time so then it makes you feel more stupid with all these traps. Frankly, after three hours I’d lost most of patience with the parkour side of the game.
When you do reach a creature to link with, an intriguing match 3 style game begins. Reminding me a little of Chime and Blokus, you have red, blue and green blocks like Tetris to rotate and place inside of a grid however you want as long as they fit. Lay down as many as you can in big colour groups to score big points and then clear the board of anything matching 3 of more together horizontally and vertically. Each creature has its own unique grid layout with lots of special grid areas that give multipliers, change colours, erase blocks, spawn boulders or new colours, move things around or become a lock or key for other parts of the grid. There’s a lot of variation and that kept the match 3 element interesting. My complaint here is that its also very easy and there was no point that I felt in danger of losing. Still it, was a nice change of pace.
So that means you have an engrossing, nuanced story that’s reflective and meditative in many ways, leading to the most infuriating rage inducing platforming I’ve played from a new game in 2022 to a varied but ultimately very easy match 3 game. It is a pacing and mood cyclone that doesn’t feel connected at all. Maybe if you click with the parkour elements it’s less pronounced but I wanted to scream as I ran into yet another death at the same point over and over again. Thankfully the respawns are generous and some of the decidedly PS2 era soundtrack is excellent to calm you down a bit.
Ultimately, I was left after many hours asking the question, was I enjoying myself? I’m still not entirely sure I did. There’s some great moments and ideas here, it just feels like Sephonie needed another couple of months in the oven baking out its rough edges. Your mileage might be far more than mine though and perhaps I just needed to “get good”. It’s just I regularly still play all my 90’s and 2000’s games daily so I don’t feel its me forgetting the limits of old school gaming controls.
Review copy provided by developer.
A pick n mix of ideas that feel like an emotional rollercoaster, simple puzzling and total platforming frustration all at the same time.
Genuinely interesting story ideas and visual storytelling.
Great PS2-era styled soundtrack.
Lots of variation on the match 3 element of the game keeps that section fresh.
If you master the platforming, there's plenty of additional collectables and satisfaction in getting it right (when it works).
The controls and camera of the parkour platforming make it an exercise in total frustration.
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