Sephonie

Review readers rejoice: I’m finally writing about something that isn’t an RPG this time.

Sephonie is the latest game by Melos Han-Tani and Marina Kittaka under their Analgesic Productions handle. A trio of international researchers head to the mysterious Sephonie Island on an expedition, only to get stranded there. With nothing better to do, they decide to go all in one researching Sephonie’s flora and fauna, creating connections with the land and each other.

Having played through most of their previous games, Sephonie is interesting in that it feels like a culmination of previous ideas. Sephonie carries over the sort of storytelling that Anodyne 2: Return to Dust presented, which itself was a more refined version of their first game Anodyne. Thematically, the game reminds of the environmental themes of Even the Ocean (which oh boy probably feels worse to play today) and the cultural musings in Melos’ solo game All Our Asias.

But, more on the story later. Right now, we’re talking about running and jumping. While Anodyne 2 already differentiated itself from past Analgesic Productions games with its 3D environments, it felt more like a connective thread between the top-down 2D segments. However, there’s a much greater focus on 3D platforming here.

When a button is held, you initiate a sprint. When sprinting, you can jump up and run alongside a flat wall for some parkour action and you can use that sprint button as a double jump if you’re close enough to a ledge. It takes some getting used to since the sprint starts when the button’s pressed and not when you’re moving while it’s pressed down, but otherwise it works pretty fine.

While you can switch between three characters, there’s no differences between them gameplay-wise; however, you are forced to play as a certain character at points for the sake of story, but you know, more on that later. You learn new skills as you progress, but they’re mainly used for the sake of going down paths you couldn’t before and easy backtracking. They get a lot of mileage out of the ability to grappling hook off of those frog-bat-things, which gets combined a lot with level gimmicks going forward, though it winds up emphasizing how the other skills are essentially arbitrary.

As for the level design, it’s generally pretty good. It’s easy to grasp onto new level mechanics, and even if you can’t, there’s a lot of room to learn since there’s unlimited lives and the game is generous with its checkpoints. For further ease, you can just instantly return to a checkpoint by holding a button down for a few seconds. The game progression goes smoothly, consistently presenting new mechanics while never losing sight of its core platforming. Though, my favorite area has to be Riyou’s focus level in that it feels more focused on stretching your understanding of the basics instead of introducing new stuff; plus, I love weird surreal city levels.

Really, if I had any complaints about the platforming, it’s that the camera could get screwy at times. But let’s be real, that’s a problem with most 3D platformers, so it’s whatever.

To encourage you to explore and make full use of Sephonie’s movement, the game’s got a bunch of hidden collectables that you really need to go out of your way for at times. Now, I usually think that collectables in a lot of 3D platformers are arbitrary. The biggest example that comes to mind for me are Super Mario Sunshine’s blue coins, which are literally unnecessary to collect to beat the game unless you have the Joker brain to pursue 100% completion. Here though, the collectables are bits of flavor text representing the past lived experiences of the main characters. It’s a 3D platforming collectible that actually feels meaningful to collect in that it captures the more introspective aspects of Sephonie’s story.

On the surface, Sephonie’s three protagonists make up a brave expedition crew. Amy Lim is the bold Taiwanese-American leader representing the interests of America. Riyou Hayashi is the Japanese-Taiwanese researcher that’s the resident smart guy because every crew needs a designated smart person. The Taiwanese Ing-Wen Lin is the scientist that’s effectively the heart of the crew.

But as the trio descends into Sephonie Island and links up with its inhabitants, they share their feelings and experiences with that of the island. Amy reveals a disconnect with not just the people she works with, but from her culture on account of having lived in America her whole life and her own expectations for herself. Riyou struggles with a poor work-life balance as a consequence of Japanese work culture. Ing-Wen feels like she has a lot to live up to with regards to her identity and current job. Besides their personal struggles, the three have to gripe with their national identities and having to uphold them, because while they are an international crew, there are fractures between countries and cultural identities that they have to navigate.

In fact, a general idea I read in Sephonie is that the world is interconnected – while its components are undeniably different. In one sequence, the game goes over their shared experience of eating fish. They all have different thoughts on eating fish (in fact, Riyou kinda hates it), but they undeniably had that connection to the experience. In fact, I feel that a lot of players may have different thoughts on this game, but they experienced it, and they may share that experience on through reviews, word-of-mouth, etc, linking the game along to others much like how I’m linking this game to you.

So, you’re probably wondering: what is this “linking up” thing? Well, playing into the idea of interconnectedness, you advance the game by having the intrepid research team connect to the creatures of Sephonie through cool puzzle game action in order to learn about them.

There is no fighting in Sephonie, rather, you peacefully engage the life of the island through the researcher’s ONYX interfaces, represented as a puzzle game. You place different puzzle pieces on a board, where adjacent pieces of the same color count toward a bar that will create a link to the creature. While there are hitpoints, you can avoid taking damage if you meet a certain point threshold each turn, which is actually pretty easy to do for all non-”boss fight” ONYX segments. Your turn ends when you run out of pieces to place, or you can voluntarily end your turn if you’re out of pieces to place. The tile bunches disappear, the stray tiles remain lingering around as litter to potentially match up, and the game continues until you make a complete link.

The game consistently tries to introduce new mechanics, mainly through introducing obstacles to limit the playing field in some way to force an early turn end. Though, my favorite puzzle board was the one that subjected all the puzzle pieces to gravity after every few placements, which forced me to think of how to align everything in advance moreso than usual.

Completing an ONYX link gives you a new puzzle piece representing the creature you linked with. Besides allowing you to sustain a turn for longer, this effectively represents how the crew’s understanding of one part of Sephonie allows them to better understand another part of it. Sephonie Island is a unique ecosystem and like all ecosystems, there are a lot of interconnecting parts to experience and understand, and this puzzle game aspect of Sephonie does a great job at representing that.

And speaking of understanding the ecosystem, that’s where the conflict of the game comes in. As it happens, the ecosystem of the island has been holding back a deadly virus called NULL, and one day, NULL will exceed the island’s capabilities and spread across the world, leading to horrible mass death. Believing that the politics of the outer world and the true fractured state of international cooperation can’t meaningfully address the threat of NULL, the research team resolves to innoculate themselves to NULL by linking to Sephonie’s key species so that they may link to NULL and get the data necessary to produce a cure… hopefully.

Man. Getting to this part of the story kinda punched me worse than the conflict of Even the Ocean. Like yeah, the conflict of Even the Ocean represents something more existential (like wow, Lake Mead sure is getting low, haha…), it’s easier to see the current harm done by COVID-19… and see how it’s now going unaddressed in spite of being a comparatively much easier problem to deal with.

It’s kinda interesting how this is integrated into the plot, given that the credits acknowledge that the game started development before the pandemic started. However, I think that the plot pivot works with regards to the general theme of making connections. Much like how the connections the characters make with Sephonie transcends space, society for a time had to cultivate connections through long distance. Connections were frayed through distance and illness, but people tried their best to maintain something.

Thematically? I really liked Sephonie. However, I’m mixed on how the story is actually conveyed, mainly the ending. The ending sequence feels rather abrupt, especially compared to the longer, introspective pieces of narrative throughout the game. But, I kinda get why, because it’s imagining solutions to real life problems that haven’t been solved yet.

There is a post-game where you can enable arbitrary collectable bubbles and, much like Anodyne 2, you can use that currency to access developer maps to get a behind-the-scenes look at the game. For further transparency, Melos put out the game’s source code for people to study and iterate on. It’s pretty neat!

In terms of aesthetics, Marina’s really honed her work with 3D models. I think what I like most is how it still manages to carry the more painted looks that Anodyne 2 and Even the Ocean dabbled with alongside its pixel art. The art style takes a more simplistic shift when you’re viewing linked experiences or interacting with lingering NPC memories, with static-textured or textureless blob people. While practical, it’s a fitting look because these moments focus less on the individual person per se, but more on the experiences that the character feels. Consider this a reply to the above screenshot: the individual cuisine and its taste doesn’t matter, but the context behind it and context in which it’s enjoyed that matters.

As for Melos’ music, it’s as strong as ever. I’m not sure how it stacks to his past work because it’s been a while since I listened to them, but the music here is a strong showing with the vibes it provides to the levels – easygoing, yet mysterious. I’d actually like to shout-out the theme when you’re doing puzzles, because it’s been a major ear worm for me while I’m working.

I enjoyed Sephonie, even if I felt that its last parts could have been better. Personally, it’s my second favorite of Analgesic’s games (behind Anodyne 2), but I certainly appreciate that it’s a different experience. And in spite of being different, it has those thematic connections to past games – Sephonie truly does a good job at representing its core idea.

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