There are certain questions you expect to ask while playing a 3D platformer.
How do I make this jump? Is there a collectible hidden here? What does this new ability let me do?
It’s generally not a place for loftier existential questions like, do I deserve the advantages I have? Am I doing enough for future generations? What really defines a nation, anyway? These heady topics probably won’t occur to you during an average Mario playthrough, but they form the backbone of Sephonie, the latest game from Analgesic Productions.
The two-person studio’s previous game, Anodyne 2, featured its first forays into 3D platforming, mixed with 2D segments reminiscent of A Link to the Past and other top-down RPGs. Sephonie is similarly split between much more robust 3D platforming and short puzzles that take cues from match-3 games and Tetris. Also like Anodyne 2, Sephonie complements its reinvention of old-school game mechanics with clever, gently absurd writing that can have you laughing out loud at one moment and taking a long look in the mirror the next.
It excels as both a platformer and a puzzle game, but what makes Sephonie a Game of the Year contender even against heavyweights like Elden Ring is how its mastery of familiar gameplay tropes ties into one of the best video game stories ever created.
An unforgettable trio
You play through Sephonie as three different characters, mechanically interchangeable but each with distinct and richly drawn personalities. As the game opens, three researchers arrive on the remote Sephonie Island to catalog its animal species, only to be immediately shipwrecked. The researchers — Amy Lim of the U.S., Riyou Hayashi of Japan, and Ing-wen Lin of Taiwan — are all of Taiwanese descent. The ways their upbringings mirror and diverge from each other become increasingly crucial to their mission as they delve into the heart of the island.
Most of your time in Sephonie is spent exploring the caves beneath the island through good old-fashioned platforming. You’ll sprint, air-dash, and wall-run through massive subterranean environments dotted with all manner of surreal architecture, being careful not to fall into the gaping pit ever beneath your feet. Sephonie’s environments are visually overwhelming cave systems formed from gravity-defying platforms, twisting tree roots, and later, impossible geometry influenced by the explorers’ own memories.
More than just a visual showcase, the bizarre, expansive caverns of Sephonie serve a few purposes. They’re wildly disorienting, for one thing, priming you for the strange spiritual shifts of the game’s story. They’re also an absolute dream for speedrunners and item collectors, offering a seemingly limitless number of routes through levels to find secrets or just see how far you can stray from the expected path and still make progress.
The farther you push into Sephonie’s mind-bending depths, the more traversal options you’ll unlock. New abilities and obstacles come in a slow trickle at first, growing to a torrent by the end. Within the game’s first few hours, you’ll discover mushrooms that recharge your air-dash and gain the ability to grapple off frog-tongued bats the team dubs Ribbats. By the final stage of the game, it feels like every minor jumping puzzle includes some new twist on how you’ve been playing from the start or brand-new mechanics that are allowed to shine briefly and be retired before they wear out their welcome.
I found some of the very last sections of the game more frustrating than fun, due to a few challenges that lean on pinpoint precision and timing in a way that most of the game doesn’t. Aside from these few instances (a matter of minutes in a 10-hour game), chaining together all manner of acrobatic maneuvers to navigate Sephonie’s levels is pure platforming joy.
Sephonie isn’t just a spelunking trip, though. As you explore the island’s caves, you catalog its inscrutable ecosystem using ONYX, a vaguely defined sci-fi device attached to your characters’ brainstems that lets them “link” with animals to understand them on biological and emotional levels. In gameplay terms, this plays out as a color-matching puzzle. You’ll place chunks of colored blocks (think Tetris pieces) on a board, lining up three or more of the same color to erase them and earn points. Like Sephonie’s platforming, these puzzle segments are endlessly inventive, adding new rules and obstacles in nearly every stage.
Most of the linking puzzles are entirely optional, and the included easy mode can trivialize even the mandatory few. These required puzzles are essentially the game’s boss battles, encounters with Sephonie Island’s “Key Species,” which hold the entire ecosystem in balance. They’re far more involved than average linking puzzles, challenging you to adapt to shifting expectations without ever feeling overwhelming.
With these Key Species puzzles, the themes of Sephonie start to emerge more clearly. If you think of Sephonie Island as a single body, Key Species are its organs, controlling everything from humidity to which species survive. Throughout the early part of the game, there are constant reminders of the incredible interconnectedness of nature, the ways that different animals help each other thrive and even critters as overlooked as face mites can determine the fates of their hosts. It’s a natural extension of the story and gameplay so far, and you might think humanity’s relationship to nature will be Sephonie’s major preoccupation.
But things get so much weirder from there.
A shapeshifting story
Each time the trio of researchers links with a Key Species, they grow closer to Sephonie Island itself, sharing bits of their own history with the spirit of the island. This plays out first in low-poly dioramas and later with photo collages, both overlaid with long, poetic digressions into the characters’ memories.
Amy wonders what other paths she could have taken in life. Riyou struggles with his own privilege and racist coworkers. Ing-Wen laments the artificial barriers that keep her from her girlfriend living across the sea.
In these breaks from the action (some of the game’s greatest achievements), Sephonie recontextualizes its story over and over, each shift of the lens revealing another layer of the messy, contradictory nature of human connection. The characters simultaneously feel pride and shame over their histories, and misunderstandings lead to both conflict and breakthroughs. National identity is a consistent source of comfort, even as it’s scraped away by globalization and the relentless march of time.
These contradictions spill over into Sephonie’s tone. It’s funny, heartbreaking, infuriating, bleak, and hopeful all at once, much like… well, living in our own world. Sephonie tells a personal story of three specific individuals, filtered through the perspective of its two creators, Melos Han-Tani and Marina Kittaka. But at the same time, it feels universal. Even if you don’t share its character’s specific circumstances, you’ll likely see echoes of them in your own past, recognize their anxieties in your own thoughts.
Sephonie is a profoundly personal, singular game, with a surreal fictional setting and characters with lives vastly different from my own. But by the end, I felt a link to Amy, Riyou, and Ing-wen, to Sephonie itself, that I don’t expect to break any time soon.
Like the island it’s set on, every part of Sephonie works in concert for the good of the whole, making it one of the most profoundly moving games I’ve ever played.
Sephonie is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Linux, and Mac. Inverse reviewed the PC version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.
This article was originally published on