Has anyone coined the term Limbolike yet? 2D side-scrolling platformers that are a bit Tim Burton-y, and possibly in monochrome. Y’know the ones? Silt is a Limbolike, only it’s Limbo under the sea. Other free-wheeling associations I have made include Minute Of Islands and, most weirdly, Gormenghast. But having mentioned the later, and because people who like Gormenghast really bloody like Gormenghast (a reasonable position), and respond to its evocation like Chekhov’s dogs let loose at the eleventh annual Ringing World National Youth Championship competition, I’m now going to have to temper expectations back down.
Silt isn’t bad, I hasten to add. In it you play a diver, or possibly a haunted deep-sea diving suit, swimming around a strange, 2D, side-on aquatic nightmare all in black and white and grey. So in that sense it isn’t a platformer, because you’re floating around, but there are puzzles to do with traversal and obstacles in the environment, so it tracks. As the diver you don’t have many abilities – you can shine a torch out of your face and swim a bit faster if you want – but you can vomit a proping tentacle made of light out of your helmet, and transmit you soul into nearby fish. And these little fishies do have abilities. A piranha can bite through wires or chains that obstruct your path, crabs can break mechanical obstacles with their hard shells, and what look like skates or rays can teleport a short distance.
Those are but a three, and often you have to chain posession into several animals in succession to solve a puzzle. Warp into a long, fast fish to speed through the gauntlet of snapping anemone-like things, then into a school of tiny fish that you then dunk in poison and use as bait. Or into a crab to get past a gauntlet of blades, then a teleporting skate to get into a room of electric eels, then into an eel to power on an engine. Each area introduces one or two new concepts and fishies, and you are then put to the test in a boss fight against a very large creature, but where the boss fight is another multi-step puzzle (use hammer-head fish to break rocks in a certain order, etc.). It’s a gradual increase in the complexity and difficulty. You’ve played games before.
The Minute Of Islands association comes from the biomechanical weirdness. Each boss is possibly a giant animal, but possibly also a giant machine, and the opening of the game is a weird little poem telling you to steal the power from these goliaths; steal it from their eyes. Each time you do you are returned to a strange void world where you enter an underwater machine that is simultaneously advanced and ancient. As in MOI’s uncomfortable melding of metal and flesh, Silt’s carefully drawn world is disconcerting and strange (though it is perhaps easier to have that effect in black and white than it is in Minute Of Islands’ riot of colour). There are some properly cool bits where you swim out of the jaws of a huge dead monster, or into a big suspicious void, and the camera pulls back to emphasise how weak and tiny you are.
This is also where the Gormenghast arrives, because you get the feeling the empty buildings and weird creatures you encounter are part of a much larger sort of thing, which has its own strange traditions and ways of being. The second area involves a submerged tree inhabited by little men dressed as baby birds. At least, I think that’s what they were, and it seemed like exactly the sort of thing that would be part of a the traditional ceremony for the collection of blue eggs on the 3rd birthday of the heir, or whatever. Basically it felt like the team at Spiral Circus really understand the idea that the deep sea is an alien planet.
Thus Silt cultivates a proper weird atmosphere much better than many comparable games. I like the world well enough, but my issue is that when I interact with the puzzles in Silt it’s not quite tight enough with its systems or generous enough with its player to be more enjoyable than frustrating. You’ve not got enough leeway to screw up even slightly with a puzzle’s solution, but things like the pathfinding on the fish (who will usually attack you if you’re not possessing them) leave a lot of room for screw ups to happen. This is a one-hit-death situation, and if, say, you have to use a skate to teleport through various bits, dying as the skate means not only repeating all the teleporting, but also the bit where you find and possess the skate. This is not as annoying as if you, the diver, died, but actually there are a lot of times when that will happen too.
It’s one of those games where you’ll work out three steps in a puzzle and then know basically what you need for step four, but if you mess up step four even slightly you have to go back to the start – not because you don’t know what to do, but because you didn’t do it how the game wants you to. If this happens a few times in a row you start trying to speed through the first three stages, and then you bugger up stage 2 and have to start again again, and at that point you’re very cross and you want a custard cream. Some puzzles even require that you experiment at stage four to establish what’s actually going on and what tools are at your disposal, which is bloody annoying. There were a few times I just thought “Well I can’t be arsed to do all that again,” and turned the game off.
Silt is a fairly short game, though, and playing it over a few days meant I usually figured out a puzzle the next time I came back to it. I’m just not entirely sure that coming back to Silt is the ideal state of affairs. Really the question is: are the vibes good enough to make up for the want of a nicer checkpoint system? I’m not sure they are, both because of Silt’s comparative brevity and because it’s not as if it’s Dark Souls, here. The stopping and starting and reloading felt a bit at odds with the dreamy and/or nightmarish floating in any case. On the other hand, the addition of more checkpoints would proabably be all it needs, so your mileage, especially under water, may vary.