It has been nearly two and a half years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Over time, we’ve seen it filter through in various works of art. First, it was disruptions and delays as the world moved to remote work. We’re still seeing the effects of that. Then there have been the projects completed during the lockdown, from indie artists who would be creating from their bedroom regardless to big names having to do without their usual wealth of resources.
Now there is art that has been influenced by COVID and how it has changed our world. In games, the first time I saw this was in The Forgotten City, in which the main character made a couple of references to the pandemic. Sephonie, the new game from Anodyne 1 and 2 developers Analgesic Productions, is the first game I’ve played that has a narrative that is clearly influenced by the pandemic.
Analgesic's developer duo of Melos Han-Tani and Marina Kittaka have several recurring themes that have appeared in their works so far - environmentalism, cultural identity, relationships, and what the future holds. Anodyne 2 in particular involved delving into the pasts of characters in the hope of providing a better future. If the pair thought about these things a lot previously, lockdown must have given them even more time to ponder these heady themes. Sephonie is not explicitly about COVID but it becomes apparent early on in the story that this is a story about our future and how our actions can impact future generations.
Sephonie continues Analgesic Productions' style of mixing retro aesthetics with science fiction stories that are personal in nature. After expertly utilising chunky PS1 polygons in Anodyne 2, this time the look is more PS2. Like a good chunk of that system's library, Sephonie is a colourful 3D platformer. You play as three scientific researchers who are stuck on the titular island after a mysterious energy field destroys their ship. The researchers, Ing-Wen, Amy, and Riyou, who are all of Taiwanese background but based in different countries, continue with their planned mission of using a new technology called Onyx to make links with the creatures that inhabit the island. You will jump, dash, and wall run to find the outlandish fauna, then complete a Tetris-like match 3 puzzle game to complete the link.
The core gameplay of Sephonie is serviceable. It's fun enough to keep you going between the major story beats, which happen mostly after linking with one of the five key species, which are large creatures intrinsically connected to the island's ecosystem. The rate at which you gain abilities is fast enough to keep things interesting but to counter that there's a big helping of era-appropriate jank.
Thankfully, the camera is rarely the source of the problem, so it avoids that cardinal sin of older 3D platformers. Part of the issue is the sprint system, in which your character skates more than runs. I didn't think it jelled particularly well with the rest of the movement. As with previous Analgesic games, there's a wealth of accessibility options if you're struggling to get through the game - you can have infinite dashes, infinite jumps, easier link puzzles, and even a short walkthrough. I actually found it quite fun to mess around with the infinite dash turned on.
While the gameplay of Sephonie is fine, what really makes it stand out is the writing. Han-Tani and Kittaka have shown their writing chops in their previous games by expertly combining high concept science fiction with more personal elements that seem autobiographical. The broad plot sees the three researchers make the most of their bad situation by delving into the caves of Sephonie and linking with any creature that they see.
In the caves, they meet the physical manifestation of Sephonie and discover what lies at the heart of the island - a deadly disease that is prophesied to overwhelm the world in 50 years' time. The story covers the strong environmentalism themes present in their excellent puzzle platformer Even The Ocean while also being about a future where a deadly pandemic could cripple the planet. As I said, this is a story influenced by COVID.
Analgesic seems to have developed a house style of presenting key parts of the story with full screens of text presented as still images. It would be a disservice to call them story dumps, as they're often called. These are written and styled like prose and good prose at that. It's where the humanity of the characters and the autobiographical elements of the two devs shine through. After you successfully link with a key species, you will see memories of each of the three researchers, connected by them.
For example, the first of these sections shows the trio cooking a fish on the fire, which leads to memories all three have about fish. These are specific memories from their childhood or from their time as an adult working for the Onyx corporation prior to the trip. Further memories, as well as later levels dedicated to a single character, outline their relationships with families and partners, experiences as Taiwanese people living in other countries, and more. Each vignette has touching moments that weave into the broader narrative and give a fuller picture of the characters - both in terms of their backstory and how they want to act in the future.
Sephonie continues Analgesic Productions’ winning run of games with fantastic writing and world-building. It’s hard not to get swept up in the lives of Ing-Wen, Amy, and Riyou and see yourself in one of them. It’s hard not to break free of your cynicism and cheer on their hopeful view of how to handle a potentially pandemic-riddled future.
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