Asemblance is first-person psychological horror game from Seattle-based Nilo Studios; the first instalment of what the studio promise to be a larger franchise, and draws inspiration from shows such as The X-Files, The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror.
The protagonist awakes to find himself trapped inside a machine built to simulate memories, and must delve into fragments of his own past in order break free of its clutches. There’s an instant sense of confusion and disorientation as you come to in the machine’s control room, with angry red warning lights flashing and klaxons blaring; whilst a calm, HAL-esque AI voice asks that you fill out a questionnaire on the workstation screen in front of you, in order to determine how you’re feeling.
The voice then asks what you remember, with the monitor showing the name of a location, a date and a time. Selecting the location fires up the memory machine’s holographic chamber, which you’re then able to step inside. The chamber takes you to a ridge in a secluded area of a woodland park. Sun pushes through the overhead foliage, whilst butterflies flutter around the area. Tranquil music plays throughout your time in the simulation, bringing a sense of calm in comparison to the madness you’ve just endured. Everything feels incredibly serene. You’re shown how to zoom in on objects for closer inspection and how to exit out of the simulation. From here on out, you’re completely on your own and must work out everything else yourself.
Asemblance’s plot focuses on the protagonist’s wife – although it’s hard to determine what her role is in the memories… Is she alive or dead? Has she left the protagonist? Did he or she have an affair? At times the answers to these questions feel just out of arm’s reach. When you finally think you understand what’s happened, the rug is pulled out from under you, with further questions presenting themselves.
A few more locations unlock as you trigger memories and locations. Earlier in the game, clues are blindingly obvious, but as you progress you have to think outside the box. Asemblance doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to figuring things out – sometimes it’s a case of testing a theory and seeing if it works. The holographic chamber glitches when a clue is uncovered, pointing you in the right direction to progress if you’re paying attention to the details.
The HAL-esque voice welcomes you back to the control room every time you step out of the chamber – reminding you that you haven’t uncovered the truth; or that what you think is reality, quite simply, not. The latter statement becomes more apparent the deeper you dive, as life inside and outside of the chamber begins to blur. Further into the game, the machine breaks down as the mystery unravels, with the AI voice becoming a warble, and new holographic files becoming corrupted.
Finding a way out and exiting the machine does not necessarily mean that you’ve discovered the answers. Upon exit, you’re thrown back to the title screen. The big hint here is that it gives you the option to continue or restart, making it clear you haven’t reached the game’s ultimate conclusion. There are at least five different opportunities to exit the machine, with each giving you a little more insight into what actually happened.
Asemblance looks incredibly polished graphically, running off of the Unreal 4 Engine. Movement is smooth and there isn’t any noticeable slow down or texture issues (intentional holographic glitches aside). The controls are simple enough, with only the thumbsticks, and a few buttons utilised during gameplay. The protagonist moves at a very slow plod, unless you figure out how to move faster – again Asemblance doesn’t teach you this, it’s something to work out for yourself.
Music is ever-present, mostly sombre tones that add to the sense of foreboding. Aside from the AI voice in the control room, the only other voices you’ll hear are your own (through recordings) and your wife; the delivery of the dialogue is strong and convincing throughout.
How much you get out of Asemblance is dependent on how much effort you’re willing to put into unlocking its secrets – “what if I interact with this?”, “what if I try that?” There’s an intense feeling of achievement when you’ve been flitting between locations, only to overcome the problem and realise the answer was staring you in the face all along. At the time of writing, I’m still trying to trigger the final sequence that will allow me to exit the machine once and for all. Much like PT’s final puzzle, it’s by far the hardest and has led to some speculation on the internet on how to initiate what’s known as The White Shift.
All in all, Asemblance is an amazingly polished game. You’ll need to have the patience to persevere, as the game requires a certain amount of lateral thinking. It’s unlikely that the game could be finished in a single sitting, as I found that I had to step away and take a breather, as soon solutions evaded me – although Eureka moments can come out of nowhere. The only negative I can see is that Asemblance’s lack of tutorial and guidance may put off casual players. Personally, I loved the challenge and can’t wait to see how Asemblance fits into the bigger picture.