As a suspect cartoon crustacean once sang: ‘Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me’. Innuendo aside, Disney’s The Little Mermaid – a colourful underwater jamboree – is the polar opposite of the dark, unsettling world of Silt.
For a start, you wake up chained to the seabed clad in full diving gear (No, Sebastian, stop salivating). From here on in, there are very few hints, except that you hold the Circle button to possess other creatures and Square to use their ability. I give it a try, taking control of a nearby Piranha and then using its powerful jaws to cut through the chain and free me.
Silt n’ vinegar
As I swim through a series of caves, I reach a fork in the path. One side is blocked by vines, the other, too narrow for me to pass. Again, I take control of a passing Minnow, sneak through the small gap, then transfer to a Piranha on the other side who bites through the vines for me. It’s a really neat mechanic that underlies all of the puzzles in Silt, some more successfully than others. As you progress through the game’s four stages, you meet a good variety of critters to possess, which helps keep the puzzles feeling fresh and provides new challenges. For example, there’s a slender Swordfish that can out-swim most predators, or a cute little sting ray boi (RIP Steve Irwin) that can teleport short distances.
But cute, Silt ain’t. There are moments of wonder and sheer horror that keep your toes upright and your clean pants on rotation. For instance, I’m getting chased through a labyrinth of tunnels by some god awful worms. I’m swimming as fast as I can, but they’re gaining pace. Ahead of me, I spot an alternative path, which I duck behind, while the stupid, ugly worms carry on above me and get themselves eaten by a creature hiding in the rock. While the worm is getting eaten, I sneak past the rock monster towards safety. It’s an elegant sequence, almost like a dance, and an example of some great level design.
Without a paddle
In Silt, each level culminates in a ‘boss’ that you must defeat in order to take their soul. The more interesting encounters require a flexing of your logic muscles to solve an intricate yet rewarding puzzle. Others are little underwhelming (particularly the final boss) and focus more on reaction speed than anything cerebral. Sure, it changes the pace up but it feels incongruous with the tone of the game, not to mention the controls are a little unresponsive. I mean, fair enough, you’re moving through water, but it’s quite easy to die when you accidentally send yourself flying into an exploding jellyfish.
Despite the beautiful animation, the art design in Silt sometimes hinders the game. Early on, for example, I take possession of a Hammerhead Shark, using it’s, well, hammer head, to break through a sparkling crystal barrier. I’m then stuck for ages in the next area not knowing where to go. By chance, I eventually smash what appears to be a cave wall and a path opens up for me. Even if you take a good look at your surroundings, sometimes its not clear where the boundaries are and what you can interact with.
And now for something completely different
From the get-go, the gorgeous black-and-white artwork sets a dark, macabre tone for Silt. As you swim through underwater passageways, strings of contorted seaweed scroll in parallax across the foreground, creating a sense of depth and hidden danger. The use of chiaroscuro is sublime; luminous coral glows bright white among the dark recesses of the caves.
There’s definitely a Pythonesque quality here, too. At one point, I come across a group of faceless, baby birds, cawing out for food from the branches of an underwater tree. The puzzle here revolves around finding them food in order to progress. After a quick search, a large worm suckers on to my helmet. Swimming back to the birds, the worm gyrates hypnotically on your head as you move, like a giant, sentient dildo. After feeding the chicks (straight off the top of my noggin), I can’t stop laughing at the absurdity of it all. Terry Gilliam would be proud.
The animation does most of the talking in Silt. But while sound is sparse, its presence is great. Bubbles of oxygen gurgle on their way up to the surface as the sound of you breathing inside your mask beats out a claustrophobic rhythm. Sure, it may look pretty, but Silt is constantly reminding you that danger lurks around the corner.
Silt is a beautiful looking puzzle game, which was surprisingly harder than I thought it would be. That’s because it refuses to hold your hand, instead, encouraging exploration through trial and error. The puzzles are largely satisfying (despite getting a bit repetitive towards the end) but can become frustrating due to imprecise controls. Having said that, the possession mechanic is really neat and the variety of different creatures helps to keep things fresh, for the most part. The story remains abstract by the end, but the great art direction engrosses you in a gorgeous, unsettling world.