How long can you hold your breath?
Silt is a harrowing puzzle-adventure game from Bristol-based indie developer Spiral Circus, featuring a silent deep-sea diver as they explore the dark and dangerous depths of the ocean. The game is as beautiful as it is terrifying, thanks to its monochromatic art style, fearsome creatures, and wonderfully restrained sound design – all of which blend together to truly make you feel like you’re alone in some ancient abyss. This feeling of isolation fuels the desire to explore, to uncover whatever mysteries you’re there to solve. And what you encounter throughout your journey into the void is truly the stuff of nightmares.
Knowing that Silt is the debut title from Spiral Circus makes this game all the more impressive. It’s easy to draw visual comparisons to games like Limbo and Gorogoa, but this black and white adventure has managed to carve out its own space within the creepy puzzle game genre, delivering a uniquely engaging experience. Because the game is quite short (I finished my playthrough in about 3 hours), this review will avoid any plot spoilers; but don’t let the length of the game dissuade you from playing. While bite-sized, Silt stands toe to undertow with the best of the best – due largely in part for its possession mechanic.
The game opens with the diver waking up to discover they are chained to the floor in some kind of underwater cavern, accompanied by what looks to be a piranha fish. At first it seems like you are trapped, but the diver has a special ability. By pressing and holding the B button, you can reach out and possess other creatures, enabling you to use their abilities. In this case, when you possess the piranha you can use its bite attack to break the chain holding you down. Then, by pressing B again, you can cancel the possession and resume control of the diver. But beware; if you cancel the possession while the piranha is close to you, it can attack you (I found this out the hard way). There is no health bar in the game, but if you sustain enough injuries – or get attacked by a larger creature – you will die and have to retry the area again. Thankfully, Silt allows you to restart from your last autosave point, which is every time you exit the screen to enter a new area.
As you make your way through the cavern – which begins to look more and more biological in nature – you encounter other creatures that have their own unique abilities and discover that you can chain your possession across these creatures. You can only possess one creature at a time, and not all creatures are able to be possessed, but you can leap from creature to creature to solve the game’s puzzles. For example, possessing a hammerhead shark to break through a wall, then possessing a swarm of smaller fish to attract a piranha, which you can then possess to cut through some rope blocking your way. While possession abilities are not new to video games – even Mario could use Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey to take over enemies – this chain possession mechanic is a novel spin on the concept, and one that Silt uses expertly in conjunction with its puzzle-filled environments.
Once all of the obstacles are cleared in the opening cavern and you can finally make your way out into the ocean, the camera pans out to reveal you were actually trapped inside the horrifying corpse of a massive sea creature. This dreadful sense of discovery is the beating heart of Silt. Nothing is ever as it seems, and the game does a wonderful job at forcing specific perspectives to prevent you from seeing the full picture. Furthermore, to help maintain this shroud of mystery, there is no dialogue in this game, nor is there any written lore. You are simply presented with cryptic imagery – all of which is beautifully illustrated – that merely hints at the larger story. The only way to understand the full scope of your journey is by delving deeper, possessing more creatures, and solving more puzzles.
I know that Silt is marketed as a puzzle-adventure game, and that is very much true, but there’s also a great platforming element to it. In terms of gameplay, the series that comes to mind as a reference point is the Donkey Kong Country series – specifically the underwater levels with their winding paths, varied enemies, and large underwater boss fights. Like those DKC levels, there is no real way to attack the sea creatures you encounter in Silt. You either avoid them or you possess them – and as detailed above, the possession mechanic is really what sets Silt apart from other platformers and adventure games. The possession ability is also crucial when dealing with larger creatures in what you could consider boss battles in Silt – although it’s often less about fighting the bosses directly and more about manipulating the smaller creatures around the bosses to defeat them. Boss battles are essentially giant puzzles in and of themselves, resulting in some extremely satisfying gameplay.
Performance-wise, Silt runs quite smoothly on the Switch. I rarely encountered any framerate issues during my playthrough (which was entirely in Docked Mode), and when I did it was barely a hiccup. I also played a bit in Handheld Mode, and it ran just fine that way as well, but I wanted to play this game on a bigger screen for a more immersive experience. That said, if Handheld Mode is your preference, or if you own a Switch Lite, this game will perform swimmingly. The only time I ever actually had an issue with the game was with one creature ability – a teleporting manta ray. You have to hold the Y button to project an image of the creature just ahead of itself, and when you release the button the creature teleports to that destination. It’s actually a super cool ability, but it was often difficult to line up the possessed creature in the direction I needed it to go. I would love to see that get adjusted in a future patch for the game, but by no means is it a deal breaker. Just something to keep in mind. Patience and timing will be your friends in those sections.
The last thing I want to highlight about Silt is the skin-crawling sound design. There is very little music in this game, though what’s there is quite nice; instead, Silt focuses on the sounds of the world around you. From the gross and menacing sounds of the creatures to the hum of your headlamp when you turn it on to light your way, the underwater world of Silt sounds alive, making you, the player, feel like you’re actually submerged within the darkest pits of the ocean. And always present is the inhale, exhale of your breathing apparatus – a constant, quiet, reminder of the diver’s vulnerability in such an openly antagonistic environment.
In every sense, Silt is an expertly crafted game. The gameplay is engaging, the art style is awe-inspiring, and the unspoken narrative will keep you wanting to dive deeper for more answers. This is the perfect game to play over a weekend – whether you’re a fan of puzzle-adventure games, horror stories, or just want to be immersed in and explore the sunken depths of the sea for a few hours. Spiral Circus has created something truly special with Silt, and I cannot wait to see what else that they have in store for us moving forward.