Alone and with no one to help them, a girl and her young brother arrive in a desolate and flooded city. Wounded and desperately ill, little Taku will die unless his sister can scavenge supplies from the ruins around them. With only a map, boat and telescope, Miku sets out to save her brother while she still can.
Submerged is a graphically stunning indie game from developer Uppercut Games. Beautifully rendered buildings, astonishing water and lighting effects and, on the whole, a framerate that does as it’s told. It is clear that a lot of love and attention went into creating this game. There is a wonderful bleakness and loneliness to the open waters and decaying buildings that fits the story and the characters so well. Being that it is a dead city that is now partly underwater, there is, understandably, very little in the way of lush vegetation and natural beauty. This is a post-apocalyptic scenario. At first there seems to be no life and no hope and yet if you’ve got a more analytical eye you may see the bright petals and leaves that guide your way and the surprising wildlife as a hint that hope is never lost. As Jurassic Park taught us all those years ago, life always finds a way. Bleakness can be beautiful and Uppercut have done a great job proving that.
Open world and combat-free, Submerged is a game of exploration. There’s no conflict or time limits. Your poor little brother isn’t going to snuff it if you pop off for a cup of coffee and a Penguin. You can take your time to appreciate the relaxing aesthetics and gorgeous soundtrack. Even the music occasionally ceases so you can enjoy the sounds of the silence around you. A world without human noise – lovely. Instead listen to birds, wind, thunder, rain and the waves that rock your boat. It’s a touch that further immerses you into Miku’s world.
Gameplay consists of using your telescope to locate supplies, collectables and booster upgrades for your boat and then sailing to the located point. You will then need to guide Miku up and around the outside of each building using ledges, ladders, drainpipes and vines. Yep, get your Spider-Man on because you’re going to spend most of the game clinging to the outside of a building. It’s a good job that the climbing mechanics are pretty much spot on. Submerged is not intended to be a game that tests you in any way, so there’s no falling, toppling, slipping or plunging to a bloody death. Girl goes up, girl goes down. It works simply and brilliantly. I can think of several other games that need to pluck a leaf off Uppercut’s tree. Sit back and relax because there are no awkward mechanics designed to make your face red and the veins in your neck bulge. Even getting in and out of your boat is quick and seamless. Bravo.
Submerged appears to be designed to give a simple and relaxed experience with a well-designed environment that tells part of the story itself. There are very little in the way of cut scenes and there is no dialogue. Parts of the story are gained by collecting pictures that resemble crude cave paintings or etches. Through these you get an idea of both what happened to the characters and what happened to the city. Of course if you’re not inclined to go after collectables, there’s a danger of missing out on aspects of the story, and unfortunately these collectable sketches are flung far and wide with no linear or progressive way of finding them. What this essentially means is that the story and back story don’t necessarily keep up with gameplay. You may very well, as we did, finish the game long before finding all the collectables and therefore piecing the story together becomes a tad taxing. I don’t believe in spoon-feeding a story. We gamers are an intelligent lot and we can take a hint, but when much of the story is locked away in collectables that are firstly tricky to find and secondly tricky to interpret even once you’ve got them, you risk finishing a game with a big hole where the plot should be. With a conflict-free exploratory sandbox, this is deadly. As the game progresses, a few little things do happen in the background that give you an idea of what may have happened to the city and what fate may await the characters, but it’s not quite explicit enough and the game’s message – if it actually does have one – is lost in the mist.
The self-pacing aspect of the game is nice, especially with the open world. Again, it fits nicely with the theme of a post-apocalyptic city where once everyone would have been on the clock, waiting for trains and buses, checking watches, waiting for the end of a working day, running to a shop before it closes. Now everyone is dead, the city itself is a corpse, and you can do whatever you want whenever you want. It’s a pity, then, that there’s not actually a lot to do in a flooded city apart from sail around and climb up stuff. Ideally being able to explore inside a building or even sail inside some of them would have added a little variety. Open world is wonderful but we need better motivation to explore it. More poignant collectables would perhaps help. Objects can be a subtle and emotional way to deliver a good story and with the traditional cut scenes mostly missing, some inventive story-telling techniques are definitely needed.
We’re genuinely torn by this game. It’s beautiful to look at, runs smoothly and gameplay is enjoyable. It’s a world we want to be in. It just feels as though something is missing. The feeling of emptiness that works so well in-game has seeped into reality. Not enough variety and a story that misses most of its beats turns what could have been a stunner of a game into something merely average.
Submerged is a lovely looking open world, combat-free exploration experience. While gameplay does suffer from a lack of variety, the mechanics are spot on. We could have been more forgiving of the story if what we did get had more poignancy, but unfortunately it fell a little flat with lack of detail. Not a bad game by any means and a nice chilled way to spend an afternoon.
S J Hollis Rating – 7/10