Wot I Think: Submerged

Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from all the murder. Even the most red-blooded psychopath needs a day off. Which makes Submerged’s [official site] combat-free, climbing-n-boating exploration of a half-drowned city an extremely refreshing time. Here’s wot I think:

To be a little mercenary about it, Submerged is the radio tower climbing of a Far Cry game, set in a very big puddle. But the pleasing news is, this is something that really works. Free-form, packed with secrets to find, and with some genuinely fantastic water to bounce about on, its occasional roughness is forgivable and its single-focus desirable.

You’re a teenage girl, who has bobbed into town in a small motor-powered wooden boat along with your seriously wounded younger brother. With the incentive to get him the supplies he needs to stay alive, you set about exploring a large city, ruined and rotting. After the first moments point you in the right directions, the place is yours to sail about at your discretion, searching for supply drops that will provide you with the necessary medicine and equipment the kid needs, but only once you’ve negotiated the routes to reach the tops of tall buildings.

Along with your boat, and a map that fills in as you explore, you have a telescope. Looking through it, sweeping around the utterly gorgeous city, you can spot the various collectables on offer. The supply crates are the plot-critical element, then there are motorboat parts to improve the speed of your own vessel, and then the somewhat esoteric inclusion of hidden books, which provide you with a pictorial entry in a visual description of what happened to get this place in the mess it’s in.

So you hop on your boat, and then weave your way between ruined shells, leaning skyscrapers, and collapsing bridges, seeking out places you can moor, and then climb about.

Each of the supply crates is hidden at the top of a large structure, on which there will be diary entries hidden on alternative paths, giving you good reason to be comprehensive in your exploration. Smaller buildings and ruins will house just the diaries, and are far simpler to negotiate. If – like me – you find those radio towers so compelling to climb, or love figuring out routes up Assassin’s Creed’s buildings, then this proves just as enticing. Which means it also proves just as repetitive. You already know if this bothers you or not. If it does, just walk away. If you’re like me, and find the process oddly relaxing, then leap in.

And importantly, it’s all so flipping pretty. Built using Unreal 4, the city not only cycles through beautiful day/night transitions, but also dramatically changes appearance with changes in weather. Fog drifts in concealing all but the tops of towers, or heavy rain brings an appropriately drab and hopeless feel to the crumbling architecture. Then out comes the sun again, glinting off the water and wet buildings, or perhaps the moonlight gleams around you, and instead of playing, I found myself arranging the camera to see the prettiest sights.

This is made even more remarkably gorgeous by the sealife. As you putt-putt about in your boat, dolphins will play alongside you, chirruping and leaping, gathering in a small pod. And then out in front an enormous whale might breach, burst spray from its blowhole, and then dive back under. At one point I was sat there, just watching an enormous whale leaping out of the water, then crashing down on its back, when a huge ray flew over the front of my boat, rotating onto its back as it went, then gracefully disappeared back into the sea. It’s just lovely.

The game really rather desperately needs a minimap. Hitting M to bring up the screen-filling map works, but it’s frustrating not knowing if you’re exactly pointing toward the fogged out area you’d previously missed without having to keep going back and forth. And while the strip of compass along the top of the screen does a splendid job of showing you where previously spotted supply crates lie, it’s very odd that it doesn’t also offer up directions for telescoped motorboats and diaries too. Again, you have to juggle the map over what you’re doing, which gets a little annoying.

Movement is entirely direction based – you don’t need to hit any buttons to jump or drop – just press W or S, or up or down on your controller. That makes climbing more fluid, certainly, but also makes interaction a little minimal. It also means that my character would occasionally frustratingly climb down when I was trying to move along, because of ambiguity introduced by the camera angle. That’s not a big deal, however, and most of the time it works as I’d like. Oh, and if your system can do it, switch the draw distance up to infinite – under this and there are some unsightly pop-ups.

I also wish there had been a bit more wildlife included. Just eight different species are found in the first few minutes, meaning that while they’re all wonderful to see, you’ve seen them all before you’ve gone far. The absence of dangerous animals like sharks makes sense, as this is a game specifically about not constantly threatening you, but it still would have been nice to see a few more animals thrown in.

But goodness me, what a treat this is even when you’re not playing, just sitting back and watching the aqua-mammals play around you, the sun setting sending rays through the missing windows of the nearby buildings, scattering light across the undulating waters, and spotting the strange figures standing on the ledges, staring, always staring, why are they staring? Why? And what’s this on my arms?

It’s a reasonably short game for £14 – perhaps an afternoon’s stuff to do first time through. But it’s so unrelentingly lovely, and such a rare pleasure to be experienced without constant worry about being shot in the back of the head, or eaten by a wolf, or running out of time, or any of the other ways games so desperately want to concern us. Complete it, and it’ll let you return to the city to find all the many secrets and bits and bobs you’ll have missed along the way, which certainly extends its lifespan.

The climbing is unquestionably repetitive, but that’s not something that puts me off at all. It’ll be the deal-breaker for many, I’m sure, but for those not put off, this is a delightful little thing.

Submerged is out now, on Steam, for £13.50.

51 Comments

  1. Viroso says:

    I was really liking it until you mentioned no minimap. Then I loved it.

    This isn’t because I’m super h4rdc0r3 1337 (which I am, casul n00bs), but it’s because minimaps really take you out of the game’s world. You don’t even notice but you just look too much at the mini map and you memorize it. You memorize the minimap, not the virtual space.

    But memorizing the virtual space is actually really rewarding, but that’s another thing we don’t notice. It takes some hours but after a while you develop a relationship with the game’s world. I guess you can still do that when there’s a minimap there, but you have to actually make an effort to not look at it.

    You know, minimaps are kinda like smartphones really. They’re so useful, but you just keep checking on them and end up forgetting your surroundings.

    • Minglefingler says:

      This sounds like the perfect way for me to spend an afternoon this weekend.

      • Minglefingler says:

        I have no idea why that appeared where it did. Although perhaps I hit clicked reply in my unseemly scramble to get some spray to kill the wasp that flew in through the window.

    • Zaxwerks says:

      No mini-map?… PURE BLISS! They are a scourge that must be culled. Every time I play an Assassin’s Creed game I miss half the game ‘cos my eyes are glued to the minimap and I’m doing it without realizing it. There are far better ways to do it, you could set a waypoint on your map and then seagulls in the sky could flying in that general direction and circle your waypoint or something.

      • KenTWOu says:

        What are you waiting for? Turn that mini-map off, every Assassin’s Creed has extensive UI settings and gets a much better game without its mini-map.

    • noom says:

      So true that. I kept falling into that whilst getting towards the end of the Witcher 3; just ignoring all the beautiful landscapes and looking at the minimap the whole time. The same goes for waymarkers, as in the Elder Scrolls games. It’s the difference between “I walk this way in a straight line” and “I take this road through the woods for about half a kilometre then turn left by the big rock and stop when I find the cave”.

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        Swordfishtrombone says:

        I turned off the minimap in The Witcher 3 about halfway through. I can now more or less find my way around Novigrad without needing the map: it’s led me to appreciate all the nooks and wonky alleys so much more! Also, I’m sure the hours I spent maplessly wandering Skellige felt way better than they would have done otherwise, given the accompanying sense of being lost in the wilderness.

    • MadPen says:

      That’s a really interesting point. I think you’re right. I noticed this a lot in GTAIV where you have a minimap–even a good one–but using it constantly kicks your ass because it’s NYC, and the city is so freaking vertical that you have to understand your environment to quickly navigate it, and yet you find yourself constantly staring at it, even though it’s basically useless.

      • draglikepull says:

        I noticed it in GTA V. I’d spent so much time using the built-in GPS that by the end of the game I had no idea how to get anywhere without it. I didn’t know the layout of the city at all. I couldn’t navigate without the mini-map. By way of contrast, I suspect I could still drive around Vice City with relative ease despite the fact that I haven’t played it for years, because the city was designed to be navigated visually, not by GPS.

    • Wetcoaster says:

      I remember that by the end of both Mafia games, I had driven around their cities so much, I could navigate them as easily as my own neighbourhood by landmark alone

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      particlese says:

      YES! Precisely this.
      Anecdotally: I installed a minimap addon in Elder Scrolls Online since I appreciated the built-in one in Guild Wars, and while it was nice and convenient at first, I noticed after a few evenings that it turned my joyful explore-em-up character into a miserable laundry-listing things-finder. And, as you say, I lost my spatial knowledge of the world or at least ceased to gain any more, which totally sucks. The minimap’s gone now.

      I’ve also noticed that walking instead of running/jogging makes it so there are fewer things per second flying past, or appearing in the distance and vying for my attention, so I end up looking at the sights more and forming that connection with the virtual space noticeably better and faster. There is plenty of running done, too, when I deem it appropriate, but I definitely take much better note of the world when walking.

    • fco says:

      agreed. I loved the exploration in Eidolon, for example: just your compass and some very vague maps. trying to find out where you were could be a nightmare, but once you did, what a great feeling.

    • Jeremy says:

      That was something I appreciated about FarCry 2. They had a minimap, but it wasn’t just a matter of an eye twitch to check where I was and point my arrow the correct direction. Having to actually pull out the map in real time to gain some bearings was, for me, a novel way of handling getting completely lost, and also created a need to take the time to learn the map so you didn’t have to constantly pull out a mini map as you ram through a checkpoint with aks blazing around you.

  2. Kefren says:

    Sounds lovely, the kind of game I’d enjoy on a Sunday afternoon. I hope it will come to GOG at some point (I normally give it a few months then get it on Steam if it still hasn’t appeared on GOG – even then, some games come out on GOG just after I’ve bought it elsewhere, as if just to trick me).

    Unrelated – what happened to the Kyn review from yesterday?

    • heretic says:

      It was swallowed by the quantum field processor.

    • Barberetti says:

      Yeah, I was wondering that. I read the first bit, popped to the shops, and when I came back it was gone!

    • Tacroy says:

      It was one o’ dem Premature Evaluation articles, not a review, and unfortunately it turns out Kyn was released on the 28th so it’s no longer a “premature” evaluation of the game. ‘

      The distinction is particularly important in this case because a lot of what Marsh said was along the lines of “if they fix this before the release it’ll be great!”

  3. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    Huh. I never realised that I got a certain satisfaction from climbing the towers in the assassins creeds until John mentioned it, but thinking about it it does push my buttons somehow and I did always feel disappointed once I’d climbed everything in whatever area I was in. Also in Firefall, getting to the top of all the mountains just because I could. (It was actually less fun once they put in an achievement for doing so.)

    Anyway. Sounds like this could be my sort of thing, thanks for the info John.

  4. Kefren says:

    Is that last image a spoiler? I’d hoped to discover whether I was alone or not by playing the game – that now suggests there are definitely other beings, which changes the mood you’ll experience at the start of the game (though it is difficult to explain why).

  5. anHorse says:

    I liked the very brief amount of time I spent with it.

    I do wish climbing used a button though and not just a direction, that lack somehow makes the game feel less interactive

  6. Nereus says:

    While I understand the beauty aspect falls more in the priceless range of attempts to value it as a product, the approximately $17 it would cost me for what I hear is only a few hours is troubling. Perhaps that’s more a statement of my very limited budget than one of the game’s worth however. I don’t know if this is a complaint, because if it required a lot of work then that money is probably completely justified.

    I am disappointed we only see 8 species though. The main reason I buy games is exploring a world that is too expensive for me to explore otherwise. A proper ecosystem has hundreds of species, some in the hundreds of thousands – feels like asking for double digits when virtual tourism is your primary offering wouldn’t be asking too much.

    • Gnashy says:

      The map itself is very small for the game. You can only access 10 buildings that contain the items needed to save the quest. You can easily beat this game in under two hours. There is almost no gameplay or narrative.

      I know the WITs are subjective, but it is hard to reconcile the venom John spewed for the King’s Quest WIT and this candy-coating of Submerged.

      It’s not even worth a dollar, much less it’s current price.

      • anHorse says:

        Except y’know this one is a well made and functional game, albeit a short one

        KQ was shite and short

        • Gnashy says:

          But Submerged isn’t a well made game. It has nice graphics, but there is almost no interaction, no consequences, no conflict, no narrative, no challenge and no replay.

          You have 10 buildings with exactly the same climbing elements that you have to scale to get the quest items. Each building takes maybe 5-10 minutes to complete. That’s the entire game.

          Submerged feels more like a Unreal 4 tech demo than a game. Why not just go download Heaven for free or waste some time on Google Maps?

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            John Walker says:

            There’s plenty of narrative, told in the form of the pictures you gather, explaining the histories of your character, and the city itself.

            Each building certainly isn’t “exactly the same”, which is a silly thing to say.

            It is, as I described, a very simple, short game, that is calm, beautiful, and without threat. I don’t think anyone’s going to be tricked into thinking it’s anything else.

          • Gnashy says:

            Can’t seem to add my reply to John’s, so I will do it here:

            It’s silly to say I said the the buildings were the same. I never said that. I said they have the same climbing elements. And they do.

            The bonus pictographs add nothing to the story of what happened to the world that aren’t already implied in the actual state of the map. There is nothing added that the player doesn’t already understand after several minutes exploring the map. As for the narrative of Tiku and Miku, there is one, albeit it is extremely minimal.

            I know it’s an opinion piece, i respect your view of it, I was just surprised you were so complimentary and lenient.

            Thanks for the response.

  7. soopytwist says:

    Definitely going on my “when in a Steam sale” list… which I’ll then probably forget about and never play.

  8. tiltaghe says:

    Hey! I will play this game to experience navigating on a vast, realistically rendered 3D sea. I wander, is it the only game to feature this? It seems so… I would so love a 3D game of journey into the ocean !!

    I think my preference would be for a brooding atmosphere over a real world one. Dark skies, violent tempests, tracking a mysterious creature… Like Sunless sea in a lively ocean.

    Does such a game exists? I can only think of the cel-shading Zelda for a 3D sea (I haven’t played it)…

    • tiltaghe says:

      this painting by Turner, that would be my dream game to be in. Fishermen at Sea:

      link to upload.wikimedia.org

    • JB says:

      It’s a little more about the islands than the ocean, and it’s certainly not particularly dark or brooding, but have you tried Salt? link to saltthegame.com

      I enjoyed the bit of boating I tried in Salt.

      • tiltaghe says:

        Thanks JB, I’ll try it, there’s a demo!

        So it appears there’s a spot for a game focused on seafaring, ocean water movement and weather changes… Probably very demanding on technology :)

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    basilisk says:

    What a lovely game this is. Anyone complaining about length is a fool; this is a game to savour and arrange pretty postcards in. If you’re trying to “beat” it, you’re doing it wrong.

    I’m ever so slightly disappointed by the handling of the boat, which is quite cartoony and doesn’t seem to fit the pace of the rest of the game, but I’m still enjoying the game tremendously. It’s beautiful and so relaxing.

  10. Howard says:

    I was entranced by the idea of this when I first came across it; possibly a sort of “Ico meets the travel sections of Wind Waker”. I bought it straight off and I am enjoying it, but I have to say, the graphics are a huge disappointment, especially the character models. They look like something from the FMV of the early 90s and their movement and feel is just horrible.
    Like I say, still enjoyable, but for an Ueng 4 game (running at 4k, no less) it is bloody ugly.

  11. Zaxwerks says:

    I’ll still probably play it as I’m in the mood for something calming, non-taxing and pretty, but it’s getting totally slaughtered on Metacritic by the “professional” critics 30%, 35% and 40%

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      John Walker says:

      Just for the sake of my personal pride, it’s us as a site who choose not to appear on Metacritic, rather than the other way around!

    • caff says:

      Metacritic is not all bad – it pointed me at “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons”. But that was before I started reading RPS, whereupon I would’ve noticed glowing praise from Mr. Walker on that game too.

      I think go with your gut instinct.

  12. Thirdrail says:

    If there were ten times as much wildlife, it would be a lot more fun. As it stands, I was bored within 20 minutes, and super bored by the time I’d played an hour. Eight animals total, and one of the species is just pelicans, and another is boring little flying fish. Our last apartment was beach front. You could see far, far more varieties of wildlife from our balcony at any given moment than you can exploring this whole game. (If you have never watched baby dolphins play in the surf, you only think you know what the word adorable means!) Submerged is an A+ concept with C- execution.

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      John Walker says:

      While I completely agree that it needs more wildlife, as I say in the review, I think it’s perhaps a little unfair to suggest the developers should be able to match the millions of years of evolution that allowed the variety you could see out the window!

  13. Xantonze says:

    Pretty weak game. The interactive elements are crap. The traversal feels like sleepwalking and there’s nothing else. Mirror’s Edge or Assassin’s Creed or whatever this is not.
    I guess it would be OK if the game was really really good looking, but it’s not the case. It looks like a XBOX360 port.

    Pretty gutted after 1 hour of play…. ;(

    • tiltaghe says:

      I’m not especially pointing at your opinion, I think it is valid in its own… but it would be good if we could go past the technological argument and discuss the artistic direction. You are explicitly saying it looks like an Xbox360 game, thereby saying games from this generation of console are not aesthetically worth it anymore. And it is blantantly false from my point of view. Some PS2 games are timeless in their art. Shadow of Colossus is timeless.

      • Xantonze says:

        No problem… :)
        What I meant was actually more specific: it looks like one of “those” XBOX360 games that got released later on PC, where the higher resolution actually damages the visual impact because the textures don’t blend in, the sharpness makes everything look blocky, etc. I hope you get my meaning.
        I actually like a lot of old games and respect artistic vision beyond pure pixel/polygon count.
        This game just doesn’t look good, any way you put it. I don’t feel the relaxing magic it’s supposed to be going for.^^

        • Xantonze says:

          I should add that the lighting is nice, though. Even if it makes the whole thing look even more jarring, as in “today’s lighting on a 2005 game” .

        • tiltaghe says:

          I watched a couple of gameplay videos and I understand better what you meant. The PC used to have a trademark crisper look compared to the older consoles/TV filter. I’m not sure this distinction still exists with HD now but I think I see your point.

          Watching the videos, the game has a charm but I have to say I don’t really like the artistic direction either. Especially the buildings parts. The whale screenshot in the article lured me in ^^

  14. Munin says:

    How does it compare to something like the Endless Ocean series? That’s the other main set of relaxing wildlife watching and exploration games I can think of.

  15. Xantonze says:

    link to eurogamer.net

    A valid counterpoint to get the full picture on this.

  16. RayEllis says:

    It’s a pretty weak game, to be honest. Sure, it looks nice at first glance. But a game needs more than looks.

    The climbing is simplistic and textures are repetitive. It is not really an exploration game, when everywhere that you go looks the same and you are limited to finding so few unique items. I had kind of hoped that you would be able to enter the buildings and maybe dive underwater too. Sadly not.

    Not really enough here to justify even the modest price they are asking for it. It needed much more depth (no water pun intended!) to make it worthwhile.

  17. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I always like the ubisoft patented exploro-climbing it was usually the ! quests and bogus cutscene ridden plots that i felt wasted my time, this sounds like just the good bit of an ubisoft game that doesn’t outstay it’s welcome!