What's better than a little city full of mysteries to solve? A mysterious little city trapped in a time loop, where you slowly learn all the secrets but no one remembers what you did last time around. That's The Forgotten City, and if you're on Game Pass, I do recommend having a go before it leaves Microsoft's service next week. It's a great puzzle box running to clockwork, like if Outer Wilds had you meddle with people's lives rather than machinery.
The Forgotten City drops a modern person back through time into a little Ancient Roman city deep in a inescapable gorge. Their civilisation live by one rule, The Golden Rule, believed to be a threat from the gods: "The many shall suffer for the sins of the one." But what is considered a sin? By whose morality? How much can you get away with before it becomes a sin? And what does that suffering entail? You'll soon learn, because sin inevitably comes. Fortunately, the citizens are blissfully unaware that they're living in a time loop.
Without your intervention, every day will play out exactly the same. People will go to the same places at the same time, have the same conversations, and do the same things, the day playing out like clockwork to a sinful conclusion. The Golden Rule has serious consequences but so what? You carry over your knowledge between loops and, more importantly, your inventory.
Across loops, you learn a little more about the residents; their secrets, schemes, relationships, and weaknesses. You'll learn the city too; its hidden spots and shortcuts. And sure, maybe you'll nick some keys and cash to open doors and loosen lips, because hey, time loop! You do also gain a few tools to help move about, like a very mild metroidvania. So off you go, meet people, have chats, poke around, chase leads, learn secrets, maybe commit a sin or two, descend into touches of horror, and have a grand old time exploring a city laden with ominous mystery.
They are a great set of nested mysteries. Unpicking them through exploration, detective work, bribery, intimidation, and good deeds is very satisfying. Some good startling revelations in there, and moments I felt clever when my suspicions proved correct. But I might most enjoy exploring the many (im)moral possibilities of manipulating people.
If the game didn't have a time loop, I wouldn't even quicksave/quickload to see the bad thing. I can't bring myself to be mean to pixels. But here I know the time loop has my back and will wipe the slate clean. I will do the good thing, eventually, but first I just want to see what happens if... And the game knows I will do this, and it is ready to make me feel bad for it. The game knows the time loop has its back too, so it's free to create dramatic consequences. Some important characters will become furious and refuse to talk to you, and oh there are so many opportunities for people to die. Sure, it'll all be forgotten and reset on the next loop, but these are still big emotional hits in the moment. The risk of dramatic consequences also makes me think more about my dialogue choices, knowing my words matter.
I was mortified after I saved someone who had very almost died in a traumatic escape attempt then I started clicking through all their dialogue options and, without thinking, asked if they knew a way out. Yeah, I lost a friend there. But hey one short loop reset later, hey, hi buddy, it's me, your new best friend who'd never say anything thoughtless or callous.
Actually, there is one NPC I'm never unkind to: my absolute best mate, Galerius. As well as being a lovely bloke, he's also a helpful shortcut in time loops. Once you solve certain problems and quests, on future loops you can ask Galerius to run off and enact the solution for you, doling out items and messages to save you repeating the effort over and over. Top guy.
Oh, and I do like that it offers you a choice of backstories which are also classes, offering handy little perks or items alongside some extra personal flavour. I like when games tell little stories with their class systems; I am making a note to include this in our ongoing quest to decide the single best thing in video games.
The Forgotten City will leave Game Pass on Tuesday the 1st of November. If you like explore-o-mysteries, do have a go before then. It'll take maybe six hours to poke around a fair bit and find one ending, maybe ten hours to find all the secrets and endings and everything? For a second (positive) opinion, see Alice Bee's The Forgotten City review from last year. We named it one of our favourite games of 2021 too.
It's even more impressive knowing The Forgotten City is made by a core team of only three people, and is based upon a Skyrim mod. It's been fully rebuilt, of course, and heavily reworked and expanded for a standalone commercial release with no elves or dwarves or anything. But you can still feel a few traces of Skyrim, and I do like those as touchstones. But as someone who finds Bethesda's RPGs empty and boring, I think The Forgotten City is the best thing to come from Skyrim.