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.