Desperation and chance have brought you here, to an ancient forest of concrete and glass. A decaying monument, reclaimed by nature and drowned by the sea. While you slip between these sentinels of the past you only think of the now. To the boat that rocks beneath you, and the brother you are intent on saving.
Submerged is a third person exploration game in which players navigate a forgotten city in search of the items needed to help their injured brother. The area has been flooded, leaving players to travel using a small motor powered boat. Some buildings allow you to moor your boat, enabling the player to scale the outside of the structure in search of supplies and collectibles.
The gameplay revolves around these two elements, boating and climbing. There is no combat, indeed, it is impossible for the player to fall while clambering across the buildings. This game is not focused on danger, but is instead about presenting concurrent stories in an integrated way. In the case of Submerged, it really is not about the destination, but the journey.
Playing through Submerged is quite relaxing. Waves gently rock your boat, marine life frolics around you, even the strange silent figures that watch from afar don’t seem menacing. There is no sense of urgency or dread, just a peaceful feeling that you can take things at your own pace.
Everything happens in a single level, which you boat around to find collectibles and supply drops. To help them in their search players have a handy telescope. At any time they can pull it out and scan the surroundings. An arrow points in the direction of objects, and focusing the telescope on them for a short time highlights them and adds them to your map.
The visuals are really nice, an eerie mix of nature and the man-made. Plants cling to buildings, finding a way to live in a world overcome by water. The sun and moon effects create beautiful vistas, shining through foliage or bouncing off the surface of the water. You can tell a lot of thought and attention has been put into building the visual language of the world.
There are some nice touches to Submerged. Red flowers denote ledges that can be grabbed, a helpful but unobtrusive indicator helping players to navigate the world. Also, when collectibles are picked up they don’t completely disappear from the map, they fade out. This makes pinpointing where you have not searched much easier. After each supply crate is found and opened the game automatically takes you back to your starting point, the Shrine. Not forcing players to clamber all the way back down the building is a smart choice.
However, there are a number of flaws in Submerged. For a game with a central mechanic of climbing and walking, character movements are quite stiff. The main character feels quite sluggish and heavy, probably not what the developers were hoping to evoke. Especially with a young girl for a protagonist.
Also, gameplay quickly gets repetitive. The player boats around, climbs a building, finds a supply crate, then repeats the exercise a dozen or so times. No new mechanics are ever introduced. There is never a threat of death, so the player is free to scuttle about the buildings with impunity and no real incentive to really pay attention.
Not that game length matters, but there isn’t a lot in the game either. I finished Submerged in a little over four hours. That is including finding all the secrets, identifying all the animals and fully upgrading my boat. There is absolutely no replayability in the game, since everything revolves around finding and collecting. Once you have finished the main story and completed all the achievements, there is no reason to ever load the game again.
The biggest disappointment though is the ending. It fails to deliver the same compelling and emotional feeling the rest of Submerged manages. Such care has been taken to build a world that the player learns about while exploring, and creating a dynamic with the relationship between brother and sister. All this is thrown out for an uninspired and generic ending which seems to exist in stark contrast to the rest of the game.
What Submerged really needs is a suitable finale. One last huge set piece building climb would have been perfect. Something that combines all the traversal tricks players have learnt finding each supply crate, and tying this in with the family themes to create a tension filled last act. As it is, at the moment the story just grinds to a sudden, unsatisfying halt.
SUMMARY: Even with its many flaws, Submerged is still an interesting and original game. It proves that games can be a story telling medium, and that violence and danger aren’t the only tools in a game developers cabinet. If anything, it is a bold attempt at reinterpreting the third person adventure genre. While it doesn’t always hit the mark, players with a passion for experimental games are going to find a lot to capture their interest.
Submerged is developed by Uppercut Games, and is available now on Steam.