To say that Close to the Sun heavily evokes BioShock in its opening chapters is a massive understatement. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Arriving at a seabound utopia - established as a place where the great minds of the time can flex without being restrained by their governments - you find it in total disarray, with a variety of nasty fates having befallen a large portion of its residents. While Close to the Sun switches fictional businessman Andrew Ryan for real life scientist Nikola Tesla, and the underwater city of Rapture for gargantuan cruise liner the Helios, the parallels are stark.
Playing as Rose, a journalist summoned to the Helios by her Sister, and the opening of the game trots out all the environmental storytelling tricks employed by its well known progenitor. As you move in first-person through the deserted arrival concourse towards the ship’s living quarters, you’ll catch movement in the distance, and ominous noises that suggest you’re not alone. Adding to the unease are documents and audio recordings that suggest a cataclysm terminally interrupted everyday life on the Helios.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at the familiar use of such tried and tested storytelling methods, especially given the setting, but there’s a reason these methods are employed so often and it’s because they can be really bloody effective. In fact the opening manages to ratchet up the tension very well, forestalling your release for such a protracted period that you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’re in for a real corker. But when that release does eventually come, it’s just so disappointing. No combat, no horrifying revelation, and certainly no tense game of cat-and-mouse. Just a short, heavily scripted chase sequence.
Peppered throughout the story at key points, these pursuits are largely unsatisfying. Taking a wrong turn, missing a button prompt, or faffing around too much results in failure, forcing you to redo the whole thing again. While they're short length and decent checkpoints mean this isn’t a huge chore, playing the same chase repeatedly causes all that hard-won tension to dissipate in the most unfulfilling way possible. What’s even worse is that when the realisation hits that this is the only card Close to the Sun has up its sleeve, it ends up robbing later chapters of some of their intensity as you wait for the inevitable chase to punctuate proceedings.
Not having some of the more traditional survival horror mechanics shouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem though, and Close to the Sun does manage to be memorable in other ways. Chief amongst them are the well realised, authentic feeling environments you’ll traverse as you explore the Helios. Those areas frequented by the general population of the liner are displayed in full Art Deco splendour, while the areas that the maintenance teams and scientists beaver away in are much more stark and functional. Graphically it isn’t pushing the envelope, but the deft use of lighting and scale consistently becomes one of the most striking things about Close to the Sun. Whether it’s the huge Tesla coil that provides the liner with its power, or the opulent theatre that serves as one of the ship’s social spaces, they’ll often make an impression.
As you move through each linear area of the ship on your quest to escape, your progress will frequently be blocked by a number of puzzles. While these won’t stop you for long, they exist in a believable way given the context of the Helios. Sure, they’re a bit contrived in the obstacles they create - and in one instance degenerates into a slightly annoying item hunt in a poorly lit area - but when looking back, they more often walk the right side of the line when it comes to satisfaction or frustration.
The six or seven hour story in Close to the Sun also proves enticing enough for you to want to see it through to its conclusion. Exploring a world where Tesla was able to reach his full potential is interesting enough, and the story plants plenty of seeds you’ll be keen to see bloom. Whether it’s Tesla’s legendary rivalry with fellow electricity pioneer Thomas Edison - even more intense in this alternate timeline - or the unusual experiments that are being undertaken on the Helios, they all help generate enough mystery that you’ll want to find out why Rose was summoned to the ship, and what part her sister played in the disaster that befell it.
Trouble once again rears its head when it comes to the payoff, though. When the narrative dust settles, a surprising number of the more interesting plot points you’ll have been itching to see resolved are instead left hanging, with the closing moments seemingly suggesting that you’ll have to wait for the juicier revelations in a sequel.
With plenty of comparisons to BioShock just screaming to be made, Close to the Sun has some massive expectations to hurdle right from the outset. While it can’t quite avoid feeling like a tribute act at times, it does seem to be making all the right moves in its opening chapters, tantalising you with an effective blend of atmosphere and mystery. But when it comes time to make good on that promise and seal the deal, it misses the mark with frustrating frequency. While some nicely designed environments, and a scattering of enjoyable puzzles stop this ship from sinking without a trace, Close to the Sun doesn’t manage to reach the lofty heights of ambition it’s clearly aiming for.