What if the combat-free opening hour of BioShock Infinite stretched on for much longer? Indeed, what if you could explore the beautiful ruins of a destroyed city without having to constantly fend for your life? Submerged – a game developed by ex-Bioshock staffers, incidentally – attempts to answer these very questions. But does this sailing sojourn live up to this potential, or does it sink to the bottom of the ocean?
In Uppercut Games' first outing you attempt to find the supplies which will allow you to help your sickly brother. In gameplay terms, this will see you spending almost all of your time simply exploring the world you find yourself in. You'll sail about, attempting to find climbable buildings, while keeping on the lookout for the red boxes which contain the goods that you're after.
Interestingly, it's completely impossible to die or lose, which means that the entire experience is very slow and relaxed. Similarly, with no combat to speak of, you'll rarely, if ever, feel threatened in any way. Along the way you'll also find remnants which reveal the tale of the civilisation which existed before the apocalypse, as well the story of the flood itself.
This tale is nothing revolutionary – and indeed, closely resembles that of a colossally popular PlayStation 2 game – but it is told with subtlety and panache. As you collect more and more supplies, the game's charming protagonist begins to remember more and more about her and her brother's troubled past.
However, the title's focus on exploration highlights its first big problem: controls. To be clear, there is nothing catastrophically wrong with them, the entire affair just feels a bit muddy – the sailing especially. Obviously in this style of relaxing exploration game, these dodgy inputs aren't gamebreaking by any means, but it still would have been nice if things felt a bit crisper.
What's more, while there are many exciting landmarks to discover as you traverse this marine metropolis, more often than not you can't actually access the ones that you really want to. For instance, there is a massive radio tower near the middle of the map which you're only allowed to admire from afar. This would be fine if said tower provided some sort of meaningful environmental storytelling in and of itself, but that just isn't the case. What's more, there seems to be no logic as to what buildings you can and can't clamber over.
It's a shame, because there is some truly beautiful and inspired design here. Moss covered office blocks dominate the dour skyline, while smaller buildings buckling under nature's pressure line the streets. Again, though, there just isn't enough variety in the architecture and environment. What's more, you'll occasionally spot some truly heinous textures. To be clear, none of this is gamebreaking, but when you're expected to spend your entire playtime enjoying the scenery and atmosphere, it seems like a bit of an oversight.
Luckily, the title's music is absolutely sublime, with each and every one of its many tunes matching the tone perfectly. Haunting strings dangle lightly over gorgeous piano, creating an atmosphere which is at turns tranquil, tense, and tragic. What's more, the music drifts in and out organically, allowing you to bask in the gentle sounds of the ocean, or the low hum of the surprisingly diverse native wildlife.
Submerged is a strange game to review. It's never does anything mortally wrong, but at almost every turn you'll feel as if the developer's grand vision hasn't been fully realised. Couple this with slightly shonky controls, and you've got an experience which, while never frustrating, is never truly satisfying either.
The title's biggest downfall, then, is not any one single thing, but rather its overwhelming ambition. And in the grand scheme of things, perhaps that's not the worst problem to have. Indeed, despite its admittedly frequent rough patches, it's very hard to not admire the way this humble indie game so earnestly reaches for the stars.