Death-defying feats aren’t nearly as interesting if you’re not actually defying death.
That’s something I quickly learned while playing Submerged, a game about a young girl trying to survive in a world where the ocean has all but swallowed humanity.
Perhaps “survive” isn’t the best term since, again, you can’t really die. The small team at Uppercut Games have touted Submerged’s lack of a fail state since the early days of development, instead putting the emphasis on exploration and discovery without fear of taking a wrong step, missing a leap or reaching a destination in time.
That works to the game’s advantage in some ways. It’s not often that you get dropped into a world without an enemy to face or an objective to complete under strict guidelines. It’s a relaxing departure from the norm and, for a while, I really enjoyed all of that extra breathing room. But once the game got rolling, I saw that the removal of any sort of challenge, coupled with a general lack of things to do, made for a pretty shallow experience.
Submerged opens on Miku, our young heroine, guiding a boat into the ruins of a city that’s barely clawing its way out of an endless ocean. The tops of skyscrapers poke out of the water like tombstones, a fitting atmosphere when we realize that Miku is caring for her young brother, Taku, who has suffered a serious injury.
Where did these kids come from? How did Taku get hurt? How did the world become a massive aquarium? These questions beat at the heart of Submerged and their answers serve as your reward for progressing through the game.
That progression is built off of two primary activities: Exploring the world in your boat and climbing up lots and lots of buildings.
The water-based exploration is one of Submerged’s strengths. The boat controls well and the drowned world that surrounds you is visually striking. There are hints at the civilization that used to thrive here, from its massive statues and landmarks to the banks, apartment complexes and factories that will provide the setting of your second primary activity: Climbing.
This is, unfortunately, where Submerged has trouble staying afloat. At the top of ten of the biggest buildings in the city are supplies that will help nurse your brother back to health. To reach them, you’ll need to dangle from ledges, shimmy up drainpipes and ease your way across narrow footing. But as I was saying earlier, there’s literally no way to botch these Nathan Drake-esque antics. Guiding Miku is as simple as pressing a direction on the thumbstick and watching her work. You don’t even need to press a button to make Miku jump or pull herself up onto solid ground.
The buildings are supposed to serve as puzzles, but the path to your objective is always to head straight up. After completing your first building, you’ll instantly be able to recognize the ledges, vines and bright pink flowers that mark the trail to your objective. An alternate route will occasionally pop up, but these serve to lead you to additional “Secrets” (bits of backstory) rather than to confuse you. Scrambling along these buildings is kind of fun at first but, by the time you grab a couple of supply caches to help Taku on his way to recovery, guiding Miku through almost painfully obvious paths to the top of building after building becomes monotonous.
Submerged offers a few additional side distractions to encourage further exploration, but those become equally repetitive after the first hour or so. Those Secrets I referred to earlier can also be found in much smaller buildings than the 10 main destinations, requiring you to simply seek them out, dock, walk around a corner or two and claim your prize. Boat upgrades can also be found floating out in the ocean, though they serve no purpose other than increasing your craft’s boost ability.
Despite the inevitably dull cycle of action, the world of Submerged is hauntingly beautiful, so I had quite a bit of fun just cruising through the environment. There are a few different animals I ran across on a regular basis, and speeding alongside a pod of dolphins or having a whale breach directly in front of me helped punctuate the proceedings with the occasional sense of awe.
The story also helps make this short affair worth the effort. As you gather supplies for your brother or collect the 60 additional Secrets hidden throughout the world, you’ll earn pictographs that help answer all of those questions that surface in the game’s opening moments. It’s an interesting tale, and there was even a moment in Miku and Taku’s backstory that made me gasp with surprise. Not a big deal under normal circumstances, but pretty impressive when you consider the fact that this was achieved with nothing more than a brief series of stick-figure images and a couple of notes on a piano.
While graphical hiccups popped up a little more regularly than I would like, Uppercut did throw in a couple of nice options that celebrate how lovely Submerged looks. For starters, you can turn off the game’s already limited HUD, creating a clean view of the world around you. There’s also a “Create Postcard” option in the menu, where you’re able to freeze the action and rotate the camera to capture a nice shot of your boat cruising between broken building against a stormy night sky.
Submerged is a game you could easily cruise through in just a couple of hours, but the narrative rewards were enough to keep me searching the city for additional clues despite action that eventually became tedious. There are solid ideas at play here, sure, but the lack of challenge or any substantial meat on its bones make Submerged flounder where it should soar.
Submerged was developed by Uppercut Games. It is available for the PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Ryan Winslett is a contributor at Gaming Blend, the sports and schools guy for The Fountain Hills Times and generally a very nice person. He can be found on Twitter @RyanWinslett.