It’s nice to have some downtime every now and again.
We all love the cacophony of a space marine bashing someone’s head in, occasionally stopping to curse or spit out a tooth, but that’s not all we want. Sometimes you need an injection of calm to level out the storm, and it’s a role indie games have been fulfilling increasingly in recent years (see Journey, a game so relaxed you could often play it with a cup of cocoa in one hand and a controller in the other).
Submerged is another soothing antidote to triple-A gaming’s Michael Bay madness, focusing on exploration and a pervading sense of mystery while chucking out all those nasty combat elements. However, in this particular case, doing so might have been throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Admittedly, in a sunken city this would merely land the baby in slightly different water, but in my living room it lead to the kind of eye drooping boredom you could probably alleviate by painting 100 walls and watching them all dry on CCTV.
As youthful protagonist Miku, you’ll sail into Venice’s leafier, more barren twin brother with your own severely injured sibling in tow. There’s little information provided at the outset, but her objective, revealed through scraps of dialogue, is to collect life-saving supplies from atop a series of submerged skyscrapers. It’s a shame she couldn’t find the underwater city with the Wal-Mart really. Luckily, Miku managed to get a few levels of Prince of Persia under her belt before the trip, and so sets about scaling buildings and traversing balance beams with nary a look back. If only she’d played a little longer and realized what was fun about those games, it might have prevented her own from being mired in a bog of bland repetition.
Once you’ve put your brother to bed in a central tower hub, the world is your carefully bordered oyster. You’re free to sail about on Miku’s speed boat, scooping up collectibles to improve her engine, scope out objectives using a handy periscope and embark on each vertical fetch quest in whatever order you see fit. While sea creatures ripple through the water and a piano softly tinkers away in the background, you’ll boost around and bump off obstacles, feeling like you’re in a more relaxed version of the speedboat chase from the original Uncharted. If only the waterlogged environment didn’t look exactly the same everywhere. It’s not fair to expect an indie game to look like Drake’s Fortune, but the few unique landmarks dotted around the map do little to combat the sense that you’ve seen everything there is to see in about ten minutes.
Submerged’s lack of building variety is only made worse once you start clambering up them. Every time you hop onto a wall from your boat, a sweeping vista of the structure you’re about to scale seems to foreshadow a perilous journey upwards. But with no way to fall, tackling each ascent is a dull experience that has you hopping from ledge to metal pipe to ledge without any danger or challenge. You’ll scratch your head occasionally at finding the right combination of traversable platforms get up to the next level, and might have to run around a bit to find more obscured supply crates, but there’s no bite to any of it. Every time you think the game might introduce some unique mechanic to ramp things up you’ll end up going through the motions. And they weren’t exactly scintillating motions to start with.
Nevertheless, the straightforward climbing is underlined by a gradual piecing together of the story, which is the only real motivator to not turn the game off. With each new supply found, a comic book-style snippet of Miku’s life leading up to her ocean odyssey is revealed, while mysterious figures begin to appear and haunt her return journey. Meanwhile, you can go off the beaten waves to find further snippets showing how the city went all accidental Atlantis in the first place. To say any more would be spoiling, but whether you actually find any of these answers for yourself will depend on how much of a stomach you have for optional monotony.
There’s definitely a feeling that Submerged’s open world exploration wants to be painted with a similar brush as Shadow of the Colossus. It wants players to be engrossed in a mystery that’s superficially interesting, but deeper if you spare the time to look. It wants a narrative that relies on stimulating the mind through story progression and bonding the player to its two young lead characters who’ve been through a lot to get there. But if there’s any reason why SoTC still holds up, it’s that it knew how to reward player exploration with tantalizing and, needless to say, challenging set-piece moments in the form of its awesome Colossus battles. Submerged’s wash, rinse, repeat towers of tedium look wet by comparison. Literally.
A slow-moving pace and undemanding platforming might be a draw to the more brain-addled gamer, perhaps enduring a slow-moving Sunday afternoon or a comedown from a particularly Red Bull-heavy Friday night. Nevertheless, there’s still an aching sense of potential behind Miku’s adventure that will leave you thinking what could’ve been. As it is, Submerged is pretty forgettable, and sinks rather than swims in the wake of other superior indie journeys. Journey in particular.