[As always: SPOILERS AHOY!]
Submerged could well describe how I feel when I look at my backlog of Games on Steam. However, I’m reasonably sure Uppercut Games didn’t make a game about that though – so what did they make one about?
The flooded city that the protagonist in Submerged finds themselves in doesn’t have a name, and isn’t based on any one real city, though it could perhaps be described as ‘Venice-by-accident’. We only see the very top most structures peeking out from the algae infested waters, their brickwork crumbling and giving way to now dominant plant life. Its waterlogged corpse speaks of a history that, much like its own partial structures, we can only see fragments of. It is a mystery; an unknowable place.
The player character Miku and her wounded younger brother arrive at the city by boat. A sensible vehicle choice, considering the apparent condition of the planet. The boy is succumbing to his injury, and Miku needs to track down various objects to keep him alive. A bandage to cover the wound, something to disinfect it. This leads the player to explore the ruins of this drowned city, locating crates which contain the items your brother needs.
The gameplay is nothing special. Mechanically, Submerged is extremely simple. You can’t die, and there is no combat. This is a game about exploring. Miku navigates through the city using her boat, looking for buildings that might contain crates. When you find a building to climb, you ditch the boat to scale it, navigating along ledges, up pipes and across overgrown weeds. It would not be unfair to draw a mild comparison to the tower climbing moments in Assassin’s Creed games, but with no chance of Miku accidentally flinging herself off the building to certain pavement-based death because you pointed the camera a direction the game didn’t approve of. Because the game is so basic in its player action, that there is a danger of the game becoming boring. There is an argument to say that once you’ve navigated one or two of the ten main buildings in the game, that you’ve pretty much covered all that the game has to offer, mechanically. It does try to mix up some of the types of climbing involved across different buildings, but there is only so much that can be done within the constraints the game has set for itself. Instead, what keeps you going is the story and the exploration.
The city of Submerged is the star of the show. The lighting and water effects are fantastic, and the game regularly looks stunning out in the open. Uppercut have done a remarkable amount with what often seems quite limited textures and models. Up close, the edges show through, but at the distance the game is intended to be played at, the structures look solid, old and foreboding, and everything looks beautifully stark and desolate. You get a very real sense of the age of the place. Steering the boat through the outskirts of the city at sunset or sunrise never got old for me, and mirrored the feeling that going out on a real boat can bring; raw escapism and a sense of detachment from the World at large.
Unfortunately, this more relaxed vibe doesn’t quite gel with the plot, which carries a greater sense of urgency in its mission to save your dying brother, producing a slightly disjointed pace. The same can be said of the games ‘kind of’ antagonists – the remnants – who feel like they’ve been inserted into the game simply to provide a visual threat, and, as it turns out later on, some magic plot dust which led to more disjointed disappointment in the final moments of the game. It may be that the developers felt the need to provide more meat on the bones to flesh out what could be seen as a fairly small story, or didn’t want the risk of being labelled closely with other non-combat walking-sim type games. This may be fair, considering that the main complaints I’ve seen levelled at Submerged were focused on not enough interactivity, and a short game time. I wish they’d gone further the other way though, and allowed the core concepts of isolation and exploration to be the sole purpose of the game. The journey can be its own reward. Sailing with dolphins coasting alongside you is it’s own reward.
When left to explore, free from the plot, is when I found Submerged to provide its best moments, using its striking visuals and an aged cityscape to settle around me and wonder at what happened here. The extra details, such as a pictographic storyboards which detail the events which led the city to this state, and the code-alphabet all add to a sense of place that is wonderfully and consistently conveyed. I honestly preferred it once I’d finished the story, and was allowed to just coast the water. It was refreshing thing to play something that didn’t demand too much, almost allowed me to play at my own pace, and didn’t place me in confrontation with anyone. I wish there were more games like it, and I hope next time one does appear, it has the courage to see those ideas through to completion.