Off the Backlog – Submerged

The idea of a combat-free game is a peculiar beast. Often combat is a core part of any game; conflict and the player overcoming it provides an easy narrative thrust and a simple yet effective means of measuring a player’s progress. And yet, some games strive to give us worlds and narratives without conflict woven into the gameplay; some do alright, some don’t. It’s still a burgeoning genre, with plenty of scope to improve and it is into this arena that Submerged sails.

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Submerged (PS4, PC, Xbox One [reviewed])

Released 4 August 2015

Submerged’s take on the combat-free genre is a platformer with a focus on exploration. The player is dunked into a post-apocalyptic city, long flooded by global warming, ruined and overgrown. Two children drift on a boat through this watery wasteland, a boy and a girl. The boy, Taku, is seriously wounded. His sister, Miku, sets him down and resolves to search the city for supplies in order to nurse him back to health. Though the game is combat-free, Miku isn’t alone; a set of mysterious stone-skinned humanoid creatures watch her from afar, for some unknown reason. Miku herself is afflicted with a strange encroaching disease that she battles through to save her brother.

The game is largely dialogue-free; Miku only speaks to inform the player of the next thing she needs to scavenge. Otherwise the game and the way the characters interact – or don’t, more to the point – is silent. Without wishing to spoil, the plot and characters are disappointing and flat – because the characters barely interact, they aren’t given any chance to develop. We know Miku is self-sacrificing and wants to help her brother but that’s all – she doesn’t even react to the weird and wondrous environment that he explores, taking in the flooded city and its denizens with a placid disinterest. Taku has no personality whatsoever; he is simply a story element to be attended to briefly after each supply is gathered and is, in general, ignored by both player and game. The mystery watching creatures are the most interesting party. They have an air of the sinister about them, despite never engaging Miku in combat; as the player sails and clambers about the city ruins they can occasionally be glimpsed staring at Miku before leaping away into the depths below. Unfortunately they are involved in the underwhelming ending, which introduces new elements to the story from nowhere and undermines the attempt to give the story some emotional weight.

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Submerged looks lovely – on the surface. The flooded city is covered in all manner of shrubbery and flowers that hang in the air and sparkle and glimmer as the night sets in or during the sunrise. When sailing, various sea animals emerge from the water and give the city a tangible sense of life. Once you get up close however you start to notice the jagged edges and endlessly repeated textures that might pull some players out of the experience. It seems a touch unfair to grumble given Submerged is a budget indie game but it’s part of the wave of little issues that crept up on me as I played. It isn’t helped by quite stiff animation and a lack of tactility – Miku doesn’t so much run as glide and her climbing is a tad jerky as she shanks from ledge to ledge.

Speaking of the climbing, that’s one of the few things you’ll spend your time doing in Submerged. Every supply crate Miku seeks is invariably on a roof somewhere, meaning you’ll have to scramble up the side of building after building after them. In theory, each building is a puzzle, with the player trying to work their way up, clambering across hanging vines, crumbling ledges and long-rusted drainpipes. In reality, there is no puzzle; every building is a more or less straight shot where you simply follow the clearly defined path until you reach the top.

It highlights the fatal flaw of Submerged – sure, it’s combat-free but it’s also challenge-free; in fact, the game has more in common with a walking simulator like Dear Esther than some sort of combatless Uncharted-esque platformer. Without any challenge, there’s simply not a huge amount to keep players invested in Submerged. There are collectibles to find; you can see every landmark and stare at every creature, you can scour the land for 60 pictograms that loosely detail the backstory of the game and you can collect boat upgrades. None of them have any substance though; seeing the landmarks and critters is considered its own reward, the backstory simply boils down to the city got flooded (gosh, what a surprise) and the boat upgrades simply constitute giving you more boost time to hurtle around a world with nothing to do in it.

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The soundtrack is nice, at least. Jeff van Dyck’s score is chiefly piano and strings based, with a tendency towards slow, melancholic progressions. It’s rather beautifully scored and the only facet of the game with which I’m perfectly happy with. Take a listen to it here.

Perhaps I’m being overly mean. Submerged is a reasonable attempt at a game without combat but it simply didn’t do anything with the blank canvas it gave itself. You can explore its starkly pretty sunken city ruins for simply the sake of doing so but there’s nothing to keep you interested as you do so. In some respects, you’re paying for a gallery; you can sail around and gawk but that’s about it. I think I spent around 2 hours on it all told and once I’d gathered the supply crates and seen the lacklustre story end there was no reason for me to go back.

3/7 – MEDIOCRE. A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.

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