Submerged is a game from developer Uppercut Games. You may recall our own James Billcliffe’s two-part interview from earlier this year (Part1 – Part 2). During their talk, they specifically talked about creating a game devoid of combat and centered on a protagonist which wasn’t an “everyman character”. They wished to create an emotional bond with their lead character, and do so, “with a more simple form of storytelling without expensive cutscenes”, which expand development time and increase costs.
So now nearly 8 months later we’re able to judge their level of success. In terms of their visual presentation and storytelling, particularly in regards to the relationship between Miku and her brother Taku, they’ve done an excellent job. But the real question is, “how does it play?” That’s a harder question to qualify.
Let’s step back and start with the first things that players will experience. We begin with a boat seemingly adrift through oceanic waters. Yet within these waters are the recognizable obstacles of bridges, building, statues and other tired, over-grown monoliths of a time that has apparently long-since passed. As intended, there is no explanation as to why the world is in such a state, there’s just a simple focus on this boat and its two occupants.
When the vessel comes to a stop against what was some-sort of rooftop courtyard, our female protagonist, Miku under player control, carries her injured brother to a bench. We notice a large gash across his abdomen, and she announces that she must find away to stop Taku’s bleeding. This begins the player’s exploration of the city.
Staring up close at the immediate surrounding will show you both textures and geometry that are simple and decidedly low resolution, but with a color palette that is this rich and warm, coupled with wonderful lighting and model placement, it all blends seamlessly together to form a very pretty and cohesive visual experience.
The lighting is really the key here. As much as the risen ocean and dilapidated buildings coupled with the foliage which give them character are the heart of the game’s world, the lighting is what truly brings everything to life. I’m struggling to come up with another game which so excellently captured coastal weather patterns — the brilliance of sunrise and sunset over the ocean, or the eerie calm before a storm, with hazy beams of light desperately trying to push their way out from behind ominous clouds. These moments are extremely well-done in Submerged.
Traveling around is very fluid, perhaps too much so, as Miku navigates the maze of building in search of supplies in an unnaturally moving boat. She locates items of interest, including boat speed upgrades, using a telescope. This has a limited range however, so moving throughout the mostly sunken city and gaining better views from higher vantage points is required.
That’s where the bulk of the gameplay comes from. Miku is an adept climber. Once she’s maneuvered her vessel to the building where’s she marked supplies, there will always be a vined entry-point, announced by bright red flowers. These plant ladders start her climbing journey. Interestingly, virtually every large building has multiple paths to the top. Our heroine will shimmy across ledges by foot or by hand, crawl and climb across vines, or make use of old ladders as she makes her ascent.
The goal is the supply crate on top, with an beacon providing audio clues as to its location. These drops are obviously some sort of aid left for survivors of whatever event has caused the world to become submerged. One important thing to note is that whatever supply crate Miku finds is the exact one that she needs for her current quest. So each climb and recovery can be done and found with no specific sequence. Once the supply is grabbed, she is automatically transported back to Taku, rests and then awakens with a new supply need.
This automated descent and teleport is a little annoying as it means you can’t grab the remaining collectible, usually several, that are left on that building without back-tracking and climbing it all over again thanks to the multiple paths. This is only a minor gripe though. Their reasons for doing so are the extension of a surrounding plot point which involve mysterious characters inhabiting the area, and watching over Miku’s movements.
No building is exactly the same, but the end result always is. Find the supply, teleport back, short in-game cutscene, repeat. There’s something lacking as there simply isn’t enough variation to make each climb distinctly interesting. Far more fun is exploring the extents of this water-world, and discovering new land-marks and remnants of what it used to be. Even the collectible artifacts provide extra incentive, by filling out a journal with colorful little hieroglyphics of history.
I wrestle a little with my feelings on the sound design and music. One one hand the music from Bafta-Award winning composer Jeff Van Dyck is lovely. On the other hand there’s just not enough of it, so again it becomes an issue of repetition. The sound design is minimal, but excellent. The sounds of the ocean and the life that inhabits it is spot-on. There are also beautiful little touches like the yawning of slowly decaying steel and the ratcheting of your telescope as it zooms. For me though, the game left some moments a little too quiet and devoid of sound. I understand creating the feeling of the vast openness of the oceanic world and absence of humans that this technique represents, but I would have enjoyed a little more ambient music to fill the void.
Whatever Submerged gets right or wrong in these aspects, don’t mean anything unless there’s some sort of emotional pull to the narrative. Without an enormous budget, huge cut-scenes or extended amounts of expository dialogue, the game still manages to fully convey the connection between Mika and Taku, and her need to take care of her seriously injured brother. Her worry is very apparent, and without giving too much away, her sacrifice becomes a very real thing.
In the end everything seems to wrap up too neatly for my tastes. But perhaps that’s just my conditioning to how a post-apocalyptic world and its story “normally” turns out. Uppercut clearly stated in their interview the planning of a less heavy-handed and dark experience in this genre, and I think they have succeeded in many ways. I just can’t help but feeling that things could have been pushed a little further.
On the technical side, the controls aside from the somewhat — bad pun alert — “floaty” boat steering, are solid. I never had any issue with the platforming elements of the game. Sounds and music were consistent in volume and quality. Framerate on the other hand was not so straightforward. Running on ultra settings, the game stayed mostly at that desired 60fps level. However, random , pro-longed drops would happen, and if my recording software was to be believed, they would flatline down at 30fps, though it felt lower at times. This was generally an exception more than rule for my playthrough, but still not uncommon.
Still, Submerged was an enjoyable experience, though as I mentioned, at times repetitive. It’s an interesting turn on the post-apocalyptic world setting, and one that’s fun to explore. In fact that’s the exact way you can continue your journey, and collection of remaining artifacts, through the “Explore” option after you’ve completed the game’s story. It gives you a reason to discover all that this now oceanic world has to left offer. I definitely spent some extra time navigating the waters of the submerged city when this part of Miku and Taku’s story was finished, and I suspect many other players will do the same.