A Short Pause Review - Submerged (PS4): Beautifully Flawed
Developer: Uppercut Games (@UppercutGames)
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
“Combat-free exploration game” is a description that will forever haunt me as a gamer. Not because it may sound boring to most hardcore gamers, but because it’s the very same description applied to the abysmal PS4/PC title Wander a few months back. Now, if any of you watched our live stream of Wander, you’ll understand why I’m scarred by the idea of “combat-free exploration games.” When I saw the trailer for Submerged, it naturally brought back agonizing memories of my punishing 45-minute session with Wander. There were some elements of the Submerged trailer, however, that piqued my interest; I’d be controlling an actual human — not a painfully slow-moving tree — and there appeared to be a strong story here based around survival. Thankfully, my interests were well-placed as Uppercut Games brings stability — and credibility — back to the exploration genre with Submerged.
The story of Submerged takes place in a world that’s been flooded by years and years of raining; Mother Nature creates this post-apocalyptic world as opposed to the nukes! You play as Miku, a young girl who’s desperately making her way across the open sea, hoping to find medical assistance for her brother who has sustained abdominal injuries. After days of sailing, Miku and her brother come upon a city protruding from the depths below. Buildings and various landmarks rise above the wavy waters, covered in foliage as the Earth appears to have reclaimed everything that was once owned by man. As Miku, you find an old clock tower in the center of the city that provides good shelter for your injured brother; this will act as the game’s central hub throughout the 4 -5 hour experience ahead.
This is where the intro ends and where the combat-free exploration begins. You are free to explore the entire city without boundaries (other than the invisible wall that keeps you within the city itself), and there is no particular order in which you have to complete your task. That task, as alluded to earlier, is to find ten medical supply drops that are scattered along the rooftops of this mysterious city so that Miku can help her ailing brother. While you have the option of sailing around town without any sort of hint system to indicate where these drops are, Miku has a telescope on hand that you can use to help locate and mark not only the medical supplies in questions, but other collectibles scattered throughout the game world, including photos that tell the story of what happened to the underwater city, and capsized ships that offer parts used to upgrade your boat’s boost mechanic.
Obviously, in a game that features no combat whatsoever, there’s a lot of pressure on story, gameplay, and technical performance. While there are some issues with the game in all three of these facets, it’s still an enjoyable experience throughout. It’s worth mentioning that Submerged runs on the Unreal 4 engine, which has allowed Uppercut Games to create a beautiful world for us to explore. Each building you scale is beautifully designed, and the lighting and water effects are breathtaking, especially from above. A number of times, as I was hanging from a ledge, I found myself panning the camera around to take in the apocalyptic beauty of the world below. There were, however, quite a few moments where the frame rate dipped, causing some serious chugging. It mostly occurred while boating around the city, so I have the sneaking suspicion this was due to all of the debris in the water trying to load-up at once. Since there isn’t any way for you to die in this game, I guess its impact was minimal.
In terms of sound — much like the graphical presentation — it’s effective, but held back by some strange technical issues. There is a sense of isolation that is created when all you hear are the waves of the water, the aquatic wildlife swimming around, gusting winds when scaling the surrounding buildings, and the occasional thunderstorm. The musical soundtrack itself is very beautiful (composed by Bafta-award winner, Jeff Van Dyck), and does a nice job of capturing the struggle and urgency of the situation that Miku is in, even if it becomes repetitive before game’s end. There is one audio glitch, however, that was really distracting throughout. When you’re scaling buildings, and you reach a certain height, you can hear the transition from sea level to high altitudes. The problem is, if you’re at that transition point for a period of time — which happens often — it constantly sounds like someone is slowing the audio file down and then speeding it back up. It really took away from the immersion because it was happening so frequently.
As I mentioned above, you can’t die in Submerged. It’s not that type of game, and I get that. However, in a game that requires you to scale up towering buildings (a la Uncharted’s climbing mechanic) in order to save your brother’s life, I feel like the lack of a “fear of death” takes away from the sense of urgency the story is trying to impart. I love the idea of Miku going to extreme lengths to save her brother’s life, risking her own safety in the process of trying to find all ten medical supply boxes. When you remove the chance of failing, it makes Miku feel like a superhero, which I’m not sure fits the narrative here. I understand the no-combat approach, and I think it works well in Submerged. I just would’ve liked to have had that fear of failing in the back of my mind considering all of the acrobatic climbing you do in Submerged. That being said, climbing along ledges and up and down pipes feels fine, but that’s kind of a hard mechanic to screw up in the first place.
Finally, we have the narrative itself. In Submerged, there are actually two stories unfolding as you explore throughout the city. First, there is the story of how Miku and her brother have reached their current situation. You’ll learn their story through a series of hieroglyphic-style drawings, four of which will unlock every time you recover a medical box. These drawings tell a very sad tale involving family and dealing with the loss of a loved one. It’s very sobering and helps create some depth for Miku. The other story, told through another series of the same style of drawings, is unlocked by finding the 60 collectibles that are scattered throughout the city. This story was a little bit harder to understand, and it didn’t help explain the confusing ending that feels rushed. I want to say there’s a cryptic message in here about how if we keep polluting our world, Mother Nature will take it all back. Either way, Miku’s story is far more interesting and impactful, and that’s what helped keep me engaged until the very end.
Submerged is a very ambitious and daring game in a world overrun by shooters, horror games, and other more hardcore experiences. It houses a beautifully created world that is centered on a strong female protagonist, and it’s nice to see her fleshed out thanks to a poignant, moving back-story. There are some technical issues that detract from the experience, but never to the point where it drives you away. I’m not sure if the ever-growing “combat-free exploration genre” of games will make its way into the hearts of hardcore gamers, but Submerged does an admirable job of creating an experience to suggest these kinds of titles belong alongside more traditional action/adventure fare, and Uppercut Games deserves a lot of credit for that.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4. Review copy provided by the kind folks at Uppercut Games.
- Visually impressive
- Solid climbing mechanics
- Miku’s backstory
- Lots of collectibles to find
- Weak ending
- Audio and performance issues
- Lack of death doesn’t mesh with the urgency of having to save someone’s life