Be it by politicians, critics or the tabloid press, videogames are frequently criticised for “desensitising” their players. The effect is usually discussed in relation to excessive violence in games, the idea being that by repeatedly simulating the same violent acts, players become less receptive to their impact. What at first feels extreme eventually becomes benign, perhaps even warping players’ perceptions of real world brutality. The reality, of course, is that all the violence just gets boring.
Submerged isn’t a violent game – in fact there are no enemies or danger of any kind – but as an action adventure game set in a post-apocalyptic urban environment, it skirts another kind of desensitisation. Between The Last of Us, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the Fallout games, overgrown city blocks with derelict skyscrapers and moss covered monuments have become a fairly mundane sight in games, meaning that any new depiction of the end of modern civilisation needs to be pretty special to make a strong impression.
Developed by a team around a tenth of the size with a similar fraction of a budget than any of the games listed above, Submerged certainly has the odds stacked against it. Fortunately, it offers an imaginative and often beautiful post-apocalyptic world to explore that distinguishes itself from the plethora of existing dire visions of the future, even as draws brazenly from those games and others.
Submerged’s most obvious inspirations are Enslaved and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, combining the high altitude clambering and verdant urban ruins of the former with the later’s open world sailing. That being said, there are plenty of other reference points: the game makes strong use of environmental sounds like rushing wind and lapping waves, creating a lonely, contemplative atmosphere reminiscent of Ico, while its streamlined climbing mechanic will likely be familiar to players of Assassin's Creed.
Its premise is also typical video game fodder. The protagonist, a teenage girl, has arrived in a flooded, abandoned city with the hopes of healing her wounded little brother. Luckily, there are medical stashes scattered around the world, so it’s the player's job to find them by navigating a sunken playground of decaying architecture studded with convenient ledges, handholds and vines. Much like Assassin’s Creed, climbing is a simple case of pushing the control stick in the right direction. It’s not mindless though as each of the main structures is designed like a puzzle with multiple routes to traverse and secrets to discover. Although finding your way really just amounts to having a keen eye, it’s successful in encouraging the player to peruse every inch of these detailed buildings.
The best part of the game is spent climbing, so it’s a good thing it remains mostly engaging throughout. Longer climbing sequences are punctuated by both deliberate and emergent dramatic flourishes like cinematic camera work and spontaneous weather effects that, combined with the game’s spirited score, lend a satisfying sense of grandiosity to the whole affair. There’s a day and night cycle at play too though the stark lighting effects can be just as bothersome as they are beautiful. While the sight of a drowned bridge or statue glistening in the full moon is often dazzling, about halfway through the game we found ourselves accidentally locked into a rhythm of climbing buildings at night, which proved very tricky given the dim light and seemed like a waste of the stunning vistas likely visible in the daylight.
Submerged’s biggest crux however is repetition. As a relatively small-time studio, Uppercut Games had a lot of guts to pursue a high-fidelity open world project, wittingly pitting themselves against the titans of the medium. In relation to the game’s most fundamental elements, their gamble paid off – the presentation, the sense of place and the feel of the action are all exemplary – but there’s no overlooking the fact Submerged only has one trick that it then recycles a handful of times until the game’s over. The sequence is this: cruise around in the boat, checking your telescope for supply boxes to recover, spot a building with a box and navigate to it, climb the building, repeat.
Admittedly most games are repetitive, but the difference here is that there’s nothing new to learn as the game progresses. Though the buildings have fairly distinct layouts, they are identical in terms of how you interact with them meaning that once you’ve scaled one you’ve essentially scaled them all. There is something of a backstory to discover told through pictographic diary entries hidden around the city (good to know that books will survive the great flood), but its telling is entirely separated from the action and discloses little that can’t be extrapolated from the state of the game’s world alone. Discovering them beings its own fun though, and we found ourselves tracking them down anyway. The architecture does convey bits and pieces about the world that came before but with nowhere near the depth of, say, Bioshock, which many of the team previously helped develop.
Clearly Uppercut had climate change in mind when they envisioned Submerged, an issue that more developers could be making an effort to address. The final game certainly paints a haunting image of the threat posed by rising sea levels and in doing so presents a refreshing post-apocalyptic setting. Yet besides a stock narrative about familial self-sacrifice, it doesn’t have much else to say. However, it’s a confident, polished and entertaining experience and, as one of the first releases to really flex the muscles of Unreal Engine 4, a great technical accomplishment. For a game about catastrophic volumes of water, Submerged is perhaps a bit shallow but it's still worthy of dipping your toes in nonetheless.