As someone who constantly proclaims the virtues of games like Gears of War and Silent Hill it may surprise some to learn that I actually prefer more peaceful games. Give me something like Q.U.B.E., The Sims or strict puzzle games like Tetris and watch me lose dozens of hours from my life. Especially if it’s Tetris... Sweet, sweet Tetris...
But I digress. The point is that if someone tells me that they have an experimental game all about exploration with exactly zero fighting, I’m all for it. This is what Submerged is all about: controlling a teenage girl as she explores the post-apocalyptic remains of a city for the tools she needs to heal her injured brother. It’s a simple plot but it’s all that is needed to motivate your character to do what needs to be done.
What makes Submerged really interesting is how simple it is. You control Miku with the left stick, whether she is walking or climbing. She will only move from surface to surface when there’s a safe, short move available to her. This means that you don’t even need to use another button to navigate climbable surfaces. So this means that no, you can’t die by misjudging a leap. In a way this reminded me of another post-apocalyptic game that I loved, Enslaved: Journey to the West. Some people may find this no death approach to gameplay irritating but I found it rather refreshing.
When you’re not climbing around Miku will be using her boat to navigate the flooded city. These controls are as simple as “go fast” and “stop going fast” buttons. The more interesting aspect of navigating the world comes in all of the stuff you can find thanks to your tools. There are collectible objects scattered around the city, pictographs that reveal the back story of what happened here, and they can be spotted by using your spyglass. So in between runs where you gather stuff for your brothers health you can find a high point and use your spyglass to find these collectibles as well as boat upgrades to help you speed around the city more efficiently.
Another cute element to the game is all of the references to underwater cities. There’s a place called Kiteh, a reference to a mythical sunken city in Russia, another known as Rulleyh, an obvious reference to R’yleh in the Cthulu mythos, and one that’s a reference to Rungholt, a wealthy Danish city that sank beneath the waves. Pretty much every single place in the game has names like this and it got a good laugh out of me when I noticed it while climbing the Rulleyh hotel. Really have to wonder what it was like spending a night there.
I have spoken to people about the game who found the general routine of the game to be somewhat boring. Find a building with a supply box on it, spend five to ten minutes climbing the building, take the stuff from the box and then watch a short but ominous cutscene. For all intents and purposes this is really all there is to the game which could obviously be a huge issue if you don’t find it engaging. One could also take issue with the fact that the game itself is short. It only took me somewhere between four or five hours to finish the main storyline as well as finding all of the various collectibles around the city.
Perhaps what left me positively inclined towards Submerged is the very nature of the game. The way the game plays, looks and feels immediately reminded me of one of my favorite games of all time - Shadow of the Colossus. You have this large, open and entirely empty world in front of you. You work from a large central, temple-like structure where a loved one is. All you have is your tools and your mount, in this case a boat, to get you around. Of course no simple boat is as special as Agro but it gets the job done.
Submerged also gets the lonely desolate feel of the world very correct. The game looks really damn good with detailed models and an expansive world. As you boat along you’ll see all sorts of strange nautical life forms that will swim around you. The first time a weird, barnacled whale thing surfaced in front of me I nearly had a heart attack, worried it was going to tip over my ship as I sped in its direction. The soft, classical tones that accompany you on your trip only enhance the experience.
While I do believe that Submerged isn’t the sort of game everyone will love I heartily approve of the experiment. I’ve heard cries of it not being a “proper” game because a real game has win-loss conditions and other such nonsense but it’s all just useless semantics. Submerged tries to be an emotional experience of a young girl working to save a dear family member and it succeeds at this. It may be slightly repetitive to some, it may be a bit on the aimless side but it’s also an incredibly soft and relaxing experience I enjoyed every step of the way.