Uppercut Games’ third-person, post-apocalyptic exploration game, Submerged, sounds like the perfect combination. It’s developed by ex-Bioshock devs (Australians no less), drawing inspiration from Journey and Grand Theft Auto mods to create a exploration game referencing climate change; it’s beautiful, it’s inspired and it’s political. But, is it any good?Submerged opens with a young girl, Miku and her younger brother, Taku, arriving in a flooded city with Taku suffering from an abdominal injury. Playing as Miku, you must explore and traverse the submerged city with your boat, scaling the abandoned buildings to retrieve supplies and heal your wounded brother. Gradually, the items you collect for Taku reveals the tragic backstory behind the two children via pictographs.
With each new wave of pictographs that collectively tell the backstory of these two characters, I became more and more attached to these two characters and their desperate situation. To make matters worse, what’s going down in this city doesn’t bode well either, leaving me increasingly fearful of the safety of Taku as I left him to collect the next batch of supplies I could spy with my telescope. I’m no doctor either, but Miku’s also got this weird bluish-green barnacle like stuff growing on her arms which is never a good sign.What I’m saying, is that the story sets itself up nicely. There’s heaps of mystery and suspense, and then it doesn’t go ANYWHERE! Avoiding spoilers, it just conveniently wraps up with very little explanation or resolution, leaving me, well… angry! Initially, I loved the world, the characters, the premise but then by the end, it felt kind of flat and shallow. The creepy elements never really developed into anything scary, and the tragedy did not develop into anything either uplifting or heartbreaking. Its one of those disappearing-off-into-the-sunset type endings, and not one of those thematically ambiguous endings at that. Ultimately, the story fell disappointingly short.
On a more positive note however, there’s enough potential demonstrated there that I feel like the team at Uppercut Games can do something masterful. Sadly though, this certainly isn’t it.
Submerged‘s presentation is undoubtedly its strongest aspect. The art-style and colour palette is gorgeous, I like how colour is used to guide you around the landscape and animals swim by your side, I love the pictograph approach to story-telling (very Journey-esque) and the character designs. As alluded to earlier, I am however disappointed that the animations often looked a little robotic and recycled, and there is an insufficient amount of environmental story-telling. The music too, whilst lovely, was not particularly memorable and strangely mixed, with songs not transitioning between cuts-scenes creating a rather jarring audio mix. Overall, the aesthetic of the game was strong, but not as immersive as it really ought to be in a game that prioritizes the experience over the gameplay.
Gameplay is a difficult aspect of a game to address when it is so exploration focused; you can only really judge it on the quality of exploration. Here, I am also mixed. As you travel around the city in you boat, you reveal parts of the map. Any building containing a supply to help heal Taku illuminates bright red on the map, making it quite easy to rattle through the story. Similarly, whenever you aim down the telescope and there is an item near your vision, a enormous white arrow will point it out. As a result, the game becomes more or less a pretty straight forward collect-a-thon to grasp the story of the children and of the city, as well as upgrading your boats speed boost if you can be bothered. Personally, I don’t find that too much of a bad thing (there’s nothing worse than a tedious collect-a-thon, take the Riddler trophies in Arkham Knight for example) but it just upsets me a little bit that this game is reduced to that.Other than the city obviously being inundated with water at some point in the past there is very little environmental story-telling in Submerged, which – for an exploration game – seems very out of touch with the genre. With no dialogue either, the story-telling is entirely reliant on the cut-scenes (of which I thought the animations often looked janky and repetitious) and the collectible pictographs. So, with just these items and a handful of trophies (note: there is no platinum trophy for PS4 trophy collectors) there is little reason to have an enjoyable second play-through of the game.
I found the climbing mechanics alright to begin with, but a side-effect of the “explore at your own pace” feature means you could stumble across the buildings in any order, meaning it does not get any more challenging. Collecting items on the way up depends largely on guessing the right direction to go as well, which means painful back-tracking if you can be bothered collecting it. Eventually, this became repetitive and frustrating too.
It physically causes me pain that I did not like this game more. It’s taken me some time to determine where exactly this game sat with me. On a surface level, it looks like it ticks all the boxes for this new-wave of exploration games – that are rapidly gaining popularity with developers and gamers alike – but at a deeper conceptual and technical level is falls far short of it sources of reference.