Despite a great post-apocalyptic setting, Submerged flounders in the deep due to a lack of depth
Narrative-driven non-combat games are becoming far more common these days. While they were once seen as a break from the violence and heavy action, which many games normally bring to the table, that distinction has since begun to dilute. By removing a major portion like combat from a game, developers must look to another interactive mechanic to fill that hole. Otherwise, that game risks the chance of lacking depth. Uppercut Games’ Submerged is the latest to try its hand with this creative direction, sporting a post-apocalyptic world engulfed by oceans.
Submerged is a third-person exploration game where you cannot die, you cannot fail, and there is no significant chance of falling short of your goals. Instead, the point is to immerse the player in a world that’s similar to that of a Discovery Channel show about nature reclaiming what humanity had built. The game starts out with a young girl and her brother motoring into a sunken city on a small boat. Their journey is postponed, however, due to a life-threatening gash in the boy’s side. From here, the girl must search through the nearby buildings for supplies to provide for what her brother needs. In essence, this is the entirety of what Submerged is all about.
Much like other games that focus on exploration instead of combat, Submerged’s setting and atmosphere are its best qualities. Both nail what you’d expect in a world that’s mostly absent of human life. Amid the giant mass of water are decaying and decrepit skyscrapers that look to be on their last legs, with chunks broken off and various foliage painting the walls. Navigating down these new “streets” feels lively, even with no traces of humanity, thanks to a variety of marine life that often follows you around. Mixed together, there’s a very serene feeling to it all. Submerged also sports a beautiful soundtrack to set the mood, but adds in moments of complete silence that builds an eerie yet peaceful feeling.
Finding the emergency rations needed for the young boy follows the same basic template throughout the game. You motor around in your small boat until coming across some of the bigger buildings with parachutes and their accompanying supplies draped over the side. At this point, Submerged borrows heavily from games like Assassin’s Creed in terms of its climbing mechanics. You’ll never go inside the buildings to any large extent, and instead will resort to climbing the sides to parkour your way up to the top. Since there is no chance that the girl can lose her footing or fall off, being perched atop these massive buildings doesn’t quite have that sense of uneasiness or vertigo like in other games. There’s never a chance you’ll mistakenly hit the wrong button and jump off to your death, so the climbing never feels new or challenging with each building you encounter.
That in itself is partially problematic, because climbing these buildings compensates a large chunk of what you’ll spend your time doing in Submerged. To its credit, the controls are fairly simplistic, as pushing the left thumb stick in the direction you want to go is all you need to climb. But at the same time it’s not flawless, as panning the camera while in motion can frustratingly lead to the girl going in the opposite direction than you intended. The climbing’s variety is also lacking. There isn’t any sort of challenge or puzzle element to figure out how to proceed. Sometimes you’ll encounter multiple paths to follow, but that is always just meant to uncover additional collectibles.
Boating around from building to building is as simplistic as the game’s climbing. Most buildings have a set point where you’ll embark and disembark to either start climbing or navigate to another area. The boat moves fluidly in open waters, and is propelled faster with an optional turbo that’s gained from upgrades scattered among the water. Getting up close to buildings and navigating down streets felt a lot clunkier, however, and with everything you’re sure to hit on the way to your destination, it’s a good thing the boat doesn’t take any damage. Finding your way around is aided by a map that shows points of interest and spotted collectibles, found using a telescope that is also used for general sightseeing.
There is no spoken dialogue and instead the game relies on pictographs to tell its story. Some of these will come naturally after you collect each emergency ration, which elaborate specifically on the story of the young brother and sister. The story of what happened to the world as a whole is told through pictographs that are hidden among the buildings. Larger buildings that contain the emergency rations also hold several of these secret pieces along those forking paths, as do the smaller ruins that are scattered across the map. While players may be able to piece together a general understanding of what happened to the siblings and to the world at large, it is still left in uncertainty and for the player to decide.
Submerged has a beautiful world and an interesting take on a post-apocalyptic setting. But much like how it portrays a world that at times feels very empty, the gameplay is lacking and empty itself. By taking out the combat and the sense of danger, Submerged essentially became too repetitive for its own good, because nothing new or creative was ever introduced to the base of the experience. Most players should be able to play through the game’s story in 2-4 hours, and that felt like more than enough time to see what the game had to offer. Submerged presented a great premise, but not great execution.