The Forgotten City Review
A historical mystery adventure with a twist
Modding games has become a very popular pastime for many enthusiasts on PC over the last few decades. In the early days, it provided a way for fans to tweak and modify games to experience them in new ways. And as this hobby grew, entire teams of passionate fans were soon dedicating their time and skills to patch, improve, and expand on games, and then sharing their efforts with the world. Some of those fans used modding to break into the industry and join existing developers, or start their own passion projects. Newly released The Forgotten City started out as a mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but has now grown to become its own standalone project. This first person narrative adventure still has a lot of mechanical similarities to the RPG that inspired it, but thanks to strong characters and an immersive setting, the game manages to captivate.
The adventure begins as players find themselves on a river bank, with a woman claiming to have saved you from certain drowning. You get to choose a name and a gender (though this selection is done via a coin with very unclear icons), and the woman asks you to head into the nearby Roman ruins to find her colleague Al. Al apparently went in to find some archeological treasures, and hasn't returned. If you do this, the woman promises to guide you and Al back to civilization on her boat. Without much choice, and with just a flashlight, you head into the forest. When you stumble upon the entry to the caverns that host the ruins of the Roman city, you begin to realize that something is not quite right. Golden statues are everywhere, and soon you encounter the gold-covered body of Al, who left a note that says he's been stuck here for eternity. You head further in, and are whisked away through a mysterious portal which transports you back in time, over two thousand years, to when this city was still standing and citizens walked the streets.
As you step out of the temple which houses the portal, a man named Galerius greets you as a new arrival, and after a few key discoveries - such as you now being able to speak Latin - he says you need to see the Magistrate Sentius. You can automatically follow a character guiding you around - a feature that doesn't get used very often in the game, but is much appreciated none the less. On the way, you meet Horatius, a soldier that's loyal to Sentius, as well as Livia, a woman that appears to be crazed. When you finally meet Sentius, you learn about the city and their situation. Turns out, there are only a handful of citizens, nobody remembers how they got here, and nobody is able to leave. Those who tried have failed or disappeared. This means that the game features around 20 characters, and they are all somehow involved with the story or sidequests; there are no random NPCs walking about. This gives the game an incredibly grounded and personal feel.
Sentius also tells you of the single law that rules this city - The Golden Rule. According to this rule, if anyone commits a crime, be that theft, murder, or something else - the gods shall rain death upon the entire city and all will perish. While citizens have been abiding by this rule so far, Sentius feels that your arrival signals impending doom - he asks you to find out who is about to commit a crime, and stop them if possible. Through further discussion, Sentius also reveals that he's aware of the time travel, and that you're now stuck here with the rest of them, unless you create a time paradox. He knows about the time portal at the shrine, and if the time comes when the Golden Rule is triggered, he will sacrifice himself to activate it, so that you can travel back around and start the day over. Oh, and there are also elections due to occur later in the evening, where the challenger aims to break the Golden Rule laws as he believes them to be a hoax. As you discover some of the history and events of the city, you begin to realize that the rule doesn't always trigger, for some reason, adding to the mystery.
With this juicy setup, you venture out into the city and begin speaking with its diverse cast. While you have some main goals, many of the stories (tracked as quests) have some direct or indirect impact on the outcomes. Depending on your relationships with the characters, the Magistrate elections can swing one way or another, certain events may trigger, and it's simply very interesting to find out how each thread of the story can unravel. You may want to help Sentia find out what happened to her younger sister who went missing three weeks ago, or work with priestess and election host Equitia to discover the forbidden truth of the city. You might choose to save Iulia from dying due to a positioning, and stop her pact brother Ulpius from jumping off a cliff, perhaps by promising to repay their hefty debts. You may acquire a bow after striking a deal with a local greedy market stall owner.
Interacting with the various characters will remind players of Skyrim, as you approach them, they turn to you and you have a menu selection of topics to discuss. The small budget and the age of the Unreal Engine 4 shows during these conversations, as the lip sync is rudimentary at best and the facial textures aren't exactly of the highest quality. It's not overly distracting, but there was certainly plenty of room for improvement here. There is also much left to be desired from the various environmental textures being used, as their quality is a far cry from modern titles, and they look like they came straight from the launch version of Skyrim. It helps that all of the characters have quite a few voiced dialogue lines, different personalities and motivations. The backing soundtrack loops a bit, but is well composed. The voice acting is also well delivered, even if everyone is using British English along with very modern phrases that don't make much sense in the setting.
The many stories of The Forgotten City are intertwined, meaning that to progress certain quests you must first resolve others, and after a while the logical thread becomes rather apparent, but it doesn't make the story less engrossing. While there are often a few different leads to chase at any given time, sometimes the only way to progress is to start over. When a crime is committed by you, or by others as a result of the story unraveling, the Golden Rule triggers a cataclysmic event (which we won’t spoil here). You are then given a chance to escape to the temple and reset - starting the day over, but keeping your inventory. Restarting the day via the time loop is a key mechanic that's required to progress, as you will often find yourself stuck - for example, by insulting a character so they stop talking to you, lacking all the facts to stop an event from happening, or by committing a crime - by stealing some lifesaving herbs.
Certain events happen at the start of each time loop, but cleverly you can quickly send Galerius to perform the tasks so that you don't have to do the same things over and over. The implementation of this time loop mechanic is clever, and the fact that all characters have to react to you like it's the first time is mostly well done, though there are occasional leaps in logic. There are also sometimes new dialogue options deeper into the conversation tree, but the initial options remain grey (instead of white, meaning they've already been discussed), which may cause some missed opportunities.
While most of the story and characters are engrossing, the game does run into trouble with its finale. There are a few different major endings, and depending on what choices you make, you could unknowingly reach the ending within just 3 to 4 hours. The endings all feel rather quickly put together, except for the major canon finale, so the game can feel quite short and abrupt depending on how things play out for you. You can reload a few of the auto-saves and go in a different direction, but still, for all the intrigue that happens, it's not always clear which choices and quests will trigger an immediate finale sequence. The game would have benefitted from leaving its endings until later, as it has enough interesting content to carry it and avoid the criticisms of "choices not mattering until the end". Many quests are also tied together to others, so you will be hopping back and forth between storylines anyway.
The hours that you do spend exploring the city will be fairly memorable. The Roman town inside the cavern where the game takes place is pretty to look at, with historical architecture and a sprawling maze of tight tunnels underneath. There is plenty to explore as you navigate the few buildings and streets, and the many tunnels below. Without any maps, you'll have to rely on your memory and directions from characters. You'll come across locked doors, learn of hidden paths and keys, and scour through rooms of the characters in hopes of finding information or money. Stealing will trigger the Golden Rule however, so best to leave the cash where it is unless you want to reset; this isn't Skyrim where you can take anything as long as nobody is looking. There's not a whole lot to take though - interactive items are limited to quest-related notes, and while you can pick up a few certain objects and rotate them around, this seems pointless and arbitrary.
The first person controls are fairly smooth and mostly basic - you can sprint and crouch, but this is rarely needed. There are no gameplay mechanics apart from your flashlight, shooting the bow you may receive, and certain chase/combat elements which again we won't spoil here. It's worth mentioning there is a major quest which the game warns contains elements of action/horror - and while it can be skipped, we strongly advise to do it, for the sake of new gameplay experiences and very important story revelations.
On PC, the game performs without issues and holds a steady framerate. However, it has a habit of maxing out your GPU processing power despite offering outdated visuals. Whenever you transition between bigger indoor areas and the main city, there are notable pauses for loading screens; so optimization isn't exactly great. There are also some minor pathing bugs as characters walk around the city and if you try to talk to them while they are busy, things can get strange. There are also very few screen resolution options and they can be finicky to set.
The Forgotten City is an intriguing story wrapped in a standalone release that has shades of Skyrim, but is mostly its own experience. There are some obviously outdated presentation elements, a few quality of life issues, and the controls are simple. The game is also not very long, depending if you get an early ending which can feel abrupt. But with strong audio design, interesting characters, engaging narrative and worthwhile exploration, the debut title from developer Modern Storyteller shows that they can clearly live up their name.