I’m on a boat
Screen Australia funding has started spreading out into the domestic games industry. As an Australian studio and beneficiary of one of these grants, Uppercut Games been able to produce and release Submerged, a 3rd person exploration game. Miku, the protagonist of this story, is a girl who has arrived in a flooded city with her injured brother who she must try protect and heal.
It is not uncommon to see games which use exploration as part of their gameplay to engage players. We have recently seen this in games like Far Cry, Fallout and Assassin’s Creed. While these games are still enjoyable to play, they do have a habit of making the routine… well… repetitive. As a result, for some of these games, players no longer willingly engage with the greater world that is presented to them.
This is why when a game focuses solely on a single mechanic, especially when it is one that is so overused in AAA games, they risk becoming repetitive quite quickly. However, for a game that only aims for a few hours entertainment this can give them the freedom to truly explore what is possible. I feel that this is exactly what Uppercut Games has managed to do with Submerged.
Using a boat to navigate the flooded city, you go from building to building searching for the supplies that you desperately desire. While driving around you will discover various creatures of the sea, from whales to flying fish. You will have dolphins will chasing you, jumping and playing beside you as you travel from point to point.
Discovering these creatures is encouraged by the game itself. In addition to just following the story you are given badges for finding creatures, landmarks and secrets. The creatures and landmarks just return little images reflecting the discovery itself, whereas finding secrets slowly reveals the story of the planet itself. It astounded me just how well these little diagrams managed to tell a tale. I truly think this is a case of an image telling more than words ever could.
In the same way that finding secrets tells the story of the world, progressing the main story line tells the more personal story of Miku herself. This tale, albeit simple, surprised me in just how moving it was. Needless to say, I do not want to spoil anything within the game, so I won’t show more than what I have included above. This simplistic, childish art style tells the whole story, from where it all started, to where the game finishes. I think that the style makes it all that more accessible, and the childish nature really drives home the message it aims to deliver.
To get to the all the unlocks and to advance the story you must start by getting around the world. As I have already mentioned many times, you do most of the heavy lifting in your little boat. This boat has a boost which can be upgraded by finding other boats scattered amongst the flotsam. This little speed boost, while not all that critical, does make navigating the world just that little bit easier.
Once you have drawn your boat up to a building you want to explore, you start your ascent. These ascents make up the second main component of this game. Using a combination of ledges (both collapsed and intact), ladders, drains and foliage you are able to scale some quite impressive buildings. I was disappointed that there was little variety and no progression between all the major climbs. You do spend a lot of time hanging off the walls of buildings and something to set each apart would have been very nice. That said, even though these gameplay sections are quite simplistic, I must concede that they suit the nature of the game extremely well.
It is critical to remember that this game is about exploration. Everything Submerged does, it does to focus you on getting out there. It wants you to discover and learn about the world around you.
Bright red flowers litter the world, but conveniently enough, only at places where you can climb. These frequently trace the paths along the walls of buildings making it quite clear the way to the top. While getting to the top is the best way to advance the main story, it often pays to leave the prescribed path in order to discover the secrets of the world.
Finding some secrets can require some help, and this help comes in the form of a telescope. When you use it to scan the horizon and the surrounding buildings, white circles appear, indicating and saving the locations of supplies and other points of interest. In a world as vast as it is, this little tool makes exploring change from wandering at random to travelling with purpose. And what this world hides is worth seeking out.
While the story is amazing , I feel as though there is something more primal to this game that I think is worth experiencing. This game is visually stunning. As I mentioned in the disclaimer, all the screenshots used in this review were taken by me. Scaling buildings, running around in the boat, waiting for the right weather and much more. This game could almost be a landscape photographers dream.
I think in part this game was made for wandering and taking screenshots. Nestled into the menu is a tool which you can use to take more dynamic shots of the world around you. All the pictures which have ‘Submerged’ in the bottom right hand corner used this tool. This game really wants players out in the world, and I think that taking the best shots you can are a big part of that.
While visually this game is stunning, special note must also be made of the audio. This game has a surprisingly good soundtrack. I am the type of person who listens to the music in a game for a few minutes before I then mute it. This is one of the few games this year which has kept its sound intact. The music is perfectly suited and does not feel intrusive in the least.
I must add at this point that I feel a hint of shame. There are many landmarks in this game that come from Australian cities (after all it is developed in Australia). My initial assumption was that it was just a flooded future Sydney. After all, there is a version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge nestled away in a corner. Then I noticed, after what was an awfully long period of time, that the tower in the above picture is Canberra’s Telstra Tower. Just a tower that I have spent the last 15 or so years living beneath. These little (well… not so little) environmental features greatly enhance the world. They are the bridges that connect our world to that of the game.
While I do feel that this game is amazing in so many ways, there are a couple of areas that I think require improvement. The biggest of which is the lack of any control over the field of view. I am lucky that I am able to tolerate a low FOV. This is something that has come from many years training in a secret monastery high in the Australian Alps. Many people are not as fortunate as myself and the inability to control it put even me on edge. I suspect that for people who are use a wider angles and those who experience motion sickness will have some serious problems.
I would also like to see a slightly bigger map. While this world is by no way small, I would love to go inside buildings, I would love it to feel like a larger city, I just want more…
Even with the field of view issue I would happily suggest that people give it a go. The non-violent non-competitive nature of this game really makes it stand out as something special. The world is one where you can easily find something to trap your attention. The manner by which the world is opened to the player, the secrets of the past exposed, tells a gripping story where I just want more. You really feel for Miku.