SUBMERGED Game Review: Marine Monotony
Indie games do simple pretty well. The best indie games take a couple good ideas and hone in on them, developing and progressing the mechanic or story in question into a fully-realised, focused piece of interactive art. Gone Home does it. So does Rocket League. So does Super Meat Boy.
Uppercut Games’ Submerged is an intriguing example, then. It’s simple to the point of being simplistic, yet paradoxically presents itself as if it were complex. It asks you to take in its atmosphere, while also putting emphasis on its gameplay features - features far slighter than the game makes out. Submerged takes its good ideas and fails to develop them, instead grinding them so hard and repeatedly that all that’s left is dust.
Submerged takes place in a post-apocalyptic world different to most (except, perhaps, that of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West). The oceans have risen and the wildlife mutated, and all that’s left of civilisation is the tippy-tops of buildings peeking out from the surface. As marine animal and plant life has taken over, the decaying architecture has taken on a colourful, leafy appearance. You take on the role of Miku, a young teenage girl, who sails into a city bearing her wounded brother. It’s up to Miku to climb and search the city’s abandoned skyscrapers for supplies to nurse him back to health.
So far, so good. There’s a promising setup for a story and for a game here, but sadly it amounts to very little.
Submerged is definitely pretty. It’s not the most technically accomplished Unreal Engine game ever made, but it makes the most of its design style. The colour palette is a gorgeous range of blues, browns, and greens, and the time-of-day effects lend atmosphere to the goings-on. Characters' animation might be a little rough, but they're well-designed, including some fun animals and weird mutant guys who gather by the day. And at first, the sunken city seems festooned with secrets. An open-world game with an emphasis on traversal must have a lot of worthwhile exploration, right?
In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger: wrong. Submerged places a bizarrely heavy emphasis on its gameplay - right down to objective dots on the HUD - but the gameplay is so light that such an approach makes the game feel straight-up unfinished. When you first embark on your adventure, instincts suggest that the game is hiding things from you. The expansive city and UI design suggest a game like Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed, whose mechanics will unfold over the course of a playthrough. But no, everything you can do in the game is available from the start, and there isn’t much of it.
You only really do a few things in Submerged: scout for supplies and secrets, climb buildings to reach said supplies and secrets, upgrade your boat, and look at sea creatures. Theoretically, that’s fine. Gameplay that stripped-back would be okay if it was remotely satisfying. But the climbing puzzles that make up 90% of the game are simplistic and repetitive. Everything’s performed in an automatic and imprecise way, and the last building you climb will be no more complicated than the first - a more or less linear path to the top. Even the exploration is pointless. Unique bits of architecture are few and far between, and the boat upgrades scattered in the water merely allow you to extend the duration of your speed boost. The secrets - which reveal the game’s backstory - would drive completionists mad if they didn’t seem so unnecessary.
That story probably deserves a way better game than it gets. It’s told completely without language, which is laudable and clever - it’s unveiled through environmental, dramatic, and pictographic clues. The backstory even has an involved personal angle that complements and mirrors the larger-scale cataclysm. I wish we got to see that story unfold. But within actual in-game narrative, the story is - again - repetitive and aimless. There’s virtually no narrative build at all as you repeat the same actions again and again, and the ending doesn’t make enough of an impact to feel like either a reward for gameplay or a statement in and of itself. Submerged’s dramatic arc is a flat line.
Uppercut make a big deal in their marketing that Submerged is a combat-free game. That’s great - combat can get tiresome, and some of the best indie games have achieved much without it. But it feels like in their quest to be break from violent cliche, the developers have conflated “combat” with “conflict”. A story doesn’t need combat, but it does need conflict to generate drama. There is absolutely no drama in Submerged.
There’s not much to do in Submerged, and the core mechanics and progression aren’t satisfying enough to make up for it. Assassin’s Creed made climbing huge structures time and time again fun because the mechanic was fluid, enjoyable, and added to as games went along. Submerged, on the other hand, has all of the trappings of open-world exploration but without any joy of discovery. It’s not a game free of good ideas, but they’re repeated so ploddingly that by the end of your few hours with the game, you'll only be playing to see if the ending's any better.
Spoiler alert: it's not.