A beautiful, melancholic piano piece plays while a boat slowly drifts towards the ruins of an old building that's sticking out of the water. Foliage covers its fascia. The boat bumps up against a ramp, and one of the occupants, a young girl, gingerly clambers out carrying the other: a small boy who's clearly injured.
She lays him down tenderly on a slab of stone with just a blanket as comfort, and it's obvious what she needs to do: find some kind of medical supplies to help alleviate his suffering.
She clambers back into the boat, and begins her search through the ruins of a flooded city.
And so begins Submerged, a short, but oh so sweet open world exploration game in which the primary objective is to search the ruins of the unnamed, submerged city for ten items so that the girl can nurse the young lad – who transpires to be her brother – back to health.
Quite when the game is set is never clear, but it's sometime in the future – perhaps a few hundred years judging by the way nature has begun to reclaim the inundated city. There's vegetation clinging onto every building; trees sprout from rooftops, shrubs grow on outcrops and vines are everywhere. Indeed, it's these vines that provide clues as to where you might be able to climb up buildings and search for supplies.
The ten items you need to locate are dotted across the city, and each is found atop one of the many buildings. Clambering up is the objective, and while the ascent is perilous, it's never deadly – the young girl is a tenacious climber and won't ever fall. Perhaps this sounds pointless if Submerged offers no death state or losing condition, but it's a pure exploration game, not one that requires serious platforming skills. The route to the top of some of the buildings is tricky, and the challenge is working out how to get there, not making pixel-perfect jumps.
In a way, it makes sense. If the girl dies, how can she help her brother? Sure, having lives is a typical video game trapping, but then this isn't quite a typical video game. It's more a walking simulator in that respect.
To help locate supplies, the girl has a spyglass that she can whip out and use anytime. If she spots something useful, a reticule appears, which helps her home in on the item, which is then automatically added to the map. A useful feature that comes in handy later on when you realize that supplies aren't the only things to find. There are also half-sunken boats located across the map that can be looted for parts to boost the speed of her own boat, and also "secrets" – books that are found in many of the ruined buildings and landscape features. There are 60 of these in all, and each one contains a pane of a graphical story of the city, drawn in a tribal style and illuminated with what look like hieroglyphics. Find them all, and the entire story of the city is explained in a mini graphical novel.
The story of the city isn't the only thing you uncover. As you find supplies, the tragic tale of the young girl and her brother is also articulated using a similar method.
Lastly, there are two other sets of things to "collect" – there are landmarks that you can find, and also wildlife to discover. All you need to do here is essentially run into them, and they're added to your collection.
With the main story running at around three or so hours of gameplay, depending on how quickly you work through this aspect of the game, Submerged is quite short. But it's not a game that should be rushed. It presents an absolutely wonderful, awe-inspiring environment that begs to be explored and enjoyed. I found myself constantly stopping while climbing or even sailing to take in the vistas and make sure I wasn't missing anything.
But what is truly outstanding about this game is its atmosphere. Melancholic is a word I've already used to describe its music, but it suits the game perfectly. There's something inherently sad, yet exceptionally captivating about this drowned city: essentially you're staring the end of our civilization in the face, and guiding someone towards a new one. Perhaps you won't have the same reaction as I, but the game just made a deep impression on me. It made me think, and I keep thinking about it, even though I haven't played it for a few days. It just has a certain je ne sais quoi that gets under your skin.
One of the areas of the game that didn't quite work for me – and it's not exactly a criticism, but more of an observation – is that there are numerous situations where, after shimmying up the side of a building using tiny ledges, the girl is stymied by an obstacle that looks like she should be able to easily clamber over. Sure, that's just the rules of this game, but it is sometimes frustrating not to be able to climb onto a wide ledge to navigate around an obstable. Ultimately, it's clear what you're able to climb on, and what you can't. It's just a shame that the game isn't totally open, as I really wanted to be able to climb over everything – but I can understand the programming limits of the small Australian development team who put this game together.
The graphics are also occasionally spotty. Overall, I think the game looks great, but close up, some of the textures feel a little last-generation, and there are moments when the game chugs. If you're expecting ultra-realism from this game and a silky smooth framerate, you're going to be disappointed. These things weren't a bugbear of mine, but the game is definitely not perfect.
At this point I'm reading and re-reading my review, trying to polish it up to get across the point of just how much I enjoyed playing Submerged. The problem is that in describing the game, it sounds quite ordinary, but it's not. Its sum of its parts is greater than the whole. It's more an experience than a game, where you really feel for the characters and are motivated to complete the task laid out before you. I felt sad when I finished it, because I enjoyed playing it so much and wanted more of it.
Ultimately, I think Submerged is a lovely, wonderful game…
…that's clearly not for everybody.
To be blunt, I think some will find this game boring and too short. Some might find the lack of challenge tedious, and the storyline trite. It worked perfectly for me – I thoroughly enjoyed the way the game unfolded, and didn't question it at all – but I don't think Submerged is for everyone. The reason why I'm writing this is because I've already read quite a few reviews by people who really didn't enjoy this game at all, which to me says this is very likely a love-it-or-hate-it game, with very little in between. I obviously fall into the former category, and the game made a deep impression on me. Others seem to think it way too simple and flawed.
That makes me sad, because I really believe this is a great game, and I'd love everyone to be able to have the same kind of highly enjoyable experience this game delivered to me – but it seems I'm not in the majority in that respect. It seems that beauty – or the lack thereof – is very much in the eye of the beholder.
So while I recommend this game highly as a lovely experience, be warned that one man's meat may very well be another man's poison. My recommendation is to ensure you read plenty of reviews before taking the plunge, and go with your gut. If this ostensibly simple exploration game just sounds a little dull for you, don't go for it. But if exploring an inundated city, piecing together the storyline of the city and the game's protagonists sounds like something you'd enjoy – even though it only takes a few hours – I really hope you do.
A short, sweet, melancholic exploration game that offers precious few hours of gameplay, but it's beautiful to look at, and highly enjoyable to play.