A lot of exploration games exist. Sadly most of them involve facets of gaming that can be a hindrance if not implemented well or play styles that not everyone enjoys. Survival tactics, psychological horror, or incoherent stories tend to be factors. Some exploration games turn out to be nothing more than linear “walking simulators”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Dear Esther is still a game that I play regularly.) But there are very few exploration games out there that allow for exploration without putting you in some kind of danger.
Submerged is one of the exceptions. Released in 2016 by Uppercut Games Pty Ltd., the entire game takes place in a flooded city with no enemies to run way from and no survival tactics to get in the way. In fact, fighting and threats of any kind are absent from this game. You really are free to roam about the city and discover items in whatever way you prefer.
You play Miku, a young girl who brings her badly wounded brother Taku to the city in the hopes of finding leftover emergency supplies to save his life. As you look for supplies, you also uncover the story of how Taku became wounded, how they came to the city, and how the city (indeed the entire world) became the flooded nightmare that it is. You can also look for parts to upgrade your fishing boat by allowing its temporary boost to last longer. (The map isn’t really all that big, but the boost can certainly help you to get around quickly.) The story of the world’s ruin and Taku’s wound are presented in the eqivalent of crayon or chalk drawings, no doubt drawn from Miku’s perspective.
The environment is downright depressing and wonderful at the same time. As you ride around looking at the destruction, what was lost becomes apparent. The big bridge that goes off into the distance, the destroyed ferris wheel, the now-bare billboards, the ruined statues, and the rusted stadium lights all help to paint a picture of what’s been lost. At the same time, you witness humpback whales leaping out of the water, pelicans floating on the surface, and dolphins who enjoy being your constant companions while you travel.
The music is gorgeous and sets up the tone of loneliness and despair while not being depressing. It’s uplifting while still somber. While looking up at a massive, ruined statue as the sun sets behind it, the music delivers the perfect tone of wonder at those who created it and sorrow at the utter destruction.
Some mystery creatures appear early on, which makes you question the non-violent nature of the game, but I won’t spoil what they are and what their purpose is.
Submerged is at its core a parkouring game. Miku never runs or jumps over things. She’s a climber, and the whole game is spent climbing the remnants of the city buildings looking for the parts of the story and the supplies that her brother needs; and the climbing is the main challenge.
That’s not to say that there is a lot of challenge, mind you. I finished the entire game with all 60 collectibles, all areas explored, and all achievements given in about 5 hours. It can be played by just about all ages. Unfortunately, as hauntingly beautiful as the environment can be, the gameplay can be such a huge frustration that by the end you will likely want to finish the game just to get it done.
If you enjoy parkour games like more recent Assassin’s Creed entries or even The Saboteur, a long-time favorite of mine, you’ll likely find that the parkouring in Submerged is annoying and the highly linear pathing is infuriating. This is particularly evident when you’re looking at a collectible on the next ledge over, but you have to go completely around the building in order to reach it. And if you pick up the emergency supplies before finishing getting the collectibles on the building, you’re going to have to parkour that building all over again. Opening the box immediately sends you back to Taku.
Another frustration is when you could otherwise grab a ledge by jumping slightly at an angle except that the game only allows you to go straight up, down, left or right (except when climbing the occasional vines). There is no freeform. You will follow the path that is set up for you because you have no choice.
Another example of its linear nature is when an item is opposite a broken floor section that is no more than a foot or two wide. In any other game you would simply hop over it, grab the item, then hop back. In Submerged you have to walk around to find a board that spans the gap or else you’re not getting to it. Jumping over even the smallest of cracks is not allowed.
And I also ended up rolling my eyes when I was at a ledge that I could otherwise climb up if the game would let me because the floor is right there where my hands are. But, no, I needed to climb up that vine of flowers about a foot to the left in order to properly pull myself up! Who thought this was good level design?
Miku also is a bit of a chore to control in the sense that after a while you want her to run somehow, but she’s unfortunately stuck at one speed. Throughout the game the parkouring feels sluggish and slow to respond. It’s not so irritating at the start, but by the time you get a few hours into the game, the grindy feel and the “this is going to take forever” thoughts start to make themselves apparent.
Although It works somewhat with NVIDIA 3D, the texture problems between the left and right eye on some surfaces made it difficult to watch. So, I would have to recommend that you don’t try to use this game with stereoscopic 3D.
I really wanted to do a lot more exploring but sadly there was nothing to see. Miku’s drawings leave quite a bit to the imagination, and they’re somewhat sterile in their presentation as when one reads a history book. Audio logs, old photographs, going into buildings and walking around to learn more about the inhabitants and their history, seeing a visual account of what happened on an abandoned laptop or tablet… I ended the game wanting so much to be able to find or do those things. Maybe a sequel will be able to fill in the large gaps and the lack of emotional impact that were left over from Miku’s drawings. (Just make the parkouring more freeform, okay?)
Do I recommend Submerged? Yes, but definitely not at its full retail price of $19.99 (as I write this). It has enough positives and it’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome too much. After getting about half of the collectibles, you learn enough of the history that you don’t need to get them all. The sluggish controls and the infuriating linearity of the parkouring are definitely going to test your patience; but the story, the music, the hauntingly beautiful environment, and the mystery of what happened are enough to warrant a full play-through for those who enjoy story-oriented games, even if the lack of historic details leave you wanting.
• Art design and environment
• Overall presentation
• No combat (a big plus in my book for a game like this)
• Parkouring controls feel sluggish
• Highly linear parkour pathing
• Potential for more exploration and backstory not realized
• Stereoscopic 3D: not recommended