(Developed and published by Uppercut Games for PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One. Played on PC)
Earth has been reclaimed by the seas. Catastrophic floods swallowed up the cities long ago, leaving only a fraction of the tallest buildings and structures to serve as a somber reminder of the civilizations that came before. Humanity pressed on in the face of the rising tides, yet over the years they devolved culturally, becoming more primitive as their connections to the past washed away.
Now what remains of mankind live in close-knit tribes or traverse the great ocean as nomads, gathering only what they need to survive before moving onto a new location. Two such travelers, Miku and her younger brother Taku, have arrived in the ruins of a once-great city in dire need of help; Taku was injured several days prior to their arrival and requires medical assistance. Miku scours the sunken land to find the supplies her brother needs, uncertain of what strange secrets or hidden dangers this mysterious land holds.
The developers at Uppercut Games certainly took a gamble with their vision for Submerged. Post-apocalyptic fiction almost always has some element of external conflict to drive the plot, such as rival factions fighting over scarce goods or the last vestiges of humanity defending themselves against an active threat which constantly pursues them. Instead the game has a more passive feel, focusing on one woman’s efforts to find what is necessary for her and the last remaining member of her family to survive in a setting I haven’t seen attempted since Waterworld. And while the game is nowhere near as abysmal as Kevin Costner’s epic trainwreck, it still isn’t very good
Any potential for a compelling character drama in Submerged is squandered. Miku is a unique protagonist in that she’s a woman caring for her younger sibling, a role usually given to males. Yet the bond shared between the pair is never fully developed. With the exception of her concerned expressions as she offers Taku the latest ration, there’s no other expression of her love for her brother. She never worries about his condition while she’s out exploring, thinks back to the good times they had as children. The only time she speaks is when she discusses what supplies need to be obtained next.
There’s some backstory revealed in between retrievals which reveals the history of the siblings’ home life and from which some comprehension of why Miku has taken it upon herself to be Taku’s caregiver, but they’re only briefly touched upon without looking at how the tragedies of their past affected them. There could have been some internal drama at points by having Miku absentmindedly remark that she felt Taku was a burden on her, or perhaps show doubt by wondering if her efforts would be futile in the end and her brother would die no matter what she did. Instead, she’s merely a cypher.
The world doesn’t do much to draw players in either. At first there’s a sense of excitement as the beginning of Miku’s quest leads players to travel uncharted waters for supplies. Some massive structures managed to survive being completely submerged, and upon their discovery each is showcased in a brief cutscene to display their still-lingering majesty They’ve also been given new names to further reinforce how society has forgotten the past and assigned new symbolism: a huge statue of a goddess is dubbed “The Watchful Lady”, a large truss tower has become “The Net to the Sky”, the last visible vestiges of a bridge are now called “The Silver Pass”, and a massive construction crane, the largest structure still standing, is called “The Bird’s Eye” since it allows Miku to view almost every area of the map from on high. Reaching the top to look out over the world is one of the game’s few truly incredible moments.
Effort was clearly put into trying to make the world feel alive, but sadly not enough. As players sail through the waters dolphins may briefly swim alongside the boat, or a blue whale may breach the ocean’s surface as it sprays a mighty spout. Dust and loose rubble will occasionally fall from the ledges Miku climbs to signify the centuries of decay which have weathered away the stone. Rain occasionally falls, and there’s even a day/night cycle to try and make it seem as though Miku’s journey is taking a considerable amount of time. In the end, though, these are just superficial set dressings that fail to bolster a game which really has little to offer.
Traveling and discovering the map’s features is a pleasant, relaxing experience at first, but unfortunately the awe I felt faded the longer I played. The game’s world is actually quite small with a limited number of monuments and animals to locate for achievements. Miku never encounters any other travelers, so the world’s lore is never expanded upon. Aside from locating supplies, the only other quest that requires the most travel involves sailing among the same familiar looking sunken buildings in search of “secrets”, crude cave drawing-like pictographs which supposedly reveal the history of the city. As they’re scattered all about the identical-looking ruins, it doesn’t take long before constantly going back and forth to search for missing collectibles becomes tedious.
The secrets are actually part of one of the biggest issues I had with the game; its confusing mythos. While I didn’t collect every drawing during my playthrough, those that I had found and pieced together told a simple story of a great metropolis that sank due to massive storms. Easy enough to comprehend, but then it appeared to take a Lovecraftian twist with images that suggested some entity was awakened from beneath the sea that caused further ruin. I wondered if this was an allegory for some far worse natural or man-made disaster, and hoped that I would find the answer by the end.
The idea of some inhuman horror extending its influence over the city was reinforced when, during one of my salvage runs, I noticed a strange humanoid figure with tumorous green and gray skin wandering around a building. I tried to reach the being, but it disappeared. They reappeared with every new outing, usually running away or jumping into the water before I could get close. Disturbingly, these beings (called “Remnants” on the developer’s website) knew where Miku and Taku were taking shelter as they would always be looking on from a distance when she returned, never approaching.
After raiding the third box of supplies, I noticed in the cutscene as Miku was tending to Taku that her skin was taking on a green pallor in some areas. Following the fourth retrieval she herself noticed this, but her reaction was surprisingly subdued (another example of how her character wasn’t well developed). Over the course of the game the discoloration continued to spread and she even developed a cough that grew progressively worse, reminiscent of Wander’s gradual transformation during Shadow of the Colossus. Whatever made the Remnants the strange beasts they were had begun to affect her; would she be able to heal Taku before she was lost completely?
I genuinely wanted to know what was happening to Miku, and even came up with my own theories. I discovered that many of the creatures I encountered (dolphins, rays, whales) had growths and discolorations on their skin as well. Additionally, there were several large patches of what I thought were algae blooming on the surface, but then I noticed industrial barrels occasionally bobbing in the water. Could the Remnant mutation be a side-effect of some toxic chemical that had spread into the sea and which was reinterpreted as the wrath of some powerful leviathan?
In the end, none of my questions were resolved. In a laughably rushed deus-ex-machina ending, the Remnants finally enter the shelter, use some kind of magic to heal Miku, Taku recovers, and the siblings sail off. So were the Remnants affected by a supernatural being and inherited its powers? Were they some kind of guardian angels or powerful aliens? Or were they and Miku’s sickness nothing more than hallucinations brought on by stress? Leaving everything unexplained was a lazy anticlimax that made the journey feel like a waste of effort.
The central premise in Submerged is to locate ten ration crates that contain the supplies needed to facilitate Taku’s recovery. Doing just this the game can be completed in about an hour, so the side-missions to uncover secrets help pad out play time. I appreciated that the developers tried to make navigating the sea and finding collectibles somewhat engaging and ask for a bit of effort from the players. The world map is available in a separate screen and aside from the first supply kit, nothing is visible on it. Players need to manually search each region using their telescope to find supplies, secrets, and salvage material to enhance the boat. Even when discovered, though, their locations will only be present on the map screen or an icon the telescope’s lens. There’s no mini-map and no way to mark a location to create a trail to follow. If the HUD display is active it will just highlight supply crates, but even then it just gives the general direction players need to go and not exact coordinates.
These mechanics put in a bit of a good effort to make traveling the sea feel more realistic, but it falters in its execution. One problem is that players cannot move while looking through the telescope, limiting them to very small areas of surveillance. Constantly stopping to use the telescope, look around, then move to a new area and repeat, becomes a chore. This was also present in Wind Waker but it wasn’t as much of an issue there since it wasn’t used as a core gameplay mechanic. In Submerged it just drags things out by forcing players to move more slowly. On that note, salvage material can be obtained from wrecked ships to give Miku’s motor a longer boost period, and it is possible to use the telescope while the boat is slowing. I rarely used this though as it’s far too easy to overshoot an area where a collectible is after catching just a glimpse of it, and it’s much harder to control drift or directional changes when decelerating, at least when using mouse and keyboard controls.
Each of the collectibles and plot-crucial supplies are scattered about in various positions on the still visible portions of high buildings. Reaching them involves finding a way up the structure by climbing on ledges, pipes, ladders, or overgrown foliage. They’re supposed to act as environmental puzzles, but they’re all fairly simple to navigate. It’s usually a very straightforward ascent to the supply crates, while finding secrets usually involves looking for hidden pathways. The game does try to add a bit of challenge with some ledges that have worn away and can only be held onto and a building that contains a pair of cables used as ziplines, but never really uses them for creative problem-solving scenarios.
Climbing itself is incredibly easy. There’s no risk of slipping on a pole or ladder, and when moving between ledges the jumps occur automatically simply by pushing in the right direction. The absence of danger makes some of the animations look out of place. Sometimes it will look as though Miku is struggling to get up or losing her grip, yet that can never happen so there’s no real sense of drama. Additionally, the supply crates can be obtained in any order, as no matter which crate is opened will reveal the specific ration Miku needs at that moment (medicine, a lighter for heat, clean water, etc.) It eliminates any environmental restrictions but at the same time it throws off the pacing because the challenge required to scale each building will inevitably be all over the place. Players can go from a very tall climb with many broken ledges that necessitate seeking a side route to one that can be found after using only a few ledges and ladders. I did run into some glitches where attempting to lower myself down a wall’s edge caused me to fall into the ocean and clip through the map, but thankfully I respawned shortly afterwards in that exact spot, and the problem never occurred in the same area more than once.
Character models are fairly simple, though the appearance of the Remnants is a bit unnerving the first time they’re fully seen, their faces and all other features covered by putrid growths. The environmental design, however, is fantastic. It’s very reminiscent of a hand-painted work with incredible detail put into the cracking stones, rusting metal, and layers of depth to wild plant growth. Lighting effects play differently on many surfaces, and seeing the plants and stone shimmer as the morning dew is illuminated by the rising sun or the glow of the moon off the ocean’s surface adds a serene beauty to this otherwise dead world. There isn’t much to say about the music, the piano compositions are very well done, but they all try to convey a somber tone even when the situations don’t fit. I found the ambient sound effects did a much better job drawing me in as they made the world feel more natural: dolphins squeaked as I approached them, different surfaces like wood, stone and metal had their own unique sounds when walking on them, even the wind blew harder the further up I went, adding more weight to the sense that Miku was reaching ever higher elevations.
Submerged clearly had high ambitions, but the end result (pardon the pun) was incredibly shallow. In Uppercut’s effort to create a combat-free game they didn’t focus on providing enough engagement through their other features. Any sense of wonder through exploration diminishes quickly after the small number of monuments have been discovered, and the quest for remaining secrets and supplies becomes monotonous as it relies on the same repetitive sailing and climbing mechanics with no variation. Miku’s gradual transformation could have been a source of drama yet she wasn’t fleshed out enough to make me empathize with her plight, and the loose threads at the end completely killed any lingering sense of intrigue presented from the mysteries presented. Anyone looking for a more complete, satisfying experience that focuses on exploring the seas and discovery is better off playing Wind Waker.