Sometimes when I’m bored at work, I dream up ideas that could potentially be turned into videogames. These thoughts mostly focus on specific properties or things around the office, but one idea has frequently stuck with me. Perhaps inspired by the Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld, a world engulfed by water has always felt like a unique idea that could translate well to the medium of gaming. Imagine my delight then, when Submerged surfaced on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC. Uppercut Games’ latest effort appeared to be a direct answer to my wishes. Let it now be said, though, perhaps some wishes are better left unfulfilled.
Set in a world ravaged by flooding, Submerged places gamers into the shoes of Miku. A young, but hardened girl, Miku drifts towards a deserted area with her brother. While she is in relatively good health, despite the world being in ruin, her brother is badly hurt and is barely clinging to life. Before the two can venture out into the wild once more, Miku must explore her current surroundings in search of health supplies. The more she explores, though, the more it seems that they may not be alone.
With little in the way of dialogue, or even cutscenes, a majority of the plot of Submerged is told through cave-painting like images. The backstory of Miku and her brother is advanced every time you acquire supplies, while bonus paintings that explain the story of your current location are hidden throughout the environment.
This is certainly an interesting way of trying to tell a story, and props to Uppercut Games for attempting such a task. With that said, the storyline is a clichéd slog. Not only does it lack any sort of depth or emotional pull, but what storyline beats are here (alcoholic parent, abandoned kids) are nothing you haven’t seen done better before. Not to mention it squanders the unique nature of a female lead character by giving her zero defining traits, outside of helping her brother.
As disappointing and bland as the storyline of Submerged may be, the simplistic and repetitive gameplay may actually be the worst component of the title. As mentioned before, Miku is in search of various supplies (gauze, bug spray) that are in supply crates dropped on top of buildings. In order to reach these crates, she must first locate where they are by using her telescope. After spotting a crate (or other hidden artifact), she can sail over to the building, and then scale said construct until she reaches the item. What it boils down to is a cross between the ship sailing of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and the climbing sections of the Uncharted franchise.
Since this is a combat-free affair, your adventure is nothing but climbing and sailing. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea for a game, but it’s not a particularly interesting one, either. In fact, as it turns out, sailing between similar looking buildings and then climbing those similar looking buildings gets really dull really quickly. You can’t even fall off the buildings, so there’s no sense of danger when you’re scaling the massive structures. It seems like Uppercut Games was going for an experience that would tell a good story over providing compelling gameplay, which, again, isn’t a bad idea. However, unlike, say Gone Home or Journey, the lacklustre storyline can’t compensate for the simplistic gameplay.
Even if the gameplay was a little more inventive, the clumsy controls of Submerged would surely mar the experience anyway. The first thing you’ll notice, since it’s how the adventure begins, is how much of a pain the ass the boat can be to use. Never mind the fact that it is a motorboat (How are they getting gas? Floating gas stations?), you’re going to have to deal with the fact that it tends to just stop. As in, the controls will just give out mid drive. And when you do get it to run consistently, controlling the vessel is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes you’ll be smoothly sailing between buildings, while other times you’ll be smashing into walls with reckless abandon.
Unfortunately, things aren’t much better on the technical front. While not as bad as some of the reported issues I have seen on other platforms, the PS4 version of the title was besieged by technical hiccups during my play time. The stopping of the boat was the most frustrating issue, but the most frequent problem is the suffocating lag that pops up. It doesn’t just lag during gameplay either, as I noticed cutscenes dropping in frame rate, too. These problems are in addition to the graphical clipping and occasional audio dropout that also surfaces.
It would be one thing if this was a graphics heavy release, but it doesn’t even look that great, despite running on Unreal Engine 4. While the water effects are nice and the animals popping up alongside you as you ride are a nice treat, the rest of the world offers few sights worth seeing. The buildings, despite having some interesting architecture, all feature the same bland color palette, and once you’ve seen one moss-covered tower you’ve seen them all. The character models are ugly as well, with your brother being a particular lowlight.
I still feel that the potential is there for a videogame to use a flood-soaked location to excellent effect. Submerged, however, is not that game. The dull and repetitive gameplay wears out its welcome quickly, while the clichéd storyline squanders its potential with unfocused presentation, plus a lack of depth and true world-building. This is nothing short of a catastrophe, but I hope that Uppercut Games can take the experience gained here and turn it into something actually worth playing.
This review was based off the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which we were provided with.
Sunk by lacklustre gameplay, cliched storytelling and technical hiccups, Submerged is one of the biggest missed opportunities in recent memory.