A game labeled as “combat-free” may sound like it is either a word game or an interactive drama. However, Submerged by Uppercut Games — a studio in Canberra, Australia founded by ex-BioShock developers — is a platformer. A combat-free, third-person platformer from an indie developer may sound like it doesn’t have much to offer, and if you’re only interested in incentive-based gameplay you’d be right What is does have in spades is mood, using traditional gameplay mechanics to draw you deep into its non-traditional, high-score eschewing world. It was launched earlier this year for the PC via Steam and not too long ago, it was released for the PS4.
Submerged takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the seas have risen and have let nature overgrow. As a result, buildings and structures have been battered down and the human population has been decimated. The story follows a young girl named Miku trying to save her younger brother’s life from a deep wound to the stomach.
In order to do so, Miku uses a simple fishing boat to place her brother in a solitary island building for shelter, while she goes around the submerged city looking for items to salvage. Fortunately, some of the taller structures that are not fully submerged have supply drops that contain critical items. The only caveat is that it will not be such cakewalk (or rather, “cakeclimb”) for Miku; she will have to traverse these former hotels, municipal, and corporate buildings using her hands and feet.
To create a deeper story, the game utilizes a sort of caveman-era style of storytelling. The main menu has two collections of picture (or drawing) albums of the past: one for how Miku and her wounded brother are stranded by themselves and another for how the city became a water world. Each time Miku collects an item from a supply drop, more drawings are added to her story, and every time she collects a book (used as the secret collectibles element in the game), more drawings for the city’s story are added.
Unfortunately, the storytelling elements seem lacking in development. While the albums give a good insight into how Miku and the city’s pasts merge together, a lot of it is up to interpretation; these are overly simplistic drawings with no words. The current story is a recurring process of gathering supplies from a supply drop, taking them to the brother, and finding out another item needed that leads to finding another supply drop. While the ending contains a twist, it does not seem satisfying enough, considering all the work Miku has done to get there.
Submerged is not only combat-free, but also an open-world exploration game. After Miku drops off her brother in the opening sequence, she is able to get on her boat and maneuver around the city. The main gameplay is based around collecting the supply drops, of which there are ten total in the game. The main gameplay is quite short; it takes only 2-3 hours to complete the game if you’re focusing only on gathering supply drops. If you’re going for all the secret collectibles, however, there is an additional 2-3 hours added to the total play time, which still clocks in significantly shorter than other open-world exploration games.
Collecting the supply drops involves searching buildings for loot and maneuvering to get to those that have them. The former is done via a telescope, found by Miku after finding her first supply crate. The latter is done via her fishing boat. The fishing boat has a simple acceleration and deceleration mechanic; Miku can find upgrades for her boat by salvaging parts of other broken boats littered throughout the city, which also serves as a secret collectible mechanic.
Once, Miku identifies and building, sails her boat to said building, exploration for the supply drops is done by a lot of climbing, shimmying, falling (safely), and jumping. Technically, Miku is given safety from dropping to her death; the game puts up an invisible wall that does not allow for her to maneuver in places she is not meant to be. This results in such a simple game where one path will lead to a supply drop, while the others will lead to secret collectible books. While this may be great for some casual players, this may not appease other players who may be looking for a challenge or more gameplay mechanics.
One surprising challenge is in the design of the buildings. There are two basic platforms Miku can utilize in every building: fat and skinny ledges. Fat ledges are great; Miku can stand on top of them, and when a fat ledge is on top of another ledge, she can jump to that one and pull herself up. Skinny ledges, on the other hand, can only be used to shimmy and jump to a nearby platform. The problem that arises with such mechanic is when lighting can hinder the distinction between the two ledges. Submerged utilizes a dynamic time system, where day translates to night and vice versa. The lighting is really problematic during nighttime, when you can’t see whether a platform is a fat or skinny one.
The dynamic time system, however, does give the game a fantastic visual feeling. Seeing a post-apocalyptic water world go from day to night is truly a jaw-dropping experience, especially since the game is meant to be relaxing. While maneuvering around the city, Miku will also come across some sea creatures and landmarks that survived the watery destruction. Fortunately, the game gives a postcard feature where a screenshot can be taken using a nice background scenery in the game.
To Buy or Not to Buy?
While Submerged is a platformer that stands out by being combat-free, it is riddled with unsatisfying storytelling devices and rote gameplay elements. However, it is meant to be a relaxing experience, and that is what the game does sufficiently. Submerged is a game that is happy to let you explore, but whether your explorations are entertaining depends on how much you enjoy the view.
Collect Supply Drops by Scaling Dilapidated Buildings
Plot - 6/10
Gameplay - 6/10
Design - 9/10
+Combat-free, open-world exploration game
+Game is meant for relaxation
-Storytelling devices unsatisfying
-Lighting choices hinder some gameplay