In the Nik-ola of time…
I love Bioshock, it’s one of my favourite games, I’d call it a desert island game if the island I got stranded on somehow had a fully powered entertainment system.
Bioshock was a game which made me re-evaluate my entire relationship with games. I was convinced I hated the FPS genre, especially when it came to survival horror. Turns out it’s the genre I actively find my self drawn to, provided it’s got a decent plot!
Bioshock also had some brilliant story beats and huge “wow” moments in it, which I often find myself using as a bit of benchmark for other games. Some moments have come close to the unveiling of Rapture as you plummet to the watery depths in your Bathysphere, but none have surpassed it. Then, of course, there is the “Would you kindly” twist which is now a gaming cultural touchstone, right up there with “The Cake is a Lie”.
You might wonder why I’m singing the praises of this game when I’m supposed to be reviewing another, well there is a method in my madness, occasionally.
Towards the end of 2018, a trailer appeared in my Facebook timeline about a game called Close to the Sun, calling itself the spiritual successor to Bioshock. Usually, I don’t bite when it comes to trailer bait like that, but I’ll admit I was curious and prepared to be scathingly dismissive.
After watching the trailer I did feel fairly indignant on the behalf of 2K Boston (now Irrational Games). The design of the game looked like a straight carbon copy of Rapture so I scoffed at it and never thought of it again. Then I saw a bit of gameplay from Eurogamer’s Ian Higton and I realised that maybe I’d jumped entirely to the wrong conclusion.
On first appearances, it’s easy to see why the Bioshock comparisons have been made. The faded and decrepit art deco environments would not look out of place in Rapture but in Close to the Sun, to begin with, it’s much more impressive and there are some environments early on in the game that are absolutely stunning.
Then there is the story. With undertones of scientific freedom and discovery without limits, you do start to think of Doctor Steinmann scuttling about being a plastic surgery Picasso, but this is an entirely different scientific dystopia more in common with Half-Life.
Close to the Sun is a sort of game smoothie. It looks like Bioshock, an otherworldly threat is unleased following a scientific incident like Half-Life, but unlike these games combat is not an option. Much like other survival horrors like Outcast or Amnesia, to survive you have to run, hide or die.
Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of run, hide or die, especially when there are literally loads of objects littered about that you could absolutely twat someone over the head with. However, with Close to the Sun I persevered because I really wanted to like this game, which makes what comes next a bit heart-breaking.
When I played this at EGX I made a point that the chase mechanics were dreadful, and for some bizarre overly optimistic reason I thought maybe these issues would be ironed out for release on console. How very wrong I was.
Close to the Sun is set aboard the Helios.
A staggeringly enormous sea cruiser and home to the world’s greatest scientists and inventors. So it makes perfect sense that the first antagonist you are introduced to is Ludwig, a stab-happy stowaway who thinks he can undo all the horrible things that have happened by murdering everyone, obviously. And he may or may not be Jack the Ripper according to some faintly contrived diary entries and correspondence you can find.
The running and jumping away from Ludwig sections are amongst the worst sections of the game. Take a wrong turn and you’re dead, fail to line yourself up exactly with an obstacle and you won’t get the button prompt to climb over it, so you’re dead. This is especially annoying given that you have a jump button for some reason which I can honestly say I never used!
The getting murdered to bits cut scenes are also overly long and un-skippable, a good motivation to not get murdered, but still irritating.
Ludwig is not the only antagonist you will face, or rather run away from and the gameplay becomes increasingly chase heavy in the closing chapters. These other antagonists, or “Temporal Anomalies”, strongly resemble angry Vortigaunts who have had an accident in a glitter factory and like Ludwig leave absolutely no margin for error at all. Stop for a split second and you are done for, also these glittery bastards can teleport, yay!
I have to be clear that my issue is not down to difficulty, doing a runner is not rocket science after all. I just wish that the controls were more responsive and the button prompt areas for opening doors and jumping over obstacles were more forgiving or, and here’s a crazy idea, using the jump button and doing some old school parkour!
The story itself is initially an interesting one wrapped in timey, wimey, wibbly, wobbly-ness. It starts well enough with you as protagonist Rose Archer receiving a letter from sister Ada, a scientist aboard the Helios. It quickly becomes clear that this was sent by a future Ada and not the one you are trying to rescue. You also start to see shimmering ghosts of the past which help you to locate various items, solve puzzles and progress through the chapters.
The problem is that this timey wimey, thread is never fully realised.
Your main objective throughout most of the game is to find some science notebooks that contain the information needed to stop whatever it is that is happening. When it is all stopped due to “science” you don’t actually know how or why. Then there is what feels like a throwaway comment of “hey, you know that really sad thing that happened earlier, maybe we can travel back in time and undo it”. The end.
It’s a shame because the only things that were maintaining any form of interest was the look and feel, which sadly towards the end is all samey dilapidation and darkness, and the story which did have its moments. There are some great comedic beats, Rose is delightfully snarky and there’s a nice little nod to Die Hard as you find yourself doing the horror game standard of crawling through vents.
The horror aspect, at first, is handled pretty well with little jump scares and things happening just on the edge of your vision. There’s a solid cut scene where you have your first experience of guts and gore and then it’s just blasé with limbs, blood and innards just everywhere. As is often the case in the horror genre you do become desensitised to this sort of gore overload and instead of it being impactful or unnerving it’s just background scenery.
I desperately wanted to love this game, but from beautiful and bold beginnings it fizzles out into nothing. The game itself isn’t long with 10 chapters, all of which are quite short. I completed it in around 6 hours and it was around hour 4 that I started to really notice both the fizzle and a sense that the developers wanted to wrap the game up now ‘so quickly, quickly would you kindly jump over that box please?’
Without sounding too much like a football pundit Close to the Sun is a game of two halves. The first half is full of stunning backdrops and intrigue. The second half is a badly designed temple run set in a series of dark rooms with a plot that doesn’t know how to resolve itself before copping out completely. I’m not angry Storm in a Teacup, I’m just disappointed.
Review code provided
Platform: Pc, Xbox, Nintendo, PlayStation
Release Date: 29/10/2019
No. of Players: 1
Category: Horror, Adventure
Developer: Storm in a Teacup
Publisher: Wired Productions
Download link: US eShop / UK eShop