Submerged – Review

Standing on the top of a long abandoned crane, rusty beams creaking out a song of defiance against the forces of gravity struggling to pull them apart, I was filled with a crushing sense of melancholy for what could have been. The sun had already set, and from my position I could just make out the outlines of the tallest buildings in the silent moonlight, the last remaining testament of a sunken city through which I was now scavenging for anything useful that may have been left behind. It was at this moment more than ever that I wanted desperately to be taken in by Submerged and its dilapidated beauty, to be swept up in the wondrous world it had conjured and the ambitions which seemed to drip out of the moss covered walls as they struggled to find a place for themselves.

It is a cruel irony then that Submerged’s ruin is its own overbearing grip on the player. Developer Uppercut Games has gone to such enormous lengths to direct the player and ensure they’re never at a loss as to where to go or what to do, that I felt alienated by my own needless presence. My attempts at exploration became less and less adventurous as I quickly discovered how limited my ability to explore actually was. Immediately I was trapped in my tiny motorboat, able to drift through the gaps of the structures still towering above the murky ocean but unable to so much as reach out and touch them and prove they were more than props in a dystopian tour.

Submerged pic 1

Occasionally I’d be presented with a red vine signaling my chance to make port and clamber up the side of a building to see what was on top, but by then it was already clear that the world of Submerged was not one to be discovered but consumed. Every landmark, collectible, and handhold had been designed with the sole purpose of giving me something to do and observe. Aggressive camera angles directed me toward every significant structure I passed, forced my view toward a collectible I might have missed or a path I needed to take, all the while removing me of the ability to do anything but tell my character what direction to go as they did the rest.

Submerged traps itself under an omnipresent need to control and focus the player’s attention, and in doing so brings the entirety of its artificial existence to the surface. There was nothing more it could do to make me care about its characters or the history of the underwater city I was only glimpsing the top of; I was stuck behind the layers of antagonistic design allowing me no room to breathe as I performed Submerged’s song and dance wishing all the while that it would soon be over.

submerged pic 2

Once you strip Submerged of its fabricated openness and shell of a narrative there’s very nearly nothing left. What remains are your character’s clumsy movements as you guide them through monotonous platforming routines. It’s not the clumsiness you’d expect from a child attempting to scale a skyscraper with her bare hands, but a robotic awkwardness that creates an agonizing amount of disorder between what you do and how the game responds. I cringed every time I had to make my way up a long wall or choose between continuing the main path or grabbing a collectible, as I knew it meant a long struggle with a climbing system that all but plays itself but still needs you to tell it where to go.

I would be lying if I said that there were not times I found Submerged staggeringly beautiful and affecting. Rocketing my watercraft over waves as dolphins swam beside me or watching the sunset from the top of a building overlooking what remained of a bridge, I felt what Submerged had been trying so hard to create. Quiet, beautiful moments followed me throughout Submerged, springing up at random moments as I saw something astonishing out of the corner of my eye, but it was always during a time when I had managed to momentarily remove myself from the pressing control of a game that believed it could force me to feel and appreciate something. And then just like that they would disappear and I would be left alone again with the cold mechanical systems urging me forward.

Final Word

By the end of Submerged I had stopped trying. I’d given up finding something that was being intentionally withheld from me, allowing the game to point me where to go and sooner allow me to leave. This was not a voyage but an entrapment; a siren’s call to a dead end and a meandering crawl back out. The game Submerged could have, and by all accounts wanted to be is still hidden here somewhere, but that hardly matters when it so fervently refuses to let you see it.

Submerged was developed by Uppercut Games. It was reviewed on PC using a copy provided by the developer, and is also available on Playstation 4 and Xbox One.

7 thoughts on “Submerged – Review”

  1. We’re on the same page on this one, my review goes live tomorrow.

    I was engrossed by the atmosphere in Submerged, theres something fascinating to me about water and the animal life that resides in it. Submerged’s world was vibrant and had me intrigued, until I realized that everything was, as you said, props.

    The gameplay was subpar. The scripted platforming did nothing for me after the 2nd or 3rd building I scaled and didn’t change or evolve at all over the course of the game. It’s like assassin’s creed viewpoint building climbing turned into a 5 hour game all on its own.

    And the story grabbed me at the beginning but soon lost me once it stopped progressing and then the end completely petered out to an unsatisfying finish.

  2. I’m not sure about this. I’m sometimes thinking about writing down thoughts I have on certain aspects of game design, publicly or for my myself should I ever dare making my own game.

    Directing a player down a narrow path by having many walls and fixed cameras versus leaving him more freedom was what I was thinking about more recently. If I were to make a game I would want the player to see all the fancy things I’ve put in the world (of course, I guess). Whether that has to mean to guide him firmly around is debatable, but at least I understand this tendency. Honestly I don’t necessarily mind it either. Some games and their worlds can feel daunting, sometimes I feel as I had to examine nooks and corners utterly thoroughly even if that means the flow of story and emotions – what I care for more, actually – slows down or comes to a halt. This is why I’m sometimes thankful when there are games that direct me towards all that matters because it makes me feel I wasn’t missing out on anything that is worth noting.

    And perhaps I misunderstood your point, but there are games that lead you around very firmly too which you apparently liked. To the Moon, A Bird Story and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons would be examples. The latter among those might be the best to compare to Submerged to from the visuals and attempts of creating something of a beautiful fantasy world?

    About the platforming and what sounds like a lack of story/plot/emotional substance: Perhaps this is similar to what I felt when I played Ori and the Blind Forest. That one had quite nice platforming contrary to the kinda mindless and unchallenging Assassin’s Creed-/Uncharted-like climbing that Submerged apparently has. But the rest of Ori, as far as I played it (I lost intersest, honestly) had “very nearly nothing left” too if you ask me. This might be because these devs focus on certain aspects too much like art/style (Submerged) or platforming/Metroidvania (Ori). I think I’m seeing the same in “Betrayer” which can feel a little dull or repetitive and lacking of substance either even if I’m not >that< far in it yet. But I kinda lost interest for now in that one too, which isn't necessarily my fault because other games obviously keep me hooked better.

    No hard feelings, just speculating.

    1. The problem Ii had with Submerged is that exploration is its whole point, but it doesn’t really let you do discover anything. It’s like taking a museum tour, everything gets point out and explained for you, and it’s just dull and tedious.

      With Brothers and TTM, the story is the focus so a linear design makes sense and works well. Submerged just sort of drops you in a box and pushes you toward towers tto climb. There is a very basic story here, but it’s cliched and filled with non sequitors that keep highlighting its lack of substance.

      It’s entirely possible others will take to the game where I didn’t, but I think the focuses for the games you listed aree very different from Submerged, and as such how that structure works is also affected.

  3. Could your poor impression on the game come from your expectations? Because it sounds like you’re saying “I wanted to explore but the game wouldn’t let me”. What if the game didn’t advertise itself as an exploration game but instead as a linear story told through environment? I’m just curious.

    Anyway, I just found you out on steam reviews and I really like your writing :)

    1. I don’t think altered expectations would have helped as the structure of the game is so clearly designed around exploration (but which isn’t ever delivered on). Judging it primarily as a narrative experience might have resulted in an even worse impression, given how minimal and unsatisfying a narrative it is.

      Still, preformed expectations are something I’m always concerned about going into a game and attempt to be conscious of so I know how they affect my eventual review. I don’t believe my thoughts on Submerged were greatly altered in this regard as I knew only basic facts about it, but it’s always a possibility given there is almost no way to go into a game completely blind.

      And thank you, it’s always fantastic to know people appreciate my writing. I know I can be verbose at times or overzealous, but I like to think there are some people to whom my style of writing is appealing :)

Leave a comment