August 10, 2015 1:00 PM | John Bridgman
Exploration is one of the most common elements in video games. It, in and of itself, can be a compelling reason to keep engaging with a game, should the environments be interesting enough to warrant it. Good exploration can make a game longer without feeling like a grind, and bad exploration elements can take you out of an experience entirely. Uppercut Games' new exploration title, Submerged, on PC, PS4, and XBox One, captures all the power and beauty that exploration as gameplay can represent.
You play as Miku, a girl who has taken to a boat with her injured brother to a submerged, ruined city in order to seek out supplies to treat his wounds. No combat, just Miku, her boat, the terrain of the sunken city and a handy telescope challenge you to progress in the game. It is both charming and haunting, and I found the very act of exploring the world to be so engaging I had trouble pulling myself away.
The game itself is breathtaking in its presentation. Visually stunning, the environment encourages you to theorize and speculate as to what the disaster that occurred to submerge the city might be. Debris from a forgotten time floats around in the water, and plant life abounds. There is wildlife to discover as well, and they have some peculiar markings and glowing portions on them that add to the speculation.
The presentation also is helped by its haunting soundtrack and excellent sound design. Subtle but effective, you will be drawn in and surprised as whales and mantas splash through the expansive waters. Your boat drowns out a lot of the sound and it makes you feel even more like an outsider to a strange world as you go scavenging and exploring.
Collectibles abound in this exploration game. You can find boat upgrades to improve how fast you can move about the water, and you are rewarded for spotting the various wildlife in the world. Also you can find remnants of the lore behind the world, with simple pictographs that illustrate what's gone on. Piecing these together will give you more insights, but since they're presenting as pictographs, there is still some room for speculation and theorizing.
By never telling you too much, it keeps you pulled into the experience, while never letting you drift too far away from your goal. You nervously move your boat from location to location, peering through your telescope as you look for the signs of upgrades, items to scavenge, and the wildlife that surrounds you. Day and night progresses and you feel that the world around you is alive, unconcerned with your presence.
Miku's dedication to helping her brother is a contrast to the insignificance the world pushes on to you. She climbs across ruined buildings and crosses narrow beams with some effort but the drive to succeed is infectious and continues to push you as the player to find everything the world has to offer you.
Even though the game is strictly without combat, there is a sort of fear the world around you instills. The first time a whale splashes through the water near you and you only catch a glimpse of this massive animal nearby, you can easily catch yourself recoiling and looking around anxiously. It's at these moments the game is at its best at making you feel small. Then, when you reach the top of a building and see the world around you, you feel at your most triumphant.
This give and take with your feelings of smallness and success is what keeps Submerged such an engaging exploration game. It's a game that openly encourages you to explore at your own pace and discover everything, and that's a very welcome challenge to me. More than just that, it encourages you to be a part of this world, getting lost and enjoying being in this beautiful setting. As far as exploration games go, it is one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had in a long time, and I think anyone who likes exploring should give it a try on the platform of their preference. If you're not into exploring, but enjoy non-combat games, also seriously consider playing it.