If you were to take one part the climbing and exploration of Uncharted or the modern Tomb Raider games, one part the minimalist approach to gameplay and story of Shadow of the Colossus, mix it together, take out any combat that may have leaked in, and set it in a post-apocalyptic world of a drowned city, you will start to get an idea of just what Submerged is all about. While it is a simple game, the lack of combat or conflict certainly making it a game that’s not for everyone, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, as, in fact, I found myself quite enchanted with the experience all the way through.
The game opens as a small motorboat makes its way through the remains of a city completely covered in water. Only the tops of the tallest buildings and structures are still left above the surface. Coming to one such building, a sister carries her grievously wounded younger brother out of the boat and up into a small room, setting him down to rest. A torn parachute from what could be a supply drop is fluttering on the next building over, and from there, the exploration begins.
As the player steps into the shoes of the sister, Submerged tasks you with finding a number of supply crates, all to help your younger brother. And that’s it. Submerged doesn’t have a twisting plot or hordes of enemies to fight, just an interesting, ruined city to explore and a reason to explore it. Using your spyglass you can find other buildings that have supply crates. You can even spot the roughly 100 other collectibles sprinkled throughout the city, including pictograms showing the story of the city and how it came to be under water, distinctive landmarks, speed upgrades for your boat, and even the wild animals that now populate the ruins.
While up to the first supply crate is fairly linear, serving mostly as the game’s tutorial, after that, the game opens up entirely and the player is given complete freedom for where to go and what great building to climb next. With each supply crate, you are given a small glimpse, also through pictograms, of how the brother and sister came to the ruined city. This, and seeing the toll the exploration of the city is taking on the sister, becomes the main reason to keep moving forward. While neither is as bombastic as someone shouting at you to do the next objective, they served their purpose, allowing me to enjoy the experience of simply wandering the world.
Coming in at a length of a few hours or so, longer if you’re a completionist, Submerged is short and sweet. The climbing, of which you will do a lot, doesn’t become too repetitive over the course of the game, though it likely could have if it went on for much longer.
The world is interesting, inviting, and artistically beautiful. The boat is fun to motor around in, if at first a bit hard to get used to. The calm piano music even, propels you forward, growing louder and more dynamic the closer you are to the right path. And the minimalist story that unfolds is genuinely interesting. All that said however, Submerged still just doesn’t have that special spark of emotion like Journey, or storybook nostalgia of something like The Unfinished Swan, two games that manage non-combat remarkably well. Uppercut Games should absolutely be applauded for what they have down with Submerged, a non-combat, post-apocalyptic game being something few would be brave enough to pursue, but ultimately, the game never grabs hold the way the developer so clearly wants it to.
For instance, unlike the personal story pictograms, beyond the tutorial, the ones concerned with the city’s story do not unlock in a specific order, allowing you to find pictograms 58, 59, and 60, long before you find 4,5, and 6. Eventually, this means the images you do find hold no meaning or sense of progression until you look at the full list, making the emotional impact of them lost or put off until long after you find each one.
While there were moments in Submerged, especially as the sun set, bathing the city in a reflected orange glow, that I did stop and just stare at the screen in awe, the polished refinement the game needed in order to be something special was never quite there. With character animations that were a little too stiff and exploration paths that were a little too clearly laid out, there was never a point I completely forgot I was playing a game and lost myself to it.
There are very few things wrong with Submerged, but there also just isn’t anything that reaches out and elevates the game above the crowd. For anyone looking for a calm, relaxing game that really is as simple as exploring an interesting place, no overly frustrating puzzles or blood-pressure-spiking combat, Submerged is perfect, especially considering how rare such games are. For anyone not specifically looking for that however, there just isn’t enough here to pull you in or make it worth it.