By Scott Ramage / June 17th, 2019
|Title||Close to the Sun|
|Developer||Storm in a Teacup|
|Release Date||May 2nd, 2019|
|Age Rating||M for Mature|
What do wireless communication, wireless electric power, radio remote control, and X-ray imaging have in common? All that and more were experimented on by Nikola Tesla, the enigmatic inventor who had more ideas than concrete results. Storm in a Teacup’s Close to the Sun is a “what if” horror adventure game. That is to say, what if Nikola Tesla’s most farfetched, fantastical plans became a reality? 51.9 gigabytes of installation later, it’s time to bear witness to the magnificent highs and macabre lows of Mr. Tesla’s grand experiments.
Close to the Sun’s setup is simple enough. You take the role of journalist Rose Archer, who receives a letter from her sister Ada. She’s a researcher aboard the Helios, a massive research vessel in the Atlantic Ocean under the direction of Nikola. The world’s greatest scientific minds gathered here to change the world with their experiments, but upon boarding it’s readily apparent that something’s gone terribly wrong. Rose must find her sister, get her research and find a way off the Helios before they suffer the same gruesome fate as everyone else. Along the way she meets a couple other survivors, though their motives for helping or hunting Rose shift over time.
The developers must have spent a lot of time researching Nikola Tesla for Close to the Sun, because aside from his being important to the plot, the game is chock full of references to his life and studies. He has remote-controlled ships to ferry people to and from the Helios. His various power systems create and distribute electricity throughout the vessel. Rumored devices like the death ray and the earthquake machine have blueprints scattered about various rooms. Most peculiar of all, his exploits with manipulation of time are a central plot point. Never mind that the idea used to explain this, the one-electron universe, was thought up by someone else several years after this game takes place. The foundation for the story is uneven, but serves its purpose of letting Tesla create his own little world.
I don’t mean to linger on story-related elements too long, but there’s some solid world-building in Close to the Sun. Throughout there are newspaper clippings and notes about the various conflicts between Helios researchers and workers, Tesla, and the rest of the world. There are also various environment pieces to help illustrate the life and times of the passengers. Autographed photos of visiting singers and performers litter the ship’s theater. Living spaces usually include unique clothes or shelf items for each person based on their hobbies or work. On the flip side, there are signs and notes everywhere about people who might be Edison spies, stealing research for Tesla’s biggest rival. Different research departments vie for Tesla’s attention and resources, all while maintenance and engineering departments fall to shambles either from neglect or their own incompetence. There’s always something lingering beneath the glossy exterior the game presents, and for the most part it pulls this off well. That said, the game does have some painfully ham-fisted moments, like the Frankenstein and Moby Dick posters in the theater or how, in the very first room of the game, there’s a copy of The Sisters’ Tragedy on Rose’s desk. Even Close to the Sun’s tendency to use Greek mythology for the ship and its chapter names, and almost nothing else, felt like too much. You like Greek mythology? Me too! But why reference more than Icarus when the rest barely relates to what’s going on?
Visually, Close to the Sun largely looks the part of a game with a 50+ gigabyte install size. The Helios is a magnificent behemoth from the outside and at times breathtaking within. The lighting contributes heavily to the atmosphere, with hall bulbs, emergency sirens, fires and the blue glow of free-flowing electricity, or the lack thereof in key spots. The time experiments cause ghostly images of people in the past to replay their lives, offering the occasional glimpse at day-to-day life and how people reacted when all hell broke loose. Just don’t try looking at anything too closely. Ironically, most things in Close to the Sun are best observed from a distance. Like an old sports car, getting right next to it reveals all of its flaws. With all my settings on high, some of the statues looked like they were made of putty and notes would turn into blurry scribbles. It also suffers from what I call Resident Evil 6 Syndrome, where several dead bodies and survivors who will die look like they’re from an early PS2 game. The latter don’t even open their mouths when they talk. As time went on, I experienced more and more frame drops and texture pop-in, particularly when hitting a checkpoint. And yes, my computer meets the recommended specs.
At a glance, there’s one game Close to the Sun gets compared to a lot: Bioshock. It takes place in the water (though not under it), makes heavy use of Art Deco and Dieselpunk for its design, and has someone on a radio guiding the protagonist through what was supposed to be a utopian, autonomous city which descended into chaos. This had to be something Storm in a Teacup knew would happen; their promotional material includes a list of things the game isn’t, and Bioshock is on it. Whereas Bioshock is a first-person shooter, Close to the Sun is straight-up horror with some adventure elements. There is no combat. There is no character building in terms of weapons, abilities or stats. Enemy encounters are few and far between, and all Rose can do is try to run away from them. In that regard at least, the horror element is effective.
Not only do they say it isn’t Bioshock, but that it also isn’t a walking simulator, a term so misused by the general public it’s nearly lost all meaning. Close to the Sun is akin to games like Firewatch and Outlast, but more linear. Rose explores an area, usually one with several doors that can’t be opened, grabs some notes, solves the occasional puzzle and moves on. I say “puzzles,” but the majority involve either finding a password and entering it on a door lock, or waiting for electricity or fire to stop shooting out of a wall and moving past it. The former in particular becomes monotonous quickly. Rose also can’t do much physically, having a vertical leap of about two inches and getting caught on most any environment piece that happens to lay in her way. This makes basic tasks like walking through a room with a few dead bodies more cumbersome than it should be.
To mix things up there are some chase sequences sprinkled in, where Rose has to outrun one of two baddies. These don’t work well for four reasons. One, the lighting. While it’s effective in creating a tense atmosphere when nothing’s going on, sometimes I couldn’t see what was ahead and ran into an environment piece or off a ledge to my death. Two, sometimes Rose needs to jump over or squeeze through obstacles. Sometimes this requires clicking on the prompt, sometimes it doesn’t, and when it does I sometimes had inputs drop. Three, saying Rose runs away from anything is being extremely generous. She and the enemies spend entire chase sequences jogging lightly around the Helios, killing most of the tension. Lastly, the enemies aren’t intimidating, much less frightening. One of them, the big bad monster of the game, looks like someone took Chaos from Sonic Adventure and gave it pointy teeth. While the backstory and world-building are strengths, the threats come off as uninspired and the gameplay is comparatively lacking, being slow-paced even when things are supposedly anything but.
Most of this can be forgiven with a well-told story, but there’s a catch. While the background has some forgivable flaws, the sequence of events in the game doesn’t. Certain plot points take center stage and then disappear, never to be mentioned again. A particular symbol appears around the ship and on notes which, combined with the time manipulation element, seem like they come into play later. They don’t. Rose hears repeatedly about how exo, a blue dust-like haze permeating the Helios, is what causes the monsters to appear, but she’s able to walk through huge swaths of it without encountering any of them. Rose has to find some research notes which are hidden from everyone, but they’re plainly visible in an area several people would have used regularly. There’s a “Who wrote the letter to Rose?” plot thread which never reaches a clear conclusion. To top it all off, there’s a predictable twist near the end which I saw coming several chapters earlier.
Even when the story and atmosphere are working well, the sound design ends up hurting it. Close to the Sun uses jump scares, all but a couple of which are punctuated with a musical sting. There are some scares with no stings that are simply allowed to happen, and they are far more effective. The problem here is, despite most of them being built properly by the environment, I was more startled by the music than scared by whatever was going on, and these stings are so prevalent one even plays when pausing the game. That pales in comparison to Rose’s dialogue, though. While most everyone else’s voice is passable, hers is dry and disinterested regardless of what’s going on. She makes bored-sounding quips after seeing messages written in blood on the walls, mumbles monotone jokes after nearly getting killed or discovering a room full of dead bodies, and otherwise undermines what should be tense moments. Even when suffering a panic attack she doesn’t sound particularly bothered by anything. If she’s shrugging off all of this, why shouldn’t I?
It seems like the narrative is supposed to carry the day, what with the gameplay being rather uninspiring. However, after a little under five and a half hours, I got an ending which left several plot points unresolved and felt like sequel bait. There’s little reason to go back to it, outside of finding the collectibles. Even then you can’t see them outside of when they’re picked up, so it’s just for those desperate to say they accomplished everything. In the end Close to the Sun is a competently made game, but one with more style than substance. Its backstory and setting end up being the most engaging parts, with little else to keep the player slowly jogging deeper into the bowels of the Helios. For $30, there are more fulfilling and better executed experiences to be had.
Review copy provided by publisher.
Close to the SunEpic Game StorePCStorm in a TeacupWired Productions