Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One | Developer/Publisher: Uppercut Games Pty Ltd | ESRB: E | Controls: Keyboard/Gamepad
Submerged is a game from developer Uppercut Games. You may recall our own James Billcliffe’s two-part interview from earlier this year (Part1Part 2). During their talk, they specifically talked about creating a game devoid of combat and centered on a protagonist which wasn’t an “everyman character”. They wished to create an emotional bond with their lead character, and do so, “with a more simple form of storytelling without expensive cutscenes”, which expand development time and increase costs.

So now nearly 8 months later we’re able to judge their level of success. In terms of their visual presentation and storytelling, particularly in regards to the relationship between Miku and her brother Taku, they’ve done an excellent job. But the real question is, “how does it play?” That’s a harder question to qualify.

Let’s step back and start with the first things that players will experience. We begin with a boat seemingly adrift through oceanic waters. Yet within these waters are the recognizable obstacles of bridges, building, statues and other tired, over-grown monoliths of a time that has apparently long-since passed. As intended, there is no explanation as to why the world is in such a state, there’s just a simple focus on this boat and its two occupants.

When the vessel comes to a stop against what was some-sort of rooftop courtyard, our female protagonist, Miku under player control, carries her injured brother to a bench. We notice a large gash across his abdomen, and she announces that she must find away to stop Taku’s bleeding. This begins the player’s exploration of the city.

Staring up close at the immediate surrounding will show you both textures and geometry that are simple and decidedly low resolution, but with a color palette that is this rich and warm, coupled with wonderful lighting and model placement, it all blends seamlessly together to form a very pretty and cohesive visual experience.

The lighting is really the key here. As much as the risen ocean and dilapidated buildings coupled with the foliage which give them character are the heart of the game’s world, the lighting is what truly brings everything to life. I’m struggling to come up with another game which so excellently captured coastal weather patterns — the brilliance of sunrise and sunset over the ocean, or the eerie calm before a storm, with hazy beams of light desperately trying to push their way out from behind ominous clouds. These moments are extremely well-done in Submerged.

Traveling around is very fluid, perhaps too much so, as Miku navigates the maze of building in search of supplies in an unnaturally moving boat. She locates items of interest, including boat speed upgrades, using a telescope. This has a limited range however, so moving throughout the mostly sunken city and gaining better views from higher vantage points is required.

Submerged 7-30-2015 12-31-08 PM.00_02_11_49.Still004

That’s where the bulk of the gameplay comes from. Miku is an adept climber. Once she’s maneuvered her vessel to the building where’s she marked supplies, there will always be a vined entry-point, announced by bright red flowers. These plant ladders start her climbing journey. Interestingly, virtually every large building has multiple paths to the top. Our heroine will shimmy across ledges by foot or by hand, crawl and climb across vines, or make use of old ladders as she makes her ascent.

The goal is the supply crate on top, with an beacon providing audio clues as to its location. These drops are obviously some sort of aid left for survivors of whatever event has caused the world to become submerged. One important thing to note is that whatever supply crate Miku finds is the exact one that she needs for her current quest. So each climb and recovery can be done and found with no specific sequence. Once the supply is grabbed, she is automatically transported back to Taku, rests and then awakens with a new supply need.

This automated descent and teleport is a little annoying as it means you can’t grab the remaining collectible, usually several, that are left on that building without back-tracking and climbing it all over again thanks to the multiple paths. This is only a minor gripe though. Their reasons for doing so are the extension of a surrounding plot point which involve mysterious characters inhabiting the area, and watching over Miku’s movements.

No building is exactly the same, but the end result always is. Find the supply, teleport back, short in-game cutscene, repeat. There’s something lacking as there simply isn’t enough variation to make each climb distinctly interesting. Far more fun is exploring the extents of this water-world, and discovering new land-marks and remnants of what it used to be. Even the collectible artifacts provide extra incentive, by filling out a journal with colorful little hieroglyphics of history.

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I wrestle a little with my feelings on the sound design and music. One one hand the music from Bafta-Award winning composer Jeff Van Dyck is lovely. On the other hand there’s just not enough of it, so again it becomes an issue of repetition. The sound design is minimal, but excellent. The sounds of the ocean and the life that inhabits it is spot-on. There are also beautiful little touches like the yawning of slowly decaying steel and the ratcheting of your telescope as it zooms. For me though, the game left some moments a little too quiet and devoid of sound. I understand creating the feeling of the vast openness of the oceanic world and absence of humans that this technique represents, but I would have enjoyed a little more ambient music to fill the void.

Whatever Submerged gets right or wrong in these aspects, don’t mean anything unless there’s some sort of emotional pull to the narrative. Without an enormous budget, huge cut-scenes or extended amounts of expository dialogue, the game still manages to fully convey the connection between Mika and Taku, and her need to take care of her seriously injured brother. Her worry is very apparent, and without giving too much away, her sacrifice becomes a very real thing.

In the end everything seems to wrap up too neatly for my tastes. But perhaps that’s just my conditioning to how a post-apocalyptic world and its story “normally” turns out. Uppercut clearly stated in their interview the planning of a less heavy-handed and dark experience in this genre, and I think they have succeeded in many ways. I just can’t help but feeling that things could have been pushed a little further.

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On the technical side, the controls aside from the somewhat — bad pun alert — “floaty” boat steering, are solid. I never had any issue with the platforming elements of the game. Sounds and music were consistent in volume and quality. Framerate on the other hand was not so straightforward. Running on ultra settings, the game stayed mostly at that desired 60fps level. However, random , pro-longed drops would happen, and if my recording software was to be believed, they would flatline down at 30fps, though it felt lower at times. This was generally an exception more than rule for my playthrough, but still not uncommon.

NOTE: If you own the Xbox One version of the game and experience heavy stuttering, hard-reset your Xbox One and it should mitigate the issue. Uppercut is working on a patch to resolve this issue.

Still, Submerged was an enjoyable experience, though as I mentioned, at times repetitive. It’s an interesting turn on the post-apocalyptic world setting, and one that’s fun to explore. In fact that’s the exact way you can continue your journey, and collection of remaining artifacts, through the “Explore” option after you’ve completed the game’s story. It gives you a reason to discover all that this now oceanic world has to left offer. I definitely spent some extra time navigating the waters of the submerged city when this part of Miku and Taku’s story was finished, and I suspect many other players will do the same.

Reviewed on the PC and tested on Xbox One. Our review copies were provided by Uppercut Games.

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James Schumacher
Freelance writer and used-to-be artist based out of the Pacific Northwest. I studied Game Art & Design in college. I have been writing web content for the last 6 years, including for my own website dedicated to entertainment, gaming & photography. I have been playing games dating back to the NES era. My other interests are film, books and music. I sometimes pretend to be great at photography. You can find me on Youtube, Twitch, Twitter, 500px, DeviantArt and elsewhere under my nick: JamesInDigital.

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7 Comments

  1. Well written article.

    1. Thanks, appreciate it.

  2. I am glad to hear some positives about this game at least. I had high hopes for it and the review on Destructoid is kind of a downer!

    1. I feel like a lot of reviews are all about dumping on a game and creating a mob mentality for views. Maybe it’s because we have the benefit of a two-part review with the developers here on OSP, but I had a clear look at what their intentions were for the game and the size of the team creating it. All of those things need to be factored in when critiquing a game in my opinion. While you can compare and contrast, in the end each game stands on its own. I am OK with this game get a 5 or 6 from people, 4, 3 or lower seems absurd to me.

      There are many things that the game doesn’t quite get right, but it tries a new-ish approach to the post-apocalyptic genre and gets some credit for the attempt. In private discussions on the site I have compared it to I Am Alive, a sort of similarly-themed (but with combat) post-apocalyptic game that sees players spending time on the rooftops more than anything. I think that game had was misunderstood and had unrealistic expectations on it as well. Repetition is definitely the biggest negative for the game.

      In the end, any review I write is my take, my verbal painting on what I see and experience, with splashes of how I think it will play to others. Thanks for reading.

    2. I feel like a lot of reviews are all about dumping on a game and creating a mob mentality for views. Maybe it’s because we have the benefit of a two-part review with the developers here on OSP, but I had a clear look at what their intentions were for the game and the size of the team creating it. All of those things need to be factored in when critiquing a game in my opinion. While you can compare and contrast, in the end each game stands on its own. I am OK with this game get a 5 or 6 from people, 4, 3 or lower seems absurd to me.

      There are many things that the game doesn’t quite get right, but it tries a new-ish approach to the post-apocalyptic genre and gets some credit for the attempt. In private discussions on the site I have compared it to I Am Alive, a sort of similarly-themed (but with combat) post-apocalyptic game that sees players spending time on the rooftops more than anything. I think that game had was misunderstood and had unrealistic expectations on it as well. Repetition is definitely the biggest negative for the game.

      In the end, any review I write is my take, my verbal painting on what I see and experience, with splashes of how I think it will play to others. Thanks for reading.

  3. From your reply to Jon Eden:

    “Maybe it’s because we have the benefit of a two-part review with the developers here on OSP”
    Not a unbiased review of the game then.

    “…what their intentions were for the game and the size of the team creating it. All of those things need to be factored in when critiquing a game in my opinion.”
    That’s your opinion and you may include it in the review, but not use as a factor for the final score. Do you really think that the number of people and intentions of who worked on this or that movie, game, song, whatever makes it better or worse fot the end user?

    “In the end, any review I write is my take, my verbal painting on what I see and experience…”
    See my first point.

    1. You’re free to disagree with my take on the game, after all these are all opinions. But everything you said is nonsense. I’m biased because someone else at the site interviewed the developer. Are you really suggesting that any outlet that interviews a developer is automatically biased to the review of the game. Seems like quite a bit of a reach.

      Knowing what the developers are trying to do with the game they make is just being a smart, informed consumer and gamer, and I see nothing wrong with that. It helps to not go in with ridiculously over-hyped expectations. And yes I totally think that knowing a piece of art or entertainment came from a small team factors in. I look at some games and think, wow, 3 people did this. It makes a difference.

      As for your final “point”, which is to see your “first point”. That completely makes no sense. Your first point was that I’m biased, which is not an accurate point. So if I say my review is my take on the game after I played it, I’m biased? Huh? What world do you live in where a game review is not subjective to the person playing it for review?

      Again, it’s fine to come one here and say that you disagree. I doubt you read the review, as your comment is only on other comments. But it’s not okay, to simply call me biased because you disagree. If you disagree and want a good discussion, how about you just tell us what your issues were with the game. If anyone comes across as biased, it seems to be you. As if you were really personally invested in the game and it let you down, so you’re angry about it now.

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