Close to the Sun Review

May 2, 2019

Look, people: let’s be clear. This isn’t BioShock. It’s something that the developers of Close to the Sun have been vocal about, it’s something that the PR team has been vocal about, and it’s something I’m going to be vocal about. Because while it might have a visual aesthetic which borrows heavily from the Irrational/2K stable — not least in its font design, art deco aesthetic, and nautical theme — the latest game from Italian indie studio Storm in a Teacup is a completely different beast.

If I was rich enough I'd definitely build a ship containing a museum about me.

For a start, this isn’t a first-person shooter. Close to the Sun tells the story of Rose Archer, a journalist who has been invited by her sister Ada to the Helios, a huge floating vessel designed by Nikola Tesla. In this reality, Tesla and Edison’s war has escalated on a dramatic scale, with the Croatian successfully building the Wardenclyffe Tower on the ship itself, but with hugely damaging consequences. As Rose arrives onboard to be greeted by a blood-stained message of “Quarantine” smeared on its ornate doors, it’s pretty obvious that something has gone badly wrong. Your job over the following ten chapters is to locate your sister and discover what happened.

The world's most expensive game of Risk.

Gameplay-wise, Close to the Sun skews more towards the likes of SOMA and What Remains of Edith Finch than the titles it shares visual similarities with. It’s not a walking simulator by any means; each chapter provides puzzles for you to solve as you traverse the Helios, usually requiring you to scour the environment for clues to unlock the next door. The more interesting examples of these are early on, since they lead you to the vacant rooms of passengers which shed some light on how they lived and the work they undertook. When Close to the Sun steps away from rote “find the code” puzzles and uses more creative head-scratchers which utilise its sumptuous surroundings, the whole game sings.

And this is just the lobby.

And those visuals are astonishingly good throughout the entire six-hour experience. Polished marble decorates theatre lobbies and museum rooms, huge mechanical pistons chug away in the boiler rooms of the ship’s belly, while the coils for which Tesla became so famous crackle and buzz with intoxicating energy as you try to avoid their electrical reach. Amidst the eye candy is a feeling of familiarity, though. A tale which touches on time travel results in silhouettes of the ship’s past being shown to Rose in yet another iteration of a gimmick we’ve seen in everything from System Shock 2 to Tacoma. And because this isn’t BioShock, we don’t get audiotapes to find and progress the story, just notes and newspaper clippings — though the personality of the written word and the themed collectables on each level never properly shines.

Quite right, as the Rolling Stones will confirm.

Furthermore, the slow-paced, thoughtful exploration is shattered a third of the way through when the game launches you into a chase section which becomes something of a recurrent theme from then on. Whether it’s a maniac on the loose aboard the Helios or something even more exotic on your tail, because this isn’t BioShock, you have no guns. No weapons at all, in fact. All you have is a run button to pelt away from the menace, and a jump button to vault over obstacles. When the first of these segments happens it feels a little jarring given what has come before, but they soon become regular occurrences which break up the more sedate walk-and-talk elements. Because you’re running away, you aren’t challenged to do anything other than find the right path in almost all cases. If you fail, you die, and you restart the chase.  The game flirts with some timed challenges late on, but otherwise it’s a bit of a missed opportunity to throw in some variety.

Past, present or future?

Rose isn’t completely alone, of course. There are a few characters on board the Helios with designs on helping or hindering the intrepid journalist, all of whom are superbly voiced. In fact, it’s Rose herself who feels the most short-changed by the script, with her anachronistic patter sounding like she’s been cast in a 1990s comedy drama rather than a slice of alt-Victoriana. The story ticks along at a reasonable pace, though as you draw closer and closer to the finale it becomes apparent that many of the more pressing questions are not going to be answered. The final moments in particular feel rushed and make for a rather unsatisfying conclusion, as if the team ran out of time and just decided to leave the door open for a sequel. This is even more keenly felt since the early stages of the narrative are both tense and well plotted which led me to think that — despite not being BioShock — it could have matched or even exceeded Infinite’s story.

It's the size of three P&O ferries, but with a lower sickness rate.

Then there’s the question of the genre itself. Though there are some unsettling scenes (and some frankly grim and unnecessarily squelchy moments), I wouldn’t classify Close to the Sun as a horror game. Sure, it feels like almost every room has dead bodies in it and there are a few jump scares which may catch out the unwary, but when you are still tripping over corpses by the bucketload three hours in, it becomes less gruesome and more like inappropriate set dressing. Should dead bodies be boring? Surely not.

And ultimately, that’s the biggest problem Close to the Sun faces: it isn’t sure what it wants to be. It has puzzles, but it’s far too linear to be a puzzle game. It has gore and scares, but doesn’t use them effectively enough to be a horror game. It looks and sounds lovely, but doesn’t have the atmosphere of a decent walking simulator. And it has a story, but one that feels like the final act has been truncated, which means it compares unfavourably to games like Gone Home. It’s far from a failure, and in many respects it provided some decent entertainment — it just didn’t leave me with the sense of satisfaction I was hoping for when the credits rolled. My expectations may have been unjustly raised by the games from which it takes its influences. Games which do not, of course, include BioShock.

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While Close to the Sun is a visual treat, it isn’t quite matched by the game’s substance; it dips a toe in the waters of numerous genres but fails to fully commit to one, and ultimately suffers because of it.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.