If you had told me 15 years ago that I would enjoy a game with no combat, I'd have questioned your sanity. But all these years later, games like Journey, Flower, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, all of them sans violence, have changed my mind. Call them walking simulators if you must, these titles have provided some of the best gaming experiences of my life. But while not a bad game, Submerged: Hidden Depths is sadly not on par with any of those titles.
Dubbed a "relaxploration" game by developer Uppercut Games, Hidden Depths is the standalone sequel to 2015's Submerged. The main characters, a brother and sister, remain the same, but playing the first game isn't necessary to enjoy the new game. The narrative surrounds the boy and girl, on their own in the watery world they used to know, now overgrown by a mysterious blight that covers the skeletons of buildings poking up out of the water. On-screen text tells us the pair is trying to figure out how to reverse the blight and put the world back to the way they used to know it.
The game looks great, with the waves crashing against gorgeous buildings and landmarks that feel very modern against the more primitive dress of the siblings. The water looks great too and the boat that the pair uses to ferry themselves across the waves bounces and tilts realistically. The character models of the siblings look excellent too, a bit shiny in a way that is reminiscent of early PS3 games, but their look fits with the overall aesthetic of the game.
So what does one do in a game that features no combat? Well as the description indicates, you explore. And collect. And climb in, on, and around the buildings that jut out of the aquatic maw below your boat. There are various things to collect, including parts to upgrade your boat, books that flesh out parts of the story of the siblings and their world, and even pieces of the old world that are pulled up from the watery depths.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is all about climbing up the various buildings that dot the landscape, jumping across gaps, and sliding down ropes to get from level to level in these skyscraper-type buildings. The sister has the power to manipulate mysterious seeds that seem to power the buildings, so the goal in most buildings is to find those seeds and move them to their home within the plants that wrap around each tower, in the process destroying the blight in that particular location. In a manner reminiscent of Uncharted and other 3rd-person action games, players will leap from one tenuous handhold to another, traversing gaps where crumbling stairs and ledges used to be.
Unike those games, however, there's no combat to fill in the spaces between the exploratory parts, so all that's left is gathering the aforementioned collectibles. In other games, these collectibles are complementary to the core gameplay, but here they become the entirety of the gameplay itself. That's where the wheels begin to come off for me, because if you don't care about the story behind the collectibles, then there's no reason for you to grab them all, and thus no reason to play the game. I would be remiss not to mention that there are legitimate moments of wonder, especially when discovering a new sea creature full of blue-veined energy or looking out across the vast watery landscape.
Alas, they don't come often enough as the game progresses. About halfway through opening up the game's map, I realized it just wasn't grabbing me, and I hit the proverbial brick wall. The buildings aren't all the same, but they are close enough that you get the feeling you've climbed them all after climbing just a few. The collectibles have some variety, but outside of that, they feel more like checking boxes than anything that truly affects the game.
There is the finding of the seeds which free the buildings from the blight, along with the diaries that are set throughout the various buildings to divulge the story in bite-sized pieces. The ocean holds parts to upgrade your ship, along with relics of the old world that can be dredged up from the bottom. Landmarks of important buildings can be found, and there are Assassin's Creed-style lookout points that open up parts of the map for you to find more of the same old collectibles.
If you buy into the story and the world that the game builds, you won't want to stop until you've found every last piece, until you have fully upgraded your boat and found all the relics the old world gives up from the depths. But I just couldn't bring myself to search for another diary or flower, piloting the boat through the waves searching for a place to divulge the brother or sister on another vertical quest. It all felt too familiar far too quickly, and I couldn't help but think of the next game beckoning from my hard drive, with the promise of a more engaging experience.
Submerged: Hidden Depths isn't a bad game, and it offers an experience that will appeal to a certain subset of gamers. But at this point in my gaming journey, I can't stick with a game that doesn't capture my attention, and I think that is more reflective of the way real people play games. We all fit gaming into the cracks between the responsibilities of daily life, and if we have to put a game aside then we do, without the pressure to finish it for a press cycle or review embargo. That is one of the things we pride ourselves on here at SUPERJUMP, being an enthusiast site by people who love games and who sometimes run up against ones they don't.
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