Submerged is a third-person exploration game set in a beautiful and mysterious submerged city. You play as Miku, who arrives by boat with her wounded younger brother, and must scour the city for supplies to keep him alive.
Upon first entering the game, the first thing you are struck by is the enormous potential for exciting and exotic exploration. Its massive, looming, and familiar yet strangely alien waterlogged structures at first seem like a playground just waiting for an eager participant to search its dank confines.
You quickly discover, however, that this city is not a playground – it’s an obstacle course. And like an obstacle course, it’s not designed for fun, it instead offers little but grueling hard work that will have you eagerly awaiting the appearance of its finish line.
Gameplay is broken into two parts. The first is city exploration by way of boat. You have free reign of this boggy metropolis, and must putter around with your binoculars to discover points of interest and the next story-advancing structure. Clambering up these structures constitutes the second half of the gameplay. Each is tall, with a long-forgotten emergency supply pack on the roof.
Of these two halves, the boat exploration is certainly the more endearing. Submerged's city is undoubtedly beautiful, varied, and interesting to behold. That makes sailing around a little like a sightseeing expedition. The boating also holds a little of the discovery payoff that the game promises in its opening moments. Key structures and monuments aside, you’ll be kept company by an array of fascinating animals that occupy the water’s murky depths.
These creatures give the game life that you didn’t realise was missing until they arrived. Speeding alongside an enormous algae-encrusted whale is a wonderful moment – easily one of the most majestic the game has to offer. The bulk of your time playing Submerged won’t be spent in the boat, though. Instead, it will be spent scaling bland constructions using overly-simplified and boring climbing mechanics.
The camera works hard to lend urgency and tension to these experiences, but what’s required of the player is so minimal that there simply isn’t much to engage with, with progress made simply with a move of an analogue stick. Compounding the problem is the length of time it takes to climb anywhere. To be fair, you climb faster than is humanly possible, but under the circumstances it still feels too slow.
That’s a shame, as it’s easy to see the potential in of these moments. A little variation and challenge put into the climbing would have completely changed the game, giving it something resembling forward momentum. What’s most disappointing is the story itself. It’s a two-faceted tale that encompasses of Miku, her brother, and the city itself. Though minimalist in its approach, it's actually unique and often interesting.
Miku’s story is easily the more engaging due not only to its content, but also its pacing and delivery. By contrast, the story of the city is incomprehensible. Revealed via artifacts scattered throughout the world, it is told out of sequence, and only the most committed will scale slowly up towers to retrieve each of its 70+ entries.
At a time when the validity of exploration titles is being questioned, it is frustrating for a game like Submerged to come out. It’s equally upsetting to see the promise and possibility of its opening moments slowly sink into the cloudy depths as the game wears on. There are moments of wonder and intrigue, but only those willing to suffer through sparse mechanics and dull stretches will be rewarded with them.