In Submerged, the oceans have risen and civilisation has crumbled. All that remains are a few scattered survivors, the tops of the very tallest superscrapers poking from the waves, and faded billboards advertising some of the developer's previous games.
Games like Epoch, a very likable touchscreen cover shooter that did a lot with a little, offering sweet Unreal Engine graphics at the expense of large environments or genuine freedom of movement. As the whole thing was laser-focused on the blasting and ducking, the limitations didn't matter, particularly since the blasting and ducking were both excellent. Submerged feels like another attempt to create a lavishly pretty 3D game within the boundaries of a strict budget. It is more ambitious than Epoch, but it is nowhere near as successful.
Astonishingly for such a small team, this is an open-world affair that casts you as a young girl who, together with her injured brother, arrives by boat in an area of the endless ocean where buildings rise out of the water all around. Leaving the brother recuperating on a stone plinth - the echoes of Shadow of the Colossus are unavoidable and presumably intentional - you must venture out into the drowned metropolis to find supply crates that carry vital items like food and fresh water and bandages, piecing together the pair's backstory as you go. Unlocking this narrative, which is quietly affecting, provides the spine of the short campaign, while collectable secret items scattered around the map fill in the story of the rest of the world and how it got to such a dismal state.
Since the supply crates and secrets are all sprinkled across the tops of the various buildings that surround you, it's a game of zipping around the waterways in your boat, and then scaling the outsides of skyscrapers when you find something that looks promising. It's a narrative treasure hunt, in other words, and there's no reason that it shouldn't work. Earlier this year, Ubisoft bolted collection and traversal and exploration together to make the entirely delightful Grow Home, after all. That said, Grow Home was a game in which every individual element was glorious. Submerged is a game in which every individual element will just about do, and as a result, it struggles to hold your attention.
Beautiful in screenshots, where palms grow on former penthouse roofs and humpbacks arc out of the ocean, trailing water, Submerged is surprisingly ugly in motion. Beneath some nice texture work, its skyscrapers are bluntly angular and hard to tell apart, and its open world grinds to a stuttering halt every other minute, presumably to allow the next section of the map to load. More importantly for a traversal game, your own movement is distinctly naff, stiff limbs jogging powerlessly as you slip over the ground with no real sense of connection, while the animation as you scale vertiginous walls fails to convey any sense of effort or plight or human tension.
The traversal itself has been ruthlessly deskilled. This is a climbing game without a jump button, and so in between steering your boat around the map, you simply point the thumbstick from one crumbling ledge of the building you're climbing to the next, occasionally rattling up a drainpipe or following a trail of eye-catching red flowers, some of which, I suspect, were planted at the behest of the QA team. Because you can tackle the set-piece buildings in pretty much any order, as far as I can tell, there is no sense of escalation to any of this: no sense of learning, let alone mastery.
There's nothing wrong with decluttering a game's mechanics, but there is so little left to do here that the the whole thing starts to feel meaningless. Submerged makes a big deal of the fact that it has no combat - a choice that feels just right for the kind of story it's trying to tell. It very nearly has no real reason to exist, however. Many buildings have multiple routes if you're trying to collect all of the optional trinkets, but you're never encouraged to pause at the start of an ascent and try to plot a path or weigh up an approach. The individual levels, such as they are, feel robbed of any context or personality: they're just one section of wall giving way to another, and another, and another - a pleasant kind of busywork, but you will tire of it within minutes.
The most entertaining part of the game is probably the telescope with which you unlock new objectives, scanning the horizon as you move to fresh vantage points, following on-screen prompts, and nudging targets into place as a little progress wheel spins round. It's enough - along with a few scattered moments where you edge up against a half-sunken landmark like a Ferris Wheel or a Liberty-style statue - to suggest that there's real potential here, just as there's real potential in the team at Uppercut Games, who once focused so cleverly on the action game elements a touchscreen device could really nail while working around all the things it couldn't.
That's the point, I suspect: Epoch sacrificed everything but the core mechanics. Submerged sacrifices the core mechanics to deliver scale and narrative in the hope, perhaps, that a genuine sense of place will be created from the tension between the two. But there's not enough here, and it's not delivered with much in the way of conviction. You'll root for Submerged, but it's a bit of a bust.