There’s no question that good gameplay is the heart of any video game, but it is possible for other elements to make up for it. It’s not common, of course, because game feel and mechanics are so essential to that nebulous fun factor. But it happens, and it happened with Submerged. Designed as an open-world exploration title, it falters hard once you realize the limits of the exploration and the repetition of the challenges. If not for the strength of its world-building and atmosphere, I’d say give this one a pass. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get into it, to a degree that even surprised me.
It’s the apocalypse again, but this time a global flood wiped everyone out and left whatever that could still poke above the waters lush and green. Young Miku has brought her brother Taku to a sunken city to care for his grievous wounds. There are still supplies left from before the end of the world, and she’ll need to scour the city and scamper up buildings for them if her sibling is to survive. It’s a quiet, lonely journey, but one that promises some revelations about her family and her world, as well as the ultimate fate of both children.
Submerged plays out on an open tract of ocean, dotted with the peaks of tall buildings. Miku can pilot her trust boat between the ancient ruins to search for the aid her brother needs, always perched atop one of the city’s most notable structures. There are ten packages in all, and each one reveals a bit more about their family’s past and their current predicament. It doesn’t matter what order you collect them in, or how long it takes to find them, which gives you all the opportunity you need to tool around and see the sights of this sunken land. You can also find 60 secret tomes that each give a pictogram piece of the city’s history, locate 8 landmarks and 8 kinds of strange new wildlife, and salvage 26 wrecked boats to give your own little vessel more and more boost capacity.
The entire game is predicated on exploring, both by sea and on land. In your boat you can zip around and peer about with your spyglass, which will mark any collectibles you spot on your map. Once you dock somewhere the game shifts to third-person climbing, challenging you to hang from ledges and shimmy across outcroppings to scale key buildings. Well, I say “challenge” but there’s no way to fail. The climbing requires no button inputs aside from pressing up or down on the controller, all the ledges are clearly visible and evenly spaced, and you can’t fall off or die in any way. The only difficulty comes from locating trails of ledges to climb and determining which linear path up the building leads to the goal, and which are the side paths to collectibles.
This is what you’ll be doing when you first reach the city, and it’s what you’ll be doing three to four hours later while seeking out the final package. Submerged has one major weakness, and it’s that none of the mechanics are as deep or detailed as they should be. You can scale the ten key buildings in any order but the challenges and obstacles are identical for each, just configured differently. The boat upgrades do exactly one thing, let you boost your speed longer, and the story collectibles always look the same and form a basic (but interesting) story. There’s no real freedom of movement despite this essentially being an entire game built around climbing Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry towers, as you can’t mantle over railings or jump even small gaps. You’re forever locked to the same ledges, the identical perfect climbing ledges that infest the city.
There are lots of gripes to be had with the gameplay, but no matter how many I found I still couldn’t help but enjoy this one. As samey as the buildings can get after sailing around them for a few hours, it’s still a striking, beautiful world you get to tool around in. It’s not your normal apocalypse, but a bright and thriving one with interesting creatures and a unique story to it. I liked it enough to get all the achievements even, which is a feat I rarely perform and has to count for something. Don’t come for the climbing or collecting, come for the chance to explore a lovely, peaceful world that should have died but found a way to avoid oblivion.