Red Stewart reviews Close to the Sun….
When I read the initial reactions to the launch trailer for developer Storm in a Teacup’s title Close to the Sun, I was disappointed. The comments reeked of comparisons to BioShock, as though that was the only video game to ever utilize an Art Deco aesthetic (or to feature a protagonist entering a haunted labyrinth for that matter). And, even if there was a connection, I’ve always said that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a creator paying homage to another property, especially one as universally popular and influential as Irrational Games’s magnum opus.
Yet, as I actually played through the game, I admittedly found my knee-jerk defense of Close to the Sun to slowly erode due to the surprising number of similarities it ended up having with BioShock. Both take place in a desolate aquatic cityscape where scientists and entrepreneurs have been allowed to work without the limits imposed by governments or society; both settings are occupied by ghosts from the past; both have you traverse deeper into this abyss whilst being guided by a person speaking over a radio, and there are even some analogous storybeats that I’ll avoid talking about for fear of spoilers.
The question is, does any of this matter overall? Is Close to the Sun its own fun and unique experience, or does it try too hard to be something it isn’t? The short answer is that it kind of works, though it also has its limitations. For the longer answer, read on.
To start with, I thought I’d give my own thoughts on the Epic Games Store, because I’ve seen a lot of hate directed towards its existence and, by extension, its own IPs (including Close to the Sun). I wouldn’t put myself in the same bin as a Laissez-faire capitalist, but it is true that competition needs to exist in order to help keep companies in check. The fact is Steam has developed a lot of problems due to it being the primary online storefront for digital video games. The addition of new client services like GOG Galaxy and the Epic Games Store, as well as the continued growth of older platforms like Battle.net, can only help to better this distribution medium as a whole due to the new advantages each one can bring (like GOG games being DRM-free). Fans will see (and vocally make it clear) that these should be consistent norms across the board, resulting in eventual changes.
Yes, it will be annoying to have yet another application take up space on your personal computer, but considering the progression of PC gaming technology as a whole, this is a minor issue. Like with every other industry, we need competition. And, so long as there are no subscription fees, there is nothing inherently wrong with a video game company having its own IPs. If we are going to praise Sony for its exclusives this generation, then we cannot chastise Epic Games for doing the same, whether that’s for indie titles like Close to the Sun, or mainstream releases like Borderlands 3.
Now, the thing about marketing yourself on the basis of exclusive titles is that they have to be worth it, which brings us to Close to the Sun. You play as Rose Archer, a journalist who is invited by her sister Ada to a gargantuan cruiseliner called the Helios. The Helios was created by famed engineer Nikola Tesla as a haven for inventors and futurists to continue their designs without interference from the outside world. Only, when Archer arrives, it’s nothing but a desolate husk, with dead bodies strewn everywhere. What exactly happened here and where is Rose’s sister? These are questions you’ll have to solve as you move forward.
Anyone who has been playing video games for a while now has probably seen this narrative done in some capacity or another: however, the same could be said for literally 99 percent of the games coming out these days: originality comes not in concepts but in execution. The real issue with Close to the Sun’s plot is not its lack of individuality, but its inability to create a truly full-fledged world. As the presence of Tesla more than implies, this is an alternative history storyline, and when you’re doing something as broad in scope as that, you have an obligation to give your setting a fleshed-out backstory because people need to know exactly how this timeline came about.
Unfortunately, Storm in a Teacup’s writers decided that the best way to do this was to push all the archival information into optional collectibles you can randomly find in each level, including newspaper clippings, office notices, and character diaries. This a fine tactic to utilize when it’s just supplementary material: we’ve seen many popular games do the same thing, including BioShock with the audio diaries and Arkham City with the city stories. However, when it’s taking the place of necessary exposition, it hampers the plot as a whole since we’re left confused about what it is we’re doing. Imagine playing BioShock without Andrew Ryan’s monologue in the beginning explaining Rapture, or Arkham City without that opening montage of Bruce Wayne getting imprisoned- it would have diminished the subsequent emotional experiences both narratives provided because we wouldn’t have had an understanding of why things were happening. And if you’re baffled at the beginning, you’ll be uninterested by the end. Open world titles are able to get away with being more obscure since their whole purpose is for players to spend tens of hours immersing themselves into a brand new universe with a brand new mythology; linear games do not have this luxury.
That’s not to say that Close to the Sun does a bad job, it just didn’t hook me as much as I feel the writers expected it to. It has some very good moments, but it’s deliberately obscure to a fault. And this is a trend that I found to disappointingly recur throughout my playthrough: that for everything the game did spectacular, it also did something lackluster. Part of this boils down to the fact that it is a walking simulator, meaning there is a big emphasis on cinematic scope- aka, it rests its appeal on being filmic with strong storybeats. Carlo Ivo Alimo Bianchi is credited as “Storm in a Teacup’s” CEO and artistic director, and briefly reading over his resume reveals his most likely motivation for Close to the Sun’s approach to storytelling- he worked in the film industry, supervised the creation of CG cutscenes for past projects, and specialized in directional lighting. Close to the Sun is a psychological horror title, its world filled with a dreadful atmosphere brought to life by some of the best executed jump scares in the history of horror video games (a statement I completely stand by, especially as someone who generally hates jump scares). Parts of the game honestly come off like you’re jumping through someone’s beautifully-drawn storyboards, and I believe Bianchi holds a part of that claim to fame.
Yet, all that artistic merit threatens to fall apart at the seams when you have a setting that isn’t worth walking through- a big issue for a walking simulator of all genres. Even when I went out of my way to obtain those aforementioned collectibles, I found that they didn’t do much in the way of making me care about the Helios, its inhabitants, its goals, and/or its ultimate downfall. Close to the Sun’s writing team also didn’t appear to have any concise idea in mind regarding what themes it wanted to tackle. There’s some commentary on bioethics, some jabs at reductionism, but most of that is tossed to the side in favor of a straightforward sci-fi thriller. Which, while disheartening to me personally, was something I was willing to embrace; after all, not every game has to have some deep, philosophical slant to it. And as I worked my way through the game’s 10 chapters, in spite of the obscure backstory, I became increasingly invested in getting to the end of Rose’s journey due to this emphasis on suspense and powerhouse moments….that is until the finale where a concrete ending to Rose’s arc, as well as all the mythological questions, is tossed to the side in favor of setting up a sequel. It’s a trend that’s been plaguing fictional media for a while now and it needs to stop. To future writers, I advise you to please tell a complete story before worrying about follow-ups and sequels.
All that being said, Close to the Sun is a video game, meaning it’s a visually-driven medium. As stated before, “Storm in a Teacup” went the Art Deco route, and it looks good. As Grim Fandango, Batman: the Animated Series, and yes BioShock have proven over the decades, this is an art form that works best for bleak narratives with lively hubs, and Close to the Sun lives up to those standards. The Helios has some amazingly designed rooms, from a genetically-modified greenhouse to a blood-soaked lab to a desolate, yet grand-looking, opera theater. Weeks must’ve been spent by the developers constructing the specifics of each area because the layouts are absolutely incredible, and really give you a sense of what the Helios was like in a way the writing never does.
Sadly, there were two big flaws in the graphical department, the first being the lighting. Close to the Sun is one of the worst lit games I’ve played in recent years, its illumination systems reminding me of the original Deus Ex without mods (and yes, that’s saying something). There’s barely any dynamic lighting, with the vast majority of luminescence being pre-rendered static lighting. I often had to turn up the brightness because of how dark some of the locales were, which in turn caused a glitch that dropped the resolution of the game that could only be fixed by either relaunching the app or changing the aspect ratio in the settings section. It’s amazing that the horror atmosphere was maintained considering how bad the lighting could get, and given Bianchi’s background, I don’t understand how this happened. Not only does it hamper the exploration factor, but it hurts the previously-mentioned efforts by the art team to create scenic areas. Lighting is the focal point of cinematography, and without an effective phosphorescent structure in place, there is a significant limit to the condition of your project.
The second flaw is something a bit more broad, that being the texturing of environments and objects. While nothing ever looked blurry or hazy the way Dishonored did, the quality wasn’t as refined as it could have been. Now, in “Storm in a Teacup’s” defense, one of the benefits of utilizing an art style like Art Deco is that it diminishes the need for photorealistic surfaces; heck, prior to the Wii U days, Nintendo made a career off of substituting verisimilitude for vibrant colors. But when we’re at a technological point in our lives where even indie companies have the ability to make breathtaking, high-resolution polygon models, it makes you wonder, in this day and age, whether there’s a need to pick and choose between naturalism and non-photorealism. This is a debate that gamers will have to have among themselves.
Regardless, the only time where I felt the lack of proper texturing was particularly noticeable was when it came to the many, many corpses you’ll see laden throughout the Helios. The faces look more plasticky and doll-like than a cadaver in livor mortis. But hey, it’s not like you’ll be staring at them much anyway.
Sound is the next topic to discuss, as well as one of the more important ones as a good soundscape is integral to a scary atmosphere. If the lighting was short-changed during production, then the audio must’ve been made-up for in response as the sound design is absolutely incredible. Cliche noises like flickering bulbs and creaky wood are diminished, instead replaced with a background sonority that aims at being unsettling. There are barely any enemies in the game, however that didn’t stop me from feeling nervous every time I entered a new section of the Helios. It’s hard to describe the aural set-up sound effects coordinator Andrea Remini created, but there’s a silent echo and din to every single thing that happens in game. Whether it’s something as simple as walking or the low growl of a creature or the rocking of the Helios or the exquisitely-timed music cues, all work together to bring you genuine tension. On top of this, one cool feature that was implemented was that your footsteps make different noises depending on what you walk on and how fast you do so- and as you guys know, minor details like that are my anti-pet peeves.
Speaking of music, Remini is credited as the composer, and what I’ll say here is that her score is good, though maybe too reserved. As I wrote above, sharp music editing from “Storm in a Teacup” ensures that you have solid, terrifying music cues that don’t feel hackneyed, but I think there was ironically a fear on the part of Remini that her brooding harmonies would get in the way of the sound field, and I don’t believe that would have been the case. It’s one of those OSTs that I would actually be willing to buy separately as I wanted to hear more.
But overall, the true standouts in the sound trilogy have to be the voice artists. For all the efforts by AAA companies these days to replace actual voice actors with celebrity talent (*cough cough Ubisoft and Ghost Recon Breakpoint), nothing can ever top experts in the field, which is what this cast is. They make you feel the desperation, mad genius, hopes, anxiety, and doubts that Close to the Sun’s four primary characters go through. A special shout-out, in particular, must be given to Emily Moment’s performance as Rose Archer. Her delivery is outstanding, capturing the anger, sadness, sarcasm, and outright panic attacks Rose experiences during her terrorizing stay on the Helios. I sincerely doubt she and Siddy Holloway (Ada Archer) recorded together, but no matter that they manage to sound like long-time sisters who grew up together and love each other. And when you have that foundation in something as sensory-driven as voicework, it makes for an affecting adventure.
Last but far from least is the gameplay, which is going to be a little difficult to talk about. Walking sims have, of course, become a pretty popular genre these days. Though the term was obviously intended as a derogatory name for adventure games that emphasized exploring environments over hard gameplay, they have since been embraced by the public, as evidenced by the success of Firewatch and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
Make no mistake, however; there is animosity towards them, and if you are someone who isn’t a fan of the genre, you will not appreciate Close to the Sun, no matter how appealing the story is. It does have some limited gameplay involving you solving basic puzzles and engaging in chase sequences, but that latter part is where I would say the game dabbles in the running simulator category.
“Running sim” a negative phrase I myself have coined to describe horror games that don’t give you any method of fighting the enemies thrown your way, like Outlast and Amnesia: the Dark Descent. Because you don’t even have a simple combat system in place, you’re left with no choice but to run and hide from every little creature you meet. I’ve never found this to be enjoyable at all, but “Storm in a Teacup” smartly circumvented this by embracing the walking sim genre and going the cinematic route. You only ever encounter dangerous enemies during scripted sections where your only option is to sprint through the area you’re in. Taking clear inspiration from Dying Light’s night sequences, I can safely say that these are extremely well done. They’re placed well-enough throughout the game that they neither feel sparse nor extraneous. And the tension they hold (significantly helped by the ability to look behind you with the click of a button) helps give Close to the Sun’s world some genuine stakes, in spite of it being underdeveloped as a whole.
So, all of this aside, is Close to the Sun worth a purchase? At its current asking price of $29.99, I can’t quite agree. It took me around 7-9 hours to beat the game (a long estimate I know, but the Epic Games Store doesn’t keep track of hours logged the way Steam does), and the problems I had with the story didn’t make it a must-play experience that would circumvent my $1: 30 minutes of gameplay ratio.
That being said, Storm in a Teacup is an indie game developer with some clear talent in their fold. And while they botched the lighting here, the sound design more than made up for a creepy ordeal that horror enthusiasts will likely enjoy.
+Great voice acting
+Art Deco look remains fresh
+Sound is incredible
-Mediocre static lighting
-Forced cliffhanger ending to story
Rating – 6/10