It takes a lot of work to craft a world that beautiful, realized, and has an atmosphere. Developer Storm in a Teacup has easily done that with Close to the Sun, thanks to the high-quality graphics, sounds, and backstory. But It feels unfavorable that the story has a lot of elements that are cliche to a fault. With the addition of technical shortcomings, Close to the Sun might be passable for most players.
In an alternate 1897, Rose Archer is called upon by her sister Ada to help with her research aboard the Helios, Nikolai Telsa’s gigantic ship made as a “haven for the greatest scientific minds.” Once abroad, it is clear that something is wrong. People are missing or dead, and the ones left alive have gone mad. Sensing the urgency, Rose desperately searches for Ada so they can escape the Helios in one piece.
Immediately when starting the game, I found the visuals of Close to the Sun to be interesting. With what many compare to the Bioshock series, the game shares the turn of the 20th-century aesthetics when players first see the helios. The prestigious yet enigmatic setting of a giant passenger ship resembles the gold and burgundy palette of Bioshock, especially when covered in blood and destruction. What is different, however, is large scientific laboratories of multiple departments all failing to contain the tragic events.
Much of the story is Rose trying to find Ada with a few elements that create conflict, most of them due to Ada wanting to finish what she started. Without spoiling the ladder half of this 4-hour adventure, Rose finds herself to be the one to solve all the issues that the Helios can throw at her. And with a bit of “who’s who” in terms of good guy vs. bad guy, I found Close to the Sun’s story to be cliche to the point that I was two steps ahead in every scene before it played.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a cliche story since all stories have had a bit of overplayed elements when all is said and done. But a good story finds a way to cover that up with something unique to show the players. So when players start guessing what’s going to happen in each act and they’re right every time, the story loses its impact. Stories can try intense plot twists or character developments to win the audience over, though unfortunately, Close to the Sun doesn’t have either of those.
Part of the problem may be the developer sticking to their guns in the narrative story genre. Many instances had the potential to have Rose and Ada team up to escape from enemies, with Ada coming up with a way to keep enemies at bay with her science and Rose to execute those ideas. Instead, the game is a wild goose chase to find each other. The team-up can further establish their contrasting yet strong relationship while I’m not saying that Close to the Sun needs action to be exciting but chipping away at the genre mold is an excellent way to cover up a duller story.
Close to the Sun is a narrative adventure that has players control Rose on her ventures throughout the Helios. As a story-heavy game, players can find newspaper clips, notes, and Journals to get an understanding of the lives people had before the “quarantine.” Most notes are optional, detailing random rants about the outbreak and other losing hope or saying there last goodbyes. Collectables involving the main story contains notes that will help you find the items or system codes you need to advance.
It is all part of the overall gameplay in Close to the Sun. Players mostly walk around to find the next thing to do with the occasional puzzle to solve. Unfortunately, I would be hard-pressed to call these interactions puzzles. The notes I mentioned earlier hold a code that can be entered into an electrical breaker to turn on or off power and get to the next section, so its mostly remembering number. If it’s not finding codes, the player has to recognize a pattern. In one room, there was an electric coil spatially unleashing lightning bolts that the player has to avoid. The player then has to turn off the coil by pulling levers in a specific order or else the levers switch back on, making the ordeal a simple trial and error while dodging lightning shocks. While the layout is done well, there is no difficulty, all the game asks for is some patience. Given the genre, this is fine. But those that anticipate Close to the Sun’s horror elements as a challenge could be disappointed.
When conflict does arrive, the only action for Rose to take is to run. In these sequences, Enemies charge at Rose while she runs for her life. Weaving through corridors, players quickly look for a route to safety, unable to stop unless they want to see a gruesome death scene. As set-pieces, they do an excellent job of causing some much-needed fright, though I was disappointed with the lack of player choice. This lack of interaction makes the sequences feel like a linear experience that seemed to have only one path regardless of clear branching paths. All other times during my playthrough that I thought I was running to safety, I was killed. Leaving me to believe that there is only one way to pass the scene instead of making a level design decision that let the player thinks they organically made the right call when running to their salvation.
What I can praise Close to the Sun about is its presentation. Especially when it comes to the audio, Storm in a Teacup crafted a soundtrack that gives this game its horror themes. Its low howl that plays over the slow and precise piano notes leaves an uncomfortable feeling while exploring. Then when the music ramps up with heavy heartbeats and an angry orchestra, the bad guys show up. Aside from some delayed sounds that were supposed to add weight to the discovery of some dead bodies, nothing stood out as off-putting to the world.
What does add to that offensive is the external rendering and effects that were added to the game’s visuals. In every instance of the game, there’s this blurring effect that players would be familiar with when focusing on an object or character where the items separate from the background. This effect, however, is always on regardless if a subject in the foreground. This camera work becomes an issue in more significant areas that are mostly distance backgrounds, making the overall image blurry. Not only is this disappointing for a game with highly detailed environments, but it also caused me to have some eye strain when I have to be in these vast areas for too long.
Additionally, an in-game rendering technique used to make distance textures set to a lower resolution seems to have a delay when approaching them. For example, being face to face with some posters are still in blocky resolutions and make it hard to read. Lastly, there are frame rate drops that occur when walking around larger areas or being near large moving objects like a railway trolley. While all these technical shortcomings don’t necessarily make the game feel broken, it hurts the immersion. Though I’m not sure if the hard work going into the high-quality visuals and sounds are to blame, sometimes software patches could fix these issues in the future.
For anyone that plays lots of games, Close to the Sun is sadly not going to impress. While the aesthetics, graphical fidelity, sounds, and backstory does have the means to intrigue a lot of people, I feel that the average avid gamer will drop off after the first hour. This is due to what people might expect from a horror story title. Something frightening and full of player choice. Maybe the narrative focus just wasn’t clear, but even then, the story is just too cliche for my taste.
This doesn’t make Close to the Sun a bad game, as I was decently satisfied with how it ended. The problem is when the story has themes and tropes that are a bit too predictable along with gameplay that doesn’t innovate. There’s little reason to recommend to others. For those that casually play a narrative game from time to time or are immuned to cliches, this can be like a movie night for you.
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