Submerged: Hidden Depths follows in a line of recent gems that put a razor-sharp focus on exploration, such as Breath of the Wild or Outer Wilds. But does it manage to reach the dazzling heights of those greats?
Dubbed a ‘relaxporation’ game by developer Uppercut Games, Submerged: Hidden Depths achieves this vision by leaving itself free of all the perils and stressors that typically come from traditional game features such as death or a combat system. It has stripped those mechanics away to give the player an undiluted atmospheric experience focused on exploring a city, overcome by nature, and now hanging on by a thread as a new world springs over the ruins of the old.
As such, the majority of your time within Submerged will be spent either exploring the open world by boat, or by docking on one of the ruins in and around the city that you can scale to uncover the numerous secrets of this world. The variety within gameplay starts and ends there, though.
To give a semblance of structure to this sole game mechanic, Submerged falls back on the age-old tradition of filling your open world with mostly menial collectables to find. While there are some collectables to be found that are connected to the story, these were the minority and most are just small visual adjustments, like a new design for the boat or a new outfit for the protagonists to wear.
Their inclusion often felt slightly too ‘gamey’ for my taste, as though the developers didn’t know how to make exploring their world interesting or rewarding beyond ‘pick up shiny thing’ which we’ve seen hundreds of times before. This felt juxtaposed to the design elements which are clearly trying to eschew some traditional video game design tropes in favour of something more mature and fresh.
In this sense, the game really feels as though it has a clear vision for what it wants to be, yet fails to be able to realise that vision outside of the confines of some traditional elements of game design, therefore making its ability to innovate or create something that feels truly refreshing slightly redundant. This seems to become a common theme within the design of Submerged. Ultimately Submerged’s lack of complexity within mechanics and the non-existence of fail states could certainly cause concern for players who look to play games for the challenge they can pose.
The story follows the journey of brother and sister Miku and Taku who have, for an initially unknown reason, travelled to the ruins of this once sprawling city. Something clearly is immediately wrong, however. Black tendrils sprout upwards, out of the sea and around skyscrapers and apartment buildings. The people who once repopulated this city after the first apocalyptic event have now seemingly had to go through a second catastrophe, which has left them as remnants and shadows of their final moments.
Our two protagonists’ journeys seem to mirror that of the city itself. Miku has manifested a mysterious power that allows her to interact with the strange black tendrils, potentially allowing her to heal whatever it is that has afflicted the city and its former inhabitants. Both siblings also seem to be stuck in their past, now trying to right whatever is it that they had done so horribly wrong before.
This interweaving of character and world is a nice touch by the developers which succinctly ties Submerged’s themes together. Storywise, it’s a strong setup for sure, giving players just the right amount of intrigue about the protagonists and the world they inhabit to encourage them to explore to find the next tidbit of story information.
Where Submerged really shines is within the atmosphere it creates through its visual and sound design. Undercut has managed to create a world that can be both melancholic and upbeat. One which is nostalgic, but still asks you to push on into the world to create something new. Eerily lonely, yet also bursting with life. The variety of emotions able to be felt even within the same area is a testament to Submerged’s ability to create a world that feels beautifully complex.
Underpinning this all is the game’s excellent score. The wide use of instrumentation through its soaring violins and thudding pianos provide a rich sonic palette that has enabled the composers to create a score that is perfectly evocative of the overarching themes.
The soundtrack is both wistful in tone but also incredibly hopeful at parts, and it really feels as though the sound design is perfectly evocative of the tone and themes of the game. Perhaps the highest praise I could give Submerged’s soundtrack is that it felt comparable only to Halo: ODST’s in its ability to merge its exploration and soundtrack into something that felt like a whole experience of its own. It really is that good.
It all comes together when exploring at sea. Whether I was sailing through crumbling buildings as the thunder grumbled and boomed overhead. Or I was bouncing off choppy waves as the sun glistened off the top of the water, I felt like I was experiencing the game exactly how the developers wanted me to. This is a wonderfully mysterious world, one which is full of beautiful imagery and themes of rebirth, renewal and the constant hope for change even in the direst of circumstances.
In those moments of quiet isolation as I explored the world by boat I was completely invested in how Undercut was trying to make me feel about their world. These were the moments when both their visual and sound design aspects merged together into something which is greater than the sum of its parts and easily the most memorable parts of the game.
However, as mentioned earlier, the game feels like it misses the mark when it comes to the actual gameplay mechanics themselves. This isn’t to say the platforming and land exploration sections of the game are terrible. They’re serviceable. Nothing that hasn’t been done dozens of times before in a Ubisoft game or those that take from its formula. But that’s all it was, boringly serviceable.
They feel undercooked mechanically, and Miku and Taku are slightly too stiff to control sometimes. It doesn’t help that it uses one of my least favourite game design choices in abundance: coloured paint to indicate interaction with the player. Apparently, Submerged’s former inhabitants chose a garish red as the coloured paint of choice to cover every single surface, from poles to ladders and ledges. Just in case the people who would have actually used these every day forgot they might exist. There were so many surfaces painted a bright red in Submerged that the only reasonable explanation I could come up with for this is that I was actually playing a sequel to Mirror’s Edge.
But where games such as Mirror’s Edge have used colour seamlessly within the world to indicate usefulness to the player, Submerged’s use of it is lazy and sloppy and is indicative of how this game manages to miss the mark in its core gameplay loop. Exploration on land simply devolves into ‘follow the red’, without forcing the player to try and understand navigate through Submerged’s dilapidated buildings.
This ultimately serves to hinder the player’s ability to explore creatively in a game whose sole focus is exploration. By relying so heavily on these design choices, it’s allowed the level designers to become complacent in how they structure the ruins where you will spend most of your time. The dreaded invisible walls are everywhere in these areas, even in places where my character can definitely reach. Immersion is broken multiple times when I thought, ‘I can definitely jump here’ but only to find out that the lack of red paint means my character just wasn’t interested in it at all.
Anyone who has played the aforementioned Breath of the Wild or Outer Wilds will no doubt have great memories of asking themselves ‘Can I do this?’ and then the game ultimately rewarding the player’s curiosity. There are none of those wonderful eureka moments in Submerged. Everything is signposted and doesn’t allow for much experimentation, to such an extent that there are sometimes giant red arrows pointing you in the direction of the next significant outpost. For a game that trusts the player so much to piece together its lore and story, it is sad to see it hold the player’s hand so much during exploration.
Submerged: Hidden Depths overall thoughts
Much like its own thematic undertones, Submerged feels like a game of two opposite halves in conflict with each other. It boasts an incredibly strong visual, audio and narrative experience that coalesces into a game world that is a joy just to simply exist in and observe. But the actual gameplay and its mechanics simply aren’t rewarding enough and don’t encourage player creativity during exploration sections. Ultimately, what your preferences are when it comes to the age-old Story vs Gameplay debate in games will decide how much this game is for you.
I enjoyed the atmosphere of the Submerged’s world so much that I was willing to struggle through its mediocre land exploration sections of the game to get back out to sea. Another person will have most definitely found these sections not engaging enough to continue playing and dropped it relatively quickly. But if having a chill, atmospheric experience with a beautiful soundtrack sounds like what you’re looking for in a game then Submerged: Hidden Depths will definitely be for you.