Submerged: Hidden Depths (PC) Review

Shallow waters
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2015’s Submerged was enjoyable but limited – a combat-free, exploration- and traversal-focused indie title from Uppercut Games (a developer notable for many former Bioshock veterans and the underappreciated City of Brass). You played as a young girl, Miku, tasked exploring the ruins of a submerged city by boat, clambering to the top of tall buildings that stood above the waves, on a quest to find supplies desperately needed to save her brother Taku. To enjoy the game, you needed to go with the flow and focus on immersing yourself in the world, rather than look for challenges to overcome. Unfortunately, the distinctly formulaic structure meant it quickly grew stale – despite the brisk 2–3-hour runtime. With that said, does Submerged: Hidden Depths manage to retain the immersive atmosphere while expanding on the gameplay and narrative structure?

Slight spoilers – the ending of Submerged hinted that Miku, having been exposed and infected by some sort of tumorous mass during her travails, has developed powers of her own after the intervention of a mutant ocean race that has come to dominate the flooded Earth. In Submerged: Hidden Depths, Miku and a healed Taku find themselves arriving in the ruins of yet another city, overgrown with dark, pulsating plant life; inhabited by plant-like facsimiles of the former wildlife and survivors caught in their final moments. A brief opening sequence quickly sets the scene and lays out the basic gameplay loop: these mutated plants have had their seeds removed – by who and why is not initially clear – and they need to be returned to their pods to restore equilibrium to the environment.

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What is happening with Miku’s arm? How did the city fall? What are these plant-based imitations of human life? Submerged: Hidden Depths has an intriguing premise it fails to capitalise on in an interesting way.

The answer to my earlier question is yes and no. Submerged: Hidden Depths retains the unexpectedly serene post-apocalyptic atmosphere and there’s more to do, however, the narrative follows a near-identical structure to the prior game. There are ten seeds to find – in place of the supply drops you were hunting for in the first game – scattered throughout the submerged city, usually in high places, and it’s your job to traverse the waves in your fishing boat, enter these ruined structures, engage in some light platforming and puzzling as reach the seed, and then haul it back to its pod. Aside from optional collectables that document the fall of the city, there are no location-specific events or cutscenes, so you can head out in any direction and still experience the same narrative flow.

Recovering a seed and restoring the environment triggers another cutscene that progresses the story (and, once again, teleports you back to the central hub regardless of whether you’ve found all available collectables). Miku keeps experiencing flair-ups of her infection and has recurrent dreams of an approaching aquatic threat. Meanwhile, Taku is desperately trying to connect with his increasingly distressed and distant sister – concerned that her attempts to restore the city will come at too great a cost to them and tear what remains of their family apart. Sure, it’s an inoffensive design given Submerged: Hidden Depths also has brisk pacing, but the formulaic structure feels artificial and immersion-breaking. It creates the sensation the overarching narrative is detached from the location you’re exploring.

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Unfortunately, the checklist narrative structure results in an environment that feels like an attractive backdrop, rather than an integral part of unfolding events.

Gameplay in Submerged: Hidden Depths remains streamlined and never challenging – beyond spotting side paths that lead to collectables. There is, of course, a degree of player-agency in how much of the world you want to explore and the value you place in collectables. Traversal and climbing is simply a matter of pushing the thumbstick in the right direction, while any major interaction – think levers, using pulleys, or picking up seeds/collectables – is a single button press. You can scan the environment with your telescope to mark locations, bring up your map for navigation, and find no shortage of reading material in the menus. Unfortunately, this limited gameplay complexity grows stale over time, and optional activities feel like busywork – even if a few might provide great views.

Story locations give the impression you’re solving traversal-type puzzles that require the correct sequence of events, but you’ll soon realise it’s impossible to complete them in the wrong order. While Miku is primarily responsible for restoring the seeds, several smaller structures (with some sort of collectable) give you a chance to play as Taku but his move-set is identical. As a result, it’s hard to remain engaged once you realise you’re going through the same simple motions over and over again – just in architecturally or aesthetically different locations.

No matter if you’re traversing a narrow ledge, clambering up a vine-covered building, or leaping between ropes across vast gaps, all you’re doing is pushing the thumbstick in a direction with no risk of failure.

Of course, Submerged: Hidden Depths can be a lengthier experience if you want to explore the map in its entirety and complete a checklist of optional tasks. Abundant space between the more elaborate story locations provides an opportunity to find boat upgrades that let you get places faster (actually useful); dredge up relics from the old world that leave Mika and Taku perplexed (amusing at first); and climb lookout towers or find landmarks (pedestrian). Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the design but generic, icon-clearing open-worlds have long since become the bane of gaming. When they’re saddled with limited gameplay complexity, the overall experience feels even more mundane.

Now, what always impressed me – despite a few battles with the camera in enclosed spaces – was the presentation. The submerged city – with its rolling waves, lush architecture, colourful flora, abundant “animal” life, and beautiful sunsets – was always a joy to traverse, with a rapid day-night cycle providing no shortage of beautiful vistas. My only gripe with the PC version – and this could be hardware-specific – was a few seconds of stuttering when first entering a new area or upon triggering a cutscene.

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Although not the most technically impressive game, Submerged: Hidden Depths still offers a thick atmosphere, incredible soundtrack, and incredible vistas.

The visual impact is helped to no end by the immersive ambience and an excellent soundtrack from composer Jeff van Dyck – to the point you could argue the musical score dominates the experience. Storytelling is limited to brief exchanges in pidgin-English or narrated storyboards, so the music – combined with some expressive animations – is essential for injecting emotion into each scene. The music is also dynamic, swelling in intensity as you get closer to a trapped seed or the pod you return it to.

Now, if you’re desperate for a chilled experience – a game that allows you to zone out and still progress risk-free, or maybe a low-stress experience for a new gamer learning the ropes – Submerged: Hidden Depths is a good pick. However, I’ve always believed that simple or no-risk gameplay needs to be paired with a strong narrative component to stand out. By sticking to a rigid and overtly artificial progression, Submerged: Hidden Depths’ narrative fails to make as big an impact as it could. What you’re left with is a legitimately beautiful and atmospheric environment that’s worth exploring for a few hours, but leaves no lasting impression.

A Review code for Submerged was provided to Gameblur by the Publisher

Submerged: Hidden Depths (PC) Review

Submerged: Hidden Depths (PC) Review
7 10 0 1
7/10
Total Score
  • Story
    6/10 Normal
    The setting and narrative are intriguing but the formulaic, artificial progression does it no favours.
  • Gameplay
    6/10 Normal
    Simple, streamlined, and compelling at first - but it quickly grows stale and the open-world diversions are busywork.
  • Visuals
    8/10 Very Good
    Although not the most technically impressive, it does a lot with what it has to create some memorable scenes.
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good
    The immersive ambience ensures the world feels alive, while the excellent soundtrack does the heavy emotional lifting.

The Good

  • Vibrant post-apocalyptic visuals and immersive atmosphere
  • An incredible soundtrack
  • Restoring life to a ruined cityscape
  • Accessible

The Bad

  • Narrative progression is rigid and artificial
  • Limited gameplay complexity, paired with generic open-world activities, makes for a shallow experience
Total
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