Icarus in name and Icarus in nature.
Title: Close to the Sun
Platform: PC (reviewed) via the Epic Games Store, with an Xbox One and PS4 release later in 2019.
Developer: Storm in a Teacup
Publisher: Wired Productions
Release date: Out now
TL;DR: A horror game that can’t decide what it wants.
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It’s a dark and stormy night. You’re in the middle of the ocean on a deserted ship with nothing but a pile of bodies for company. Nikola Tesla has your sister, and you want her back. Right now. Preferably before the timey-wimey space monsters rock up and eat your face, because there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.
That’s a very, very brief summary of Close to the Sun, a first-person survival horror that puts you in the shoes of journalist Rose Archer, who has come to the Helios, aka the huge lab of Nikola Tesla, on the dime of her head scientist sister, Rose. Only trouble is, she shows up, her sister is nowhere to be seen, and everyone is very, very dead. Better start running.
I’m going to say what everyone’s thinking right off the bat – Bioshock, this ain’t. While yes, it looks very, very similar and has the same aesthetic, Bioshock was a FPS, and this has no combat whatsoever; we actually had a chat to the devs about this a little while ago. When something big and ugly jumps out at Rose, all she can do is run. There’s a few puzzles to do as you explore the Helios, but the bulk of the gameplay is walking around as you search for Rose, and sprinting frantically down a few corridors. There are a few action commands, like squeezing through small spaces, vaulting over obstacles, and a jump button that doesn’t really do much of anything, and these are a hindrance much more than they are impressive.
Let’s start with what the majority of the exciting gameplay actually is – the chase sequences. While these can be decently suspenseful, that’s broken when your pursuer catches you the second the chase starts. The running itself is clunky and slow, and you’re almost guaranteed to get caught if you stop for even a second to orient yourself; combined with the lag, what should be scary becomes annoying, very quickly. There’s also the matter of the action commands not working – one of the early chases would not for love nor money let me vault over the debris on the bridge I was sprinting down, letting me get caught over and over, ruining whatever fear I had.
The puzzles are thankfully simplistic, but lack the quality of life features that a lot of modern games have. Woe betide you if you forget to write down a door code or get fed up and resort to taking pictures of symbols – the game doesn’t store this kind of thing anywhere, so if you’re not absolutely fastidious, you’ll end up backtracking.
The controls feel imprecise and over sensitive, because Close to the Sun has a lot of things to look at and examine, and with a setting so gorgeous, you’re going to want to. A crosshair in the center of the screen would go a long way to make the game easier to deal with, and thankfully there’s an option in the settings to make the camera stay fixed rather than moving realistically. There’s also the issue of stuttering and freezing, thankfully not enough to warrant restarts, but the game was definitely pausing for a few seconds pretty often, and my PC was working with the recommended specs and on the lowest graphics settings. Hopefully this won’t be an issue, along with the lag, on the console versions of the game, so I’m reluctant to say this an issue with the game itself, in case this is something to do with my laptop’s specs.
Thankfully, this isn’t totally a dealbreaker and enough to put me off the game entirely; the setting (Nikola Tesla at the end of his career in 1897), and the environment (bleak ship in the middle of the ocean) is a masterpiece graphically. The textures are lovely, and the environments exquisitely designed – the Helios screams grandeur and steampunk, full to the brim with dangerous wonder that we really don’t understand and shouldn’t be messing with. That’s a scary enough concept on its own, and melded with horror, it’s certainly an interesting choice. The problem with Close to the Sun, it doesn’t capitalise on this – it dances the line between walking simulator and survival horror, and then can’t decide which it wants to be.
The whole point of a horror game is to scare you. It sounds laughably simple, but that’s it – you need to keep your players on your toes, and make them want to get the hell away from whatever’s chasing you. Close to the Sun has its moments, but doesn’t use them often enough to make them count or keep up that suspense. The bulk of the time is spent wandering through the environments where absolutely nothing happens, even if you have the obvious cues for it. Don’t get me wrong, there are scares, but these are very few and far between and often punctuated by obnoxious scare chords. Most of the time, they’re just vast, trashed rooms where clearly something has happened, but as you walk past dark corners or open doors, nothing at all happens. There was one point where I opened a toilet stall door, and there was a dying guy inside – exactly what I was expecting, and it made me jump, but preceding that was a room piled with dead bodies and pools of blood that didn’t do anything. No hands grabbing the ankle, no corpses lurching up to grab me, nothing at all. As a result, it becomes boring rather than scary.
It’s the biggest problem of the game, this clash of genres, and when combined with little things that break immersion and the buggy controls, Close to the Sun feels like a letdown. It has a lot of very good ideas that aren’t explored enough to make them count, and while it may be worth it for the story, the gameplay is ultimately frustrating and empty, with no monsters I’ll be having nightmares about.
- Beautiful environments,
- Excellent textures.
- Voice acting is pretty good.
- Lag and freezing abound.
- Clunky controls.
- The game actually spawned me back at the chase checkpoint and let the monster catch me straight away at one point.
Close to the Sun is rated PEGI 18 and not yet rated by the ESRB. Remember I mentioned the piles of blood and bodies? Yeah, not kid friendly at all.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the game provided by PR for the purpose of this review.