As controversial as the Epic Games Store has been for picking up exclusives like Metro: Exodus and Borderlands 3, away from those headlines, there’s also been some interesting second-tier and indie titles finding a home on the new storefront. Amongst these we find Close to the Sun, a game that is immediately reminiscent of the unique aesthetics of the BioShock series. The weirdly retro-futuristic stylings and art deco design features of Close to the Sun will be immediately recognisable as will be the first person viewpoint, but the similarities are more than surface deep.
Set in an alternate history version of the late nineteenth century, you play as Rose, a journalist looking for her sister, the brilliant physicist Ada Archer. As one of the many scientific geniuses working on Nikola Tesla’s Helios research ship, Ada strives to push human knowledge past accepted levels, while free of the restrictions and regulations of nation states. This setting will surely bring the individualism of Andrew Ryan to mind for anybody with even a passing awareness of BioShock, but the focus of Close to the Sun is more personal. The main mystery remains the location and situation of Ada throughout, with only the later parts of the game exploring its grander themes. This intimate focus is one of the game’s strongest aspects, and successfully develops Rose as a dynamic character.
The city ship Helios looks nice enough and there is a coherent aesthetic that ties the world together – Unreal Engine 4 is used to good effect here, but it’s not going to blow you away. There are some nice misdirections through the use of convenient buckets of red paint during the early parts of the game, but later on it doesn’t shy away from gory effects. It is in these sections that the visual design falls down a little, as there is only one repeated monster design. Combined with the lack of attack abilities, it is here that Close to the Sun most clearly departs from the BioShock template.
Rather than heading down the path of the first person shooter genre, Close to the Sun is much closer to the likes of Outlast or Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The first third of the game mostly focuses on exploration and establishing the narrative setting. To be honest, this was my favourite part of the game and I felt as if it lost its way somewhat once it became more concerned with repetitive chase sequences.
The lack of any genuine options other than following linear escape routes feels like a betrayal of the confidence the developers seemed to display in the power of subtlety and scene setting. There are still strong moments throughout the rest of the playing time, but it would have been far more memorable if it had remained more of a walking sim rather than descending into repetitive and frustrating peril.
The best parts of Close to the Sun are the puzzles and world building, much of which comes from the high quality voice acting. These largely fall by the wayside as the game descends into an overfamiliar pattern of escape scenes and exposition. Fortunately, these chases are mostly short, but the lack of different paths means that there is little in the way of gameplay to be had. To compound matters, the game teaches you to climb over obstacles by clicking on them, only to them require that you jump over them during chases. This led to a fair amount of frustration and felt like a real oversight. The whole effect is one of a development team that lost faith in their intentions and resorted to derivative action.