It’s easy to appreciate people who try to do things differently, unless you despise any kind of change. The ebb and flow of evolution, of progress and the unending advance of time bare an infinite number of possibilities and outcomes. Through it all, two things remain constant: firstly, that all things must end, and secondly, that humanity will consistently endeavour to undo itself in any number of creative ways.
Submerged: Hidden Depths explores a decaying world, while contemplating what it once was. There’s no combat, no insistent wave of enemies, just the waves lapping against the bones of a civilisation for you to explore. Marooned amongst a milieu of hacking, slashing and shooting, it is quite simply fantastic.
The Mass is an oozing, glistening black morass of tentacles that you find wrapped around the decaying architecture of this submerged world. It’s referred to as The Black Plant, and it’s clear that it’s a living organism, its black depths pulsating with red ichor. It’s lethal to all people, but you have inexplicably gained an innate ability to harness it to create life instead of take it, with the resulting taint shown by a wrap of flower-sprouting tendrils around your arm.
Your task is to reclaim the city from The Mass, though it’s not the case that you’re eradicating it. When you return seeds to it, you find that the Mass reflects your own growth-giving power, blooming into glorious green tendrils of colour, bringing life where there was none.
Exploration is at the heart of Submerged: Hidden Depths, and it crafts an engaging and atmospheric world for you to explore. Within moments of starting I was drawn in by the decaying civilisation, the personable pair of characters, and the tender orchestration. I simply had to know what happened here, and what is going to happen.
Much of that exploration is done via clambering and climbing across the submerged ruins, and the main character does so with the same snappy surety of Lara Croft, Ezio or Nathan Drake. It’s an assured performance, and it comes together far better than you’ll find in many indie titles that have tried to ape the genre’s mainstays.
When you’re not jumping from vertigo-inducing shelves you’re navigating in your boat, drawing on some Wind Waker-like point to point travelling. Since it’s limited to the city, you don’t find yourself adrift at any point with nothing in sight, and you can always whip out your telescope and soon find the next point of interest to head to, making exploring the landscape a mostly frictionless affair.
There’s some light puzzling as well – a heavy stone to put on a switch here, a platform to pull down using the rope on your boat there – but it’s not exactly what you would consider challenging. The mechanical elements simply serve to help you to believe in, and interact with, the world. There’s no mind-melting confusion as to why things have been put in your way, rather they add authenticity to your experience.
You build a picture of events through cutscenes and diary entries, found across the city. There’s something of the iconography found at the end of Pixar’s Wall-E, and a hint of Moana’s mythology, and I couldn’t shake the sensation that Submerged is playing to that same environmentally charged ideology. It works fantastically well and manages to do it all without resorting to blunt-force trauma, operating as it does with next to no dialogue. As ever, it feels as though humanity is at the root this world’s ills; a message we would do well to remember.
The Black Mass has stolen life from those it touches, and creates frozen copies that are strewn across the decaying buildings, but as you approach they bloom back into life, regaining a moment of animation before fixing once more into their revery. It’s a really effective way of making the world feel alive, even when it’s been robbed of nearly everything else.
There’s no combat to talk about in Submerged: Hidden Depths, and I found that incredibly freeing. It gives you the time to sink into the world and to engage with it, letting the atmosphere wash over you. There are a number of additional tasks to keep you going though, with Flowers, Lookouts, Upgrades and Relics all waiting for you to find them amongst the debris. With the clambering, collecting and exploring it starts to feel like a combat-free Assassin’s Creed, and I’m absolutely fine with that. If anything, those are my favourite aspects of the AC games, and Submerged hones in on them to remarkable effect.
There are one or two concessions here as an indie title, and despite the game’s overarching beauty and exceptionally strong atmosphere, it can appear on occasion to be an amalgamation of a jumble of generic feeling assets. That doesn’t diminish the ideas, or the craftmanship that’s gone into the city itself, but it’s not all glamour.
The soundtrack however shines throughout. Its string and piano-heavy compositions set the tone; they carry the weight of expectation, and the echoing loneliness of this place, but there’s the opportunity for hope. There’s jazz-tinged moments where you take control of the power-less brother, and an uplifting crescendo as you return a seed to its place, bringing The Mass back to life.