- Developer: Storm in a Teacup
- Publisher: Wired Productions
- Release Date: 29/10/2019
- Price: $29.99 / £24.99
- Review code provided by Storm in a Teacup
Few premises sound more alluring to alternate-history buffs than retro-futuristic technology by way of nineteenth-century Nikola Tesla inventions. In fact, such a concept has spurred on a seemingly endless supply of games exploring this aesthetic—rightfully so. This endlessly fascinating what if scenario certainly is attractive to games industry talent, and the latest team to try their hand at such a premise is Storm in a Teacup, developer of the new horror title, Close to the Sun. Set aboard a hulking, steampunk behemoth, Close to Sun’s main character finds herself unwittingly thrown into a sinister fight for survival under the guise of an exciting opportunity. Well, unfortunately, playing Close to the Sun isn’t that much different an experience, as the game’s intriguing world and lore bely myriad issues which leave this title feeling largely sour.
A Horrifying World to Explore
The experience is certainly not negative in its totality, though, as its meticulously crafted world and high sense of style is on full display from Close to the Sun’s opening moments. The aforementioned steampunk locale, the Helios, that the game takes place in feels brimming with atmosphere and detail. Considering the fact that the game is set after nearly everyone on board the Helios is killed and the ravaged hull of the ship put into quarantine, it would have been very easy for the world to feel lifeless. Yet, it never does. To the contrary, roaming around the Helios and soaking in each nook reveals a surprising amount of attention to parallel world-building: Storm in a Teacup created a scenario which both the surface-level, horrifically mutilated present-day ship and its palimpsest, aristocratic former glory show through simultaneously, and both provide rich lore to unpack.
Helios is only so engaging to explore, though, because of the interesting concepts and larger context that Storm in a Teacup has woven throughout Close to the Sun. Scattered across the ship are various newspapers and journal entries which allude to controversy, espionage, and strife surrounding the Helios and its operation which provide interesting background context to the adventure. These glimpses into the larger world expertly maintain an air of intrigue while never feeling heavy-handed or cheaply abstruse. Instead, I was constantly on the hook, wishing for just another detail or two about the world and those who live within it.
Beyond the textual and visual elements of Close to the Sun’s aesthetic, its sound design and score truly drive home the atmosphere being evoked. The score is ominous and sweeping, yet always able to shift tonally at the drop of a hat should the need arise. This, combined with the game’s great sound design and truly grotesque horror vignettes, really help sell the tension and dread as things quickly begin to go wrong aboard the Helios. And go wrong they do—both from deliberate narrative choices, but also from the host of issues that plague the game itself.
Trouble Aboard the Helios
The first problem, and most overarching, is the plot itself. While it is firmly rooted in a very interesting (albeit very farfetched) scientific concept, many of its story beats totally miss the mark. This is the product of two, key failings on behalf of Close to the Sun. Firstly, its characters feel underdeveloped and generic. Considering that the narrative thrust of the adventure revolves around the main character, Rose, attempting to reunite with her sister, Ada, aboard the Helios and escape, the game’s inability to make me care about either of the girls undercut the emotional weight that certain plot points are supposed to have. The supporting cast feels just as thin, and in the case of one particular villain who stalks Rose across the ship, totally unexplained and superfluous to the experience. This lack of connection left me feeling unsatisfied narratively, especially considering the second failing of the storytelling, being its painfully obvious twists. I was never surprised by the events unfolding on screen, and this further lessened the resonance that the plot’s beats were supposed to have.
From a gameplay perspective, things become even shakier. Essentially, Close to the Sun plays out as a methodical, first-person explorative adventure with mild puzzle solving elements. When the game allows the player to do just that, adventure around the Helios and probe further into its halls, the gameplay is solid and the aforementioned world-building makes such exploration rather rewarding. Issues quickly arise, however, when the game attempts to deviate from its formula. At several points during the roughly five hour campaign, you will find yourself in chase sequences that are meant to add tension and vary the game’s pacing, but only serve to illustrate the ways in which Close to the Sun was not designed with action gameplay in mind. Furthermore, these sections are often needlessly frustrating, as pursuers are always so close on your heels that even the smallest mistake will result in a death.
Certain areas of the Helios also lean too far into the puzzle-solving aspects of the experience while failing to clearly telegraph to the player what should be done or where to go. In such cases, I found myself fumbling aimlessly around in the ship’s hallways attempting to simply progress as I banged my head against the game’s archaic puzzles. This is made worse by randomly labyrinthine level design which left me scratching my head as the lion’s share of the Helios is intuitively designed. That said, when the level design broke down, the lack of a map or any other navigation tools was very noticeable.
While these issues are detrimental to the overall experience on their own, the game’s rampant technical issues make some parts of Close to the Sun downright tiring to get through. In handheld mode, the game is plagued by frequent, obvious texture pop-in as well as frustrating frame-rate issues in key sections of the game. The audio is likewise unstable, as I experienced several instances of audio tearing that made dialog painful to listen to through my headphones. On the whole, these issues aren’t present enough to make Close to the Sun anywhere near unplayable, but when they do make an appearance, the game takes a precipitous drop in quality.
The Bottom Line
When considering all aspects of Close to the Sun, the experience is wildly uneven. The world created by Storm in a Teacup is brimming with life and atmosphere. The Helios simply begs to be explored, and the player is largely given the freedom to do that. However, beyond these positives, the game is deeply flawed. The story lacks any emotional resonance, and its characters feel underdeveloped. The gameplay, while solid, is often undercut by poorly thought-out action sequences and frustrating puzzle sections. On top of this, the technical issues inherent to the Switch port cast a shadow over the title in its entirety, further underscoring Close to the Sun’s faults. While it does have some intriguing aspects, largely, this is one to be skipped.
- Excellent atmosphere
- Engaging world-building
- Underwhelming narrative
- Uneven gameplay
- Technical issues
Close to the Sun evokes a thick atmosphere but fails to nail the execution.