Riffing off other games is something this industry can be known for. Sometimes they become outright rip-offs made for money, other times they’re passionate projects which pay homage to something inspiring and brilliant. Close to the Sun, thankfully, falls on the latter. Taking cues from BioShock, this eerie and atmospheric game leans heavily into the idea of utopian society gone wrong. You may be thinking, “well, a lot of games do that” and you’d be right. But here, the visual style, the radio communication between characters and the penchant for blood-spattered rooms all carry the fingerprints of Ken Levine.
This inspiration is the charm of Close to the Sun, because it furthers a brilliant conceit which would hardly go out of fashion. We all love a maniacal scientist or egotist setting up a ‘perfect’ environment for it to all end in disaster. In this instance, it’s a battle between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. A part of me wishes they constructed vast mecha robots to fight it out over the New York skyline, but developer Storm in a Teacup went in a different direction. The story plays out on a colossal sea cruiser called “The Helios,” a hub for society’s greatest scientists and inventors.
Players take control of Rose, who has been brought to the Helios to help Ada, her sister. You see, Rose received a letter from Ada asking her for aid, but Ada doesn’t remember writing it… in fact, she thinks a future version of herself wrote the note. It’s a fun concept which adds an extra layer of outlandish narrative atop the warring inventors. Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing on the good ship Helios – there are other people to save, puzzles to solve and deranged passengers to escape from.
Which is where Close to the Sun falls short. The puzzles are a little uninspired and most times feel rather obvious. They lack any real difficulty, making the game feel more like a walking simulator with some minor obstacles in the way. The enemies are also quite infuriating, mostly due to the clunky feel of Rose escaping or poor signposting when making a run for it. Minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, because otherwise, the game is interesting and ambitious.
That ambition, however, does bring about an issue when playing in handheld. Stand still and the game is very pretty; light bounces from surfaces, shadows feel foreboding and the detail in detritus is sharp. In movement the Switch struggles with the Unreal Engine, it can feel like being clunked on the head. The framerate is choppy, motion blur gives the visuals a smeared effect and there’s an urge to play on a big screen instead. Where, thankfully, it looks much better.
For all the design, alternative universe story and interesting characters, there’s no real sense of what genre the game should fall into. Of course, this shouldn’t be too important in the grand scheme of things, but there’s a nagging feeling that Close to the Sun is meant to be a horror but lacks the scares to fulfil that brief. There’s some tension, a couple of jump scares, but it would have been great for the developers to really lean into this being an isolation-based horror game, something to unsettle the player.
On the whole, Close to the Sun is an engaging experience and one that I found hard to put down. It wasn’t always the story that kept me going, it was the overall atmosphere, the claustrophobia of the Helios. Certain moments stayed with me after putting down the controller; hiding behind crates as a crazed man stalked the halls or the dashing jumps made to reach a tram taking me to a new area of the ship. It’s a great homage, but that’s its strongest feature.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Wired Productions