Closer to Bioshock
Just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, the obvious question on many people’s minds will be: does Close to the Sun sail too close to Bioshock? Stom in a Teacup’s new title and Ken Levine’s classic share much in common: both are titles heavy in horror; both are based in a retro-futurist setting; both are set far out at sea in a would-be Utopia gone horribly wrong, and both star visionary leaders who seem to have descended into paranoia and madness.
A Spark of Genius
Nikola Tesla was a brilliant inventor, and the Godfather of so many of the electrical marvels we all take for granted today: from wireless transmissions to the X-Ray. However, he sadly died penniless and in debt, totally overshadowed by the better known Thomas Edison. Close to the Sun is set in an alternate reality where Tesla became profoundly wealthy and powerful, building a massive sea-borne science laboratory named the Helios to bring together the world’s greatest scientific minds – helping to realize his most ambitious projects.
The player is Rose Archer, a journalist journeying to the Helios to meet her scientist sister Ada. Of course, Rose soon realizes from the tell-tale corpses and cryptic writing on the walls – scrawled in blood – that all is not well on board the Helios. In another quite amusing callback to Bioshock, Rose is greeted early on by the disembodied voice of Tesla who accuses her of being one of Edison’s spies as she uncovers sinister signs that these suspected spies have been tortured.
It turns out Ada has inadvertently created an anomaly that’s messed with time, meaning glowing silhouettes of past events now appear all around the ship, and a rift has opened up in the fabric of spacetime, letting horrifying blueish monsters through. Rose endeavours to rescue Ada and stop the anomaly wreaking further havoc.
Though the nautical art deco stylings of the Helios have been well trodden by Bioshock, there’s plenty of visuals with some wow factor. Walking through Tesla’s gold-gilded museum to his own vanity is great in particular, seeing his actual real-life finished inventions alongside his fictionally completed ones like the death ray (humorously depicted as a weapon powerful enough to end all war). You can see meticulous war-rooms where the Helios’ course around the world is charted; giant coils gracefully arcing out electricity to huge recievers and botanical parks blooming on artificial islands linked with steel walkways. Right from when I first emerged into a cavernous dock, a metal bridge creakily emerging to entice me onward, I honestly fell in love with the design of the Helios; a wonderfully well realized vessel with the tragic grandeur of the Titanic and infused with Tesla’s mad, brilliant genius. Presentation is the best aspect of Close to the Sun.
Run Like Hell
It’s interesting that Close to the Sun plays with the idea of how time is much more complex than the straightforward way humans perceive it, yet is so rigidly linear in its structure. There are collectibles to be found by exploring the scenery – usually in the form of notes and journals – but there’s no real scope for innovation in anything you do. The various antagonists you meet (and “various” is a bit generous as there are only two types) can only be dealt with in one way: run like hell. My first instinct when encountering the knife-wielding nutter Leopold was to duck back behind cover when I heard him approach, figuring since he hadn’t seen me, I’d be able to evade him. I wasn’t to be, because he immediately ran around the corner and knifed my chest more full of holes than a sieve made of Swiss cheese.
This was, in fact, the game’s first scripted chase sequence, where I was directed to run through a proverbial foot-borne rollercoaster of exploding and collapsing scenery, periodically vaulting over waist high obstacles. Trying to take a shortcut or veering from the prescribed path in any way gets you stabbed. I was also informed there was an option to look behind Rose to see her pursuer. Though this was a kind of cool feature, it’s functionally useless as chases are quite simply a matter of running exactly where you’re supposed to – and nowhere else!
Some of the chase scenes have some great music and set-pieces. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was just running through a series of pre-scripted events like an actor shooting a scene, occasionally messing things up by not following the script and having to do another take. It drains a huge amount of tension from the chases and provides for a less than satisfactory payoff to all the legitimately good atmosphere building during the exploration sections. As a horror title, Close to the Sun isn’t a patch on the much more unpredictable monster encounters of Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Alien: Isolation.
Time Is Not a River
Puzzles are pretty intuitive and don’t do much to break up the flow of the experience. However, they do tend to boil down to scavenger hunts and memorizing (or just writing down) various codes and combinations. Still, I loved the puzzle that requires searching through a room to find multi-sided dice with symbols on them, relating their shapes to symbols to crack a safe code.
Some arcadey sections were also somewhat creative, such as running from cover to cover as a giant Tesla tower periodically emirates “exotic” energy, leaving trails of fizilling blue energy crackling over the ground, whilst leaving “safe” spots unaffected, providing a clever clue where to go next for the observant. However, the majority of arcadey challenges like this are of the old fashioned “wait for a steam jet/flame jet/electricity jolt to expire before running across” variety.
The conclusion to Close to the Sun came a brisk few hours after starting it up, and though I’d definitely developed a modicum of feeling for the characters, the way Roses’ tale was resolved felt oddly unsatisfying. It was like the storyline had bitten off more than it could chew. Though fascinating concepts like the idea of time warping into something beyond our linear human understanding of it are introduced and made a big storyline focus, these concepts are never fully explored beyond a bit of narrative foreshadowing.
There’s no puzzles relying on using visions from the past or future to find the solution, nor can you make use of non-linear time to evade roving monsters and maniacs. The big plot twist in the middle is likewise totally predictable for anyone who’s played Bioshock, though I was pleased that the way they handled the character of Tesla himself was very nuanced, and not simply a cliched mad scientist.
A Cautious Quality
Close to the Sun, despite its title, is notable more for its caution than its bold, risky innovations. It’s a very straightforward, linear first person horror with a gorgeous setting and some interesting, if underdeveloped narrative concepts.
Like Nikola Tesla himself, this interactive celebration of his genius may end up being underappreciated, but unlike Tesla, Close to the Sun is eclipsed by other games because of its lack of truly stand-out mechanics and ideas. Still, despite its lack of ambition, you could do a lot worse than Close to the Sun for an electrifying afternoon’s entertainment!
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Wired Productions ; Developer: Storm in a Teacup ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 2nd, 2019
Full disclosure: This review is based on review copy of Close to the Sun given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.