Felicem Diem Marmota monaxi!
Every once in a while, a game comes along that feels bigger than it really is — impossibly vast despite its fixed map, deeper than its delivered dialogue, and far richer than its pricepoint would lead anyone to believe. A game that offers up its secrets through careful observation and exploration, but leaves plenty for the player to ponder long after the controller has been put away. The last time I’ve felt this way about a game was Disco Elysium; I’ve found that feeling again in The Forgotten City.
Originally an award-winning mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim downloaded over 3 million times, The Forgotten City was further developed from its tethered roots to a standalone game by a core team of three friends over four years. Although it’s shed its ties to the fictional lore of the man and mer of Tamriel, The Forgotten City has adopted the real mythologies of ancient civilizations, elevating the original concept to an enthralling new level that will excite anyone with an interest in empires of eras past. From an impressive, ground-breaking mod to an incredible experience that quietly revolutionizes, The Forgotten City does everything it attempts extraordinarily well.
The Forgotten City opens up on the non-descript main character in the present day being asked to wander into some nearby ancient ruins to locate a missing person. Dutifully altruistic, players acquiesce, only to find themselves trapped in said ruins with nary a soul around them — just the hundreds upon hundreds of dazzlingly life-like gold statues watching their every move. Further exploration of the cavernous remains of a gilded civilization gone silent yields a strange portal; with no other recourse, players take the plunge, and are surprised to awaken in the same building nearly 2,000 years earlier. Bright skies replace the dimly lit air of doom that once suffocated the city, and — more surprisingly — it features the occasional live citizen amongst the golden ones. A friendly fellow named Galerius welcomes you, leading you directly to the city’s leader; once here, it becomes immediately apparent why you’ve been mysteriously pulled into the past.
You see, the city’s magistrate, Sentius, has tried for the past 11 months to uphold the one law of this land: The Golden Rule, or “the many shall suffer for the sins of the one.” To put it more simply — if anyone commits a sin, everyone will die. Vaguely ominous, the city’s dwellers have done their best to outline the black and white of it while considering the gray areas as much as possible. Surely killing and stealing is wrong, but what of suicide? Price-gouging? Does intent matter, or is only impact taken into account? And what if someone is mentally incapable of understanding sin in the first place? This moral code has kept many of them awake at night, but with Sentius’ careful leadership, the city has managed to stave off a gilded death for nearly a year.
That’s where you come in — Sentius understands that someone is bound to break the Golden Rule at any moment, and needs to know who it will be before death comes for them all. Get to know the townspeople intimately and you’ll soon find that something much greater than anyone could have imagined is at stake…
Anyone with any sort of familiarity with a first person adventure game will find controls and gameplay intuitive, but Skyrim players specifically will feel most comfortable here — after all, this was a Skyrim mod in a former life. But the developers added so many quality of life updates that the frustration of a buggy game released a decade prior is a distant memory. For one, the map itself is one continuous circuit with multiple methods of travel; getting from point A to point B is not only simple, but a joy, as even traipsing from the two farthest points in the city is done with ease. When asked to follow a townsperson, players only need to press “E” to let the computer do it automatically, allowing players to enjoy the ride — I mean that literally, as these segments treat players to stunning vistas and choreographed dialog stops to make the whole experience feel surprisingly cinematic.
Throughout the course of the game, players will find themselves trapped not only in the city, but in a time-loop, reliving the same day like Bill Murray in the Roman equivalent of Groundhog’s Day. Each loop resets the citizens’ actions and memories but not yours, meaning you can ask them about things that happened last time or prevent them from occurring altogether. With 20+ distinct individuals with their own routines and problems, slogging through their time-sensitive issues loop after loop could get old really fast, but The Forgotten City again proves it has the player in mind when it allows you to pass off the work to Galerius. I really can’t stress this enough how deftly the developers avoided such a misstep — by gifting players an errand boy, there’s no forced repetition of known tasks. Players are free to continue progressing at a fairly rapid pace, as exploring each nook and cranny is sure to reveal a new secret to propel them forward.
One of the greatest things about The Forgotten City is that every character poses an intriguing philosophical question that can be pondered over through the lens of the character and the self. For example, one character represents Kohlberg’s Heinz Dilemma by price-gouging life-saving medicine, while another argues that debt bondage isn’t a sin if both parties consented. A gay man’s preferences are accepted in one culture, but considered sin by some in this hodge-podge community. One person removed themselves completely from society and has been seemingly immune to the waves of gilded imprisonment, leading one to question if morality is inherently tied to social dynamics. Every single character is like this — it’s a philosopher’s dream.
I won’t get into the storyline too much because this is a 10 – 15 hour experience at most, but each of the four endings are fun to acquire and interesting to watch, with the canonical fourth ending being one of the best I’ve seen in a video game, period. But it must be said that the developers’ mission to adhere to historical accuracy where possible blends beautifully with the layers upon layers of ancient mythology to an almost jaw-dropping level. It wasn’t just the protagonist that was flung 2,000 years into the past — players themselves are treated to a time-travelling experience that feels authentic despite its fantastical nature. Exploring the highest peaks and the lowest caverns will find humorous depictions of treasured stories from civilizations past, so it’s worth it to see all there is of this wondrous city.
The cherry on top of this absolute masterpiece is the photo mode, which allows players to capture breathtaking photos of the ethereal surrounds. Of course, the photo mode feels as good as it does because the city has had an extraordinary amount of love and attention poured into it. The marbled stairs have unique cracks in the marble, the temple floors have stunning mosaics of their respective deities’ faces, and the sunlight shines just so on the magnificent temples and gentle trees. Coupled with the mystical ambient music, The Forgotten City is an immediately immersible experience that will leave the player craving more.
It’s easy to point out what The Forgotten City does right — mechanics, progression, story, gameplay, dialog, quests, atmosphere, design, voice acting, etc. — but hard to say what it does best, because it’s all supremely well done. With a wildly imaginative concept executed perfectly and poignantly, The Forgotten City will please anyone with an interest in history, philosophy, mythology, or just a good, tight exploration story. The Forgotten City is my top contender for GOTY 2021 — a distinction I don’t foresee being toppled. This city without sin may not have any exits, but that’s just as well, since you won’t want to leave anyway.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PS4, PS5, XBox One, XBox Series X, Switch, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Dear Villagers; Developer: Modern Storyteller; Players: 1; Released: July 28, 2021; MSRP $24.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of The Forgotten City provided by the publisher.