As soon as Storm in a Teacup's Close to the Sun was revealed and people saw its dark art deco hallways everyone started screaming 'Bioshock' at the top of their lungs, and it's true that comparison can't be helped at first glance. We recently got to try the prologue and three subsequent chapters during a London preview event, and there we saw for ourselves what the horror game was like when we actually got our hands on it.
Let's get the Bioshock comparisons out of the way first though, as the game does itself no favours with an opening that's incredibly similar to our entry into Rapture. After all, Rose - the protagonist you play as - gets a note from her missing sister Ada, sails to the ship she's on, and enters only to find the grandiose hallways and corridors empty, save for some corpses and blood scrawled on the walls.
This ship is called the Helios, and the premise is that this is an alternate 19th-Century where Nikola Tesla built a huge ship to conduct experiments in international waters away from the prying eyes of the public, governments, and most importantly his long-time adversary Thomas Edison. This once-lavish haven for top scientific minds has now turned into a nightmare, and it's your job to go in and find your sister.
As soon as we started on the boat taking us to the Helios we found clues to inform our understanding of the world, from newspaper clippings to notes and visitor passes on the Helios. This kind of environmental storytelling is something game designer Joel Hakalax says will reward those who want to explore and discover more about the universe, and will even help players understand later events. It fleshes out the world with more meaning and more characters, and we spent a lot of time just looking around for more of these in our brief session.
As we step aboard the destruction and chaos is very clear, not only in terms of the mess that's been left but also the destruction we can see. Various areas of the ship are literally crumbling away, and even though we played a few chapters we still don't have any hints about why this could be. As if that wasn't enough, we also got a glimpse into a memories mechanic similar to the one in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, where audio is played alongside glowing, ghostly silhouettes to give us a glimpse into the past.
There are already a lot of mysteries to solve, but this demo was more of a soft introduction into how you play Close to the Sun. A very useful chart at the beginning was given to the press to show what the game is and is not, with the phrases "survival horror" and "walking simulator" being on the latter side. It's narrative-driven, sure, but doesn't sacrifice on atmosphere, nor does it go too much into the action side of horror.
"We take inspiration from Soma, Outlast, but we want to sprinkle in a little bit of Firewatch as well just to give some more heart and emotional aspects going," Hakalax explained. "So we're striking that middle ground that I think is really interesting. We're not leaning into the horror as much as Soma or Outlast would be, but we still want to keep you on your toes, still want to keep you engaged and suspenseful."
We'd say that's absolutely spot on from what we've played. The Helios is dripping with an ominous atmosphere as soon as you step aboard, and the loneliness is only pierced by the occasional sound like a pipe hissing to scare you out of your skin, or the arrogant voice of Tesla addressing you from an unknown location. One particular moment that sent a shiver down our spine was when we found a report on an unknown person, and the thought that they were there on the ship with us was chilling.
The one thing that really took us out of the atmosphere is Rose's voice, which is one that we've seen/heard so often in protagonists. She seems unfazed by disturbing events and would rather make quips than show realistic reactions. We hope that doesn't dampen things too much in the final game, but it feels lackluster given the quality built around her.
As you might have guessed from the clues given, this isn't a game about combat, nor is it about running and hiding. A lot of the time you'll be investigating clues and solving puzzles to progress, while seeing the plot unfold in front of you, but one later section did see us run away from a murderous fiend called Ludwig. He was chasing us through several hallways and we had to sprint away through fire and decaying floorboards to escape, turning the experience from quiet and atmospheric into a panicked escape. It was a little bit too easy to die from one little mistake in this section, but that's something Hakalax says the team is aware of and will change.
The sound design is excellent as well. Every time we hear a noise or there's a jumpscare, a few seconds of heavy heartbeats follow, but for the most part, there's an absence of music save for the odd tinkling of piano keys. When the action ramps up though so too does the music, resulting in an ebb and flow to the intensity that really worked to great effect.
It says a lot about our time with the game that we were really frustrated when the demo was over because we wanted to experience more of the world. We'd seen the grand theatre, the magnificent opening hall, and a ton of narrative clues sprinkled about the place, and without any idea of where this was going, we were itching to find all the secrets in this promising title.
Hakalax explained as we were playing that the studio wanted to play down the Bioshock comparisons because they considered those aspirations way off for a small studio like theirs, but they shouldn't sell themselves short. Close to the Sun is shaping up to be a genuinely compelling adventure with an engaging narrative and a gripping world filled with mysteries to uncover, and if the full package matches what we saw in London, we'll be in for a treat.
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