Ambition is a mighty thing, and nothing says ambition like building a colossal ship to sail international waters so you can pursue scientific discoveries undisturbed by others. That's exactly what famous scientist Nikola Tesla has done in the world of Close to the Sun, which has just released on PC via the Epic Games Store. The name triggers thoughts of Icarus' hubris in the Ancient Greek legend, but how does Storm in a Teacup's game hold up when compared to its own ambition?
Despite game designer Joel Hakalax making it clear in pre-release interviews that they've not tried to aim for something like BioShock with this title, the comparisons are unavoidable. Even from the very first moment when the art deco logo flashes up on screen, the hallways of Rapture spring to mind. It's an iconic art style, but it's not the only thing that causes us to think back to the stunning world created in BioShock.
In terms of the narrative, there are also certain other similarities. You start the game as a journalist called Rose Archer who receives a mysterious note from her sister Ada, a scientist aboard Tesla's ship Helios. Rose is called to come and find her, but instead of luxury and a bustling hive of scientific minds, Rose finds an empty, ruined husk of what once was, with dead bodies everywhere she looks.
We won't dive too much into the story, but what we will say is that it offers some interesting ideas with regards to alternate history, where Tesla takes control of his scientific pursuits and futurist ideas by isolating himself and building a community within the Helios. What if his wealth was unequalled, the rivalry between himself and fellow inventor Thomas Edison turned into a full-on cold war, and he created a world under his control? These are all questions that Close to the Sun dabbles in.
We say "dabbles in" because in actuality very few of the themes in Close to the Sun are explored with great depth, which is a real shame. The game lasts around five or six hours overall, with a handful of collectibles in each of the 10 chapters (plus a prologue), and this really doesn't give enough room for the characters or the story notes to breathe in the way we wanted them to. Nikola Tesla himself appears in fleeting moments - with our ally Aubrey being more prevalent throughout - and even the relationship between Rose and Ada could have been that bit more detailed to encourage us to really care about finding our sister in this hostile world.
It feels like the plot runs at breakneck speed, and encountering one climactic moment leads swiftly on to the next part of the ship, and before you know it you're seeing the credits roll with more questions than answers. The reason for the ship's demise, for example, is just swept under the carpet as "complicated science," leaving us wondering how exactly things went so badly with the Helios.
Rose's relationship with Ada does have its sweet moments, but as with many other games, Rose falls into the trap of trying to be funny and produce cheesy one-liners at inappropriate moments. The events of the game don't seem to resonate with her either, and she moves on from tragedy and trauma remarkably quickly, her comic quips jarring with the despair that's going on around her.
That said, the despair that Storm in a Teacup has created in the Helios is outstanding. There is an interplay here between the really bombastic and scary moments like jumpscares - used sparingly and to great effect - and a quieter sadness that works to produce this convincing world where you can see suffering everywhere you look. Environmental storytelling relayed through notes and the like gives a sense of the characters that once populated the various sections of the ship, and echoes of the past often come up to remind us of the lives that once lived there.
The epitome of the horror, however, are the chase sequences, which happen at various points across the campaign. Having an enemy chase us as we run away is all well and good and can be used to great effect, since we're weaponless just like we were in other games like Outlast, but there's one big problem here - these sequences require you to press a button prompt to jump over obstacles, but that button often doesn't work due to a miserly margin for error, meaning we have to play these moments over and over again until our hammering of the button eventually lets us jump over. Nothing takes the sting and the urgency away from horror like this kind of pure frustration.
Visually the Helios is a marvel to behold. It's built in the style of 1897 luxury, suiting the era. The game is a linear experience and you won't be exploring this like an open-world game, but there are enough nooks and crannies to reward the curious with hidden extras like collectible documents such as blueprints, but mostly we'd advise exploring just to take in the breathtaking and varied scenery, all of which has been plunged in darkness. There's something oh so sinister about this once glamorous and polished place being coated in blood, and that juxtaposition works to great effect.
Something that's also nailed within the world is scale. It's not all narrow corridors here, as there are various areas like the engine rooms and the theatre which show you just how gargantuan the ship really is, so it's not a claustrophobic horror at all. Instead, it's all about that fear that comes from not knowing who is in the room with you at any one time, who might be watching you, and what lurks around the next corner.
In a sense it's a real shame that the BioShock comparisons were inevitable with Close to the Sun, because it really does it no favours, and despite attempts to play down the associations it can't be helped given the similarities. We just wish some of the key points in the narrative had been given more time and space to flourish, but regardless we'd still recommend Close to the Sun simply to explore this marvellous world that has been created. It's not a horror classic by any means, but this world is filled with terror, sadness, and a lot that's beautiful in its own weird way, all of which is worth seeing.