Most reviews tend to start out with some sort of sweeping generality about how Game X fits into the gaming landscape in Manner Y. It’s something everyone does, and in a way it’s something that I’m currently doing right now. Sometimes, however, you just have to quit beating around the bush and say what comes to mind for the sake of the reader, no matter how blunt it may seem. It’s for this reason that this next statement might sting a little, but saying it is for the best:
Submerged is a disaster.
By combining nearly every bad video game trope into a package that feels like it desperately wants to be held in the same regard as Journey or The Unfinished Swan, Submerged finds a way to fail in every way imaginable. Its narrative is predictable from the moment it begins, it’s a bona fide technical mess on the Xbox One, its single menial gameplay task is repeated ad nauseum and it’s essentially a single fetch quest. There had to have been heart and soul poured into Submerged, being that it’s a multiplatform video game in 2015, but the end result is likely the most frustrating lesson in tedium of the year. It’s truly a shame that the initial trailers for Uppercut Games’ third-person adventure title made it seem so wondrous, as the end result is the type of game that has you wishing it will end until the moment it finally does.
Submerged tells the story of a young girl who is tasked with healing her wounded brother. In order to fix the gaping stab wound in his abdomen, your character will need to gather a series of emergency supply crates that have exactly what she needs to complete whatever task she needs to complete. Need to stitch up his wound? No problem, the next crate you come in contact with will have a needle and thread in it. Is his pain too much for him to bear? Don’t worry, whichever crate you’ll stumble upon next will have painkillers in it. Every time you find one of these crates, a cutscene plays that shows your character putting her brother to sleep and then falling asleep herself before a series of tribal illustrations provides a bit of backstory. It’s in this artwork that the real issue with Submerged‘s narrative arises.
Not only is it a trope-laden tale of escaping from an alcoholic father, but any emotional impact that this potentially touching story could have is immediately eliminated due to the nature of these short, simplistic pieces of still art (a criminal error in a game looking to have emotional resonance). Obviously there won’t be any explicit spoilers as to what eventually happens by the time the campaign concludes, but the first thing that comes to your mind when you read the previous sentence is exactly what ends up happening.
Where Submerged truly falters is in its gameplay design, as it commits the cardinal sin of taking extremely boring tasks and simply repeating them over and over. Basically, you sail around in a clunky motorboat searching for crates before climbing whatever building they happen to be on and then repeating the process over and over again. You do have a telescope at your disposal at all times, but as soon as you discover a handful of the ten available crates, it seems to magically stop functioning (even if you go to the highest point in the world and look around). This is where things start to get extremely frustrating, as you will essentially spend the majority of your time sailing around aimlessly looking for either a dock made of pink flowers or a white and red flag that may or may not be visible from whatever angle you’re approaching from. It’s downright impossible to feel peaceful and serene when you’re constantly swapping back to your map hoping to erase some of the blank space on it for no other reason than for it to end. Combine this with the fact that Submerged‘s mechanics are extremely clunky, and you have the makings of a terrible time.
Sailing in Submerged is maddeningly inconsistent; every moment where you feel like you’re in some form of control is met with a moment where your boat stops functioning entirely. Your motor will cease to function at any given time, and attempts to press the right trigger and start it up again seem to be hit or miss. This would be one thing if there was some sort of animation indicating that you need to restart your boat, but in this case it’s a result of the controls themselves simply not working. There’s also no rhyme or reason to how well your boat turns; when you’re in telescope view, you’ll either spin around like a lunatic or stop moving entirely. Steering around the all of the downed skyscrapers in this monotonous post-apocalyptic flooded city will either function moderately well or cause you to careen into the side of a building. Climbing, on the other hand, features absolutely no dynamism whatsoever, meaning that if you’re not at the perfect angle to switch over to a new platform, your character won’t move no matter what you do. This leads to a number of situations where you’ll slam the analog stick (or the D-pad, because that’s a control option for whatever reason) in any given direction waiting for anything to happen for moments at a time. For a game that essentially stole Uncharted‘s climbing system, you would think that it could have learned a thing or two about how to make this system work.
Even though it’s story is bad and its gameplay is worse, the single worst aspect of Submerged is how much of a technical mess it is. The framerate on the Xbox One version hovers around fifteen frames-per-second, creating the strange situation where 25-30 frames-per-second moments feel like the hitches themselves. That’s right, if you’ve been looking for the elusive Bizarro Framerate, you’ve come to the right place. Submerged manages to tiptoe the line between barely playable and unplayable at an almost remarkable level, and when you consider that its mechanics are spotty at best, this leads to a number of frustrating situations. It’s one thing to try and create a good looking world in a brand-new engine (Unreal Engine 4), but if the end product doesn’t actually run then it’s all for nothing. Compounding its framerate woes are a number of moments where players clip through geometry, full multi-second freezes, audio dropouts and extensive loading screens. Submerged is the type of game that makes you question the console certification process. Think about it: if this passed certification, then what does a game have to do to fail?
There might have been a good idea at the heart of Submerged, but its execution is such a catastrophe that it’s practically impossible to find it. Any emotional impact outside of pure anger that this short, repetitive title may have had is completely lost due to a number of technical issues and flat-out design flaws. Setting all of the issues with Submerged itself aside, the truest tragedy is that the game that appeared in that promising trailer earlier this year seemed to never exist. The end product here is such a departure from what makes a video game good that it’ll make you appreciate every decent video game moment you’ve had this year. A failure on essentially every front, Submerged is likely best left at the bottom of the ocean its overgrown setting takes place in, which is truly a shame.