Submerged: Miku and the Sunken City by Uppercut Games bears a striking resemblance to a certain award-winning PS2 title. In case you’d like to test out your video game trivia knowledge, I’ve compiled a few of the games’ similarities into a short list:
1. Abandoned, potentially cursed setting.
2. Protagonist’s primary motivation is to save a loved one, who is near death.
3. Ominous spirits watch over protagonist, with unclear motives.
4. Heavy reliance on climbing mechanics.
5. Lengthy travel sequences required to traverse the expanse between challenges.
6. Minimalist sound design and short cutscenes set the mood, instead of relying on a traditional text-heavy narrative structure.
7. Scale utilized to great effect, striking fear and wonder into the player.
To which game could I possibly be referring? If you guessed Shadow of the Colossus, then you’re correct! Submerged is clearly inspired by the PS2 classic, verging in some ways on shameless mimicry. However, after playing through the title, searching for the many hidden objects strewn throughout Submerged’s post-apocalyptic sunken cityscape, I’m honestly not upset that Uppercut Games draws inspiration from such a singular source. The formula that made Shadow of the Colossus such a powerful experience gives Submerged a similarly haunting atmosphere, but the execution on the concept itself is less than pristine.
Submerged doesn’t provide much history on the protagonist Miku and her brother Taku, but it’s clear from the first scene what needs to be done. Taku is gravely ill, so Miku needs to scour for medical supplies in the surrounding city, which is completely flooded.
The controls in Submerged are a mixed bag. On one hand, Miku’s boat uses an intuitive tap-to-start, swipe-to-control method that works perfectly in the context of driving mechanics. On the other hand, whenever Miku needs to hop out of the boat and explore, the controls don’t change. Miku’s walking controls are identical to the boat’s control scheme, which simply doesn’t feel natural. A young, spry adventurer such as Miku ought to be nimble while walking, especially as she’s able to hang from precarious skyscraper ledges with relative ease. Climbing in Submerged is quite easy, controlled with simple gestures: swipe to climb in the chosen direction, walk directly below a ledge to climb it, and swipe down to drop. Though it controls well, the wall-jump platforming in Submerged is rarely challenging, and I found myself yearning for more engaging gameplay. Allowing just a little more control over Miku’s movement by including a virtual joystick would have greatly improved my experience, but Uppercut Games hasn’t seen fit to include multiple control options. This might be a worthy inclusion for a future update.
On the topic of updates, Submerged currently includes a few frustrating quirks that will hopefully be addressed in the coming weeks. More than once, the simple act of shutting off my iPhone’s screen for a minute at a time would shut down the game, requiring me to start from my last checkpoint, after viewing a long loading sequence. This is an unfortunate misstep, as the game’s climbing portions are generally a healthy 10-15 minutes long, and many iOS players need to be able to pick up and put down games at their leisure. Additionally, an overlaid mini-map would have been quite helpful during my boat-travels, as pausing to view the world map stops Miku’s boat in its tracks, stalling the game’s pacing and flow. An option to warp back to the hub temple would have been appreciated as well.
Now, all these qualms might suggest that I didn’t enjoy my time with Submerged, but nothing could be further from the truth. The setting, atmosphere and boating portions of Submerged are a joy to behold, and quite immersive. Whether or not this is due to its reliance on rehashing the concepts that Shadow of the Colossus nailed over a decade ago is up for debate, but Submerged benefits from its source material, nonetheless. Each play session ran me through a gauntlet of emotions as I discovered new points of interest or sea creatures, and the sheer sense of scale that Uppercut manages to create is mind-boggling, especially considering that I played this game on the small screen of an iPhone 6.
Submerged shoots for excellence, but is ultimately a flawed experience. Framerate skips, texture popping, unwieldy controls, and an uncanny-valley animation style dampen the game’s immersion, but the atmosphere, sound design, ambition, and impressive sense of scale ultimately kept me around for the entirety of the game. Fans of open-world exploration titles should definitely consider checking it out at its current cost of $4.99, but players who aren’t fond of titles that are a bit rough-around-the-edges should steer clear.