You look at the block colours, the elegant typeface, the extravagant sculptures, and you see more than most. You know it as a response to art nouveau in 1920’s Paris – a pastiche of Cubism and Bauhaus. You’re a cultured little pumpkin, though. When I look at Art Deco, I see BioShock, and I know I’m not the only one. That’s not anyone’s fault, really, but it does mean that any developer who dares flirt with the style has to make peace with the fact that many will look at their game and see Andrew Ryan and Friends. Close to the Sun has you primarily speaking to your contacts over the radio as you uncover the mysteries of a peacocky individual. And there’s a bit of water, too. The comparisons are fair, but also don’t tell the whole story.
It’s 1897, and Rose Archer has boarded the Helios – an enormous ship housing the world’s greatest minds – to find her scientist sister, Ada. In our reality, Nikola Tesla could never escape from the Thomas Edison-shaped shadow that veiled his inventions, but in developer Storm in a Teacup’s alternate reality Nikola Tesla is The Absolute Boy. You quickly learn, however, that something untoward is afoot on the eccentric Serbian’s floating utopia, after seeing ‘QUARANTINE!’ written in large red letters on the inside of the front door. Ooooh. Intrigue. This sets up a blood-soaked tale you’re about to uncover, until you follow splatters on the floor to a half-empty tin of paint. Close to the Sun is excellent at playing with your expectations.
It uses jump scares, but never excessively; instead, panic festers after each big fright, as you go from room to room, waiting for that which never comes. An ominous clunking in the distance is revealed to be a severed arm catching a shutting door. No time to relax, though, because you’re now waiting for something terrifying to pop out after your approach. But it doesn’t come. I was sneaking around, trying to evade a knife-wielding maniac aboard the ship, when I saw his silhouette on an adjacent wall. It wasn’t his shadow. It was a carefully-placed, backlit, propped-up corpse. So, you relax. And then what you thought was a statue turns out to be a human man and oh-for-Christ’s-sake-I’ve-actually-had-a-heart-attack.
In those occasions of chill, you pick up keys to unlock doors, solve some simple puzzles, all while getting a better insight into the lives of those aboard the Helios. As well as collectible notes dotted about the place, there are notices calling shuffleboard and chess players to register their interest in upcoming tournaments, and posters highlighting musical performances in Tesla’s luxurious theatre. These creators need to stay creative, so some downtime watching Les Misérables won’t harm them. Close to the Sun is terrific at painting a picture of the people you’ll never meet. The notes add a nice bit of flavour, but – apart from one particular paper trail – they aren’t nearly as evocative as the environment itself. This ship is full of life, glistening even in the dark.
The grey underbelly, intermittently illuminated by a rotating red light, is just as beautiful as the glistening marble above, bouncing light from floor to ceiling in an effort to obscure what lies beneath. Stocked bars and sophisticated wall fixtures are in stark contrast with the messy desks and work spaces of those in maintenance: there’s beauty in both the grandeur and destruction. It’s a shame you can’t enjoy that when you’re forced to run away from something that isn’t that scary.
Close to the Sun’s at its best when it invites you to appreciate the intricacies, and then frightens the bejesus out of you after comfort sets in. It’s not so good at the failable chase sequences that sometimes occur afterward. The Monster is far less frightening when you get a good look at it, and fear dwindles if you have to do the running away bit a couple of times because you took a wrong turn or your character didn’t jump over the thing that they can definitely, 100% jump over. After being startled, I’d see the prompt telling me to ‘RUN!’ and groaned. And then ran. Because once that’s finished maybe I’ll learn more about my sister Ada, and why she’s asked me to board the Helios.
The dynamic between Ada and Rose is quite lovely. There’s an honesty to their relationship that makes you eager to see their reunion. The story does, sadly, fall flat, though. For all the positives around the Archer siblings – and it is mostly positive – they do have a handful of weird interactions where Ada is light on details for her inquisitive sister. I understand that Rose is the protagonist in a video game, but her sister doesn’t know that. There’s a few twists and turns along the way, too, with one of the bigger ones being obvious from the off. With that said, I was looking for answers by the conclusion, whereas Close to the Sun felt compelled to ask more questions.
Yeah, this is very Bioshock-y. The misdirection and mystery feels like it’s been plucked straight from Rapture, and it’s delivered in a way that lacks the punch of one of the medium’s most celebrated franchises. The artstyle is the obvious link, but to be that reductive of Close to the Sun’s visuals is doing the game a huge disservice. What Storm in a Teacup has created will evoke Irrational memories for many, and that’s an achievement in and of itself for a small independent studio. When you’re allowed time to admire the delicate flourishes, it shines. Come for the BioShock, stay for the Close to the Sun.
Developer: Storm in a Teacup
Publisher: Wired Productions
Available on: PC [reviewed on], Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Release date: April 23, 2019 (PC) / TBC (Xbox One, PlayStation 4)
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