From a literal walk in the park to delivering some of the most frightening experiences in video games, the humble walking simulator has demonstrated its longevity to become much more than a niche genre. Close to the Sun, from Italian developer Storm in a Teacup is the latest example that I’ve played, and with clear and obvious influences from the likes of Bioshock and Outlast, this sci-punk horror certainly piqued my interest.
Set on a huge ship called The Helios, our heroine Rose Archer finds herself summoned mysteriously by her younger sister. A brief prologue introduces us to the controls (which are limited to sluggish movement, slightly faster movement and rubbish jumping) and upon entering the now obviously stricken ship, Rose discovers that her sister has no present knowledge of having sent the message.
I say present because it quickly becomes apparent that the ship (an invention of Nikola Tesla in a pseudo electrical arms race against Thomas Edison) is home to all manner of weird experiments, including those affecting the flow of time. As Rose edges her way deeper into the ship, Close to the Sun begins to demonstrate its own brand of puzzle based gameplay – pull a lever here, enter a code there, twiddle some dials and pull another lever to open a door.
At no point will these puzzles challenge you, but they do serve to slow the pace down even further as some of the lengthy dialogue scenes (enjoyed over Rose’s personal intercom) play out. Thankfully, Rose, her sister Ada and the handful of other characters that we meet are all well scripted and well acted, aiding massively in adding a degree of suspense and a fair dollop of intrigue to the proceedings.
These feelings of curiosity and occasionally tension increase the further Rose progresses, with the lower decks of the Helios suffering from more and more damage. The crew quarters and communal areas begin to yield masses of terribly mutilated bodies, and it’s not long before Rose begins to be periodically stalked by one of the two potential enemies in the game.
Close to the Sun is no Outlast when it comes to chase scenes though, and each one is entirely scripted. You’ll never sit crouching behind a desk biting your lip whilst a maniac drags chains along the floor inches away from you. You’ll know when a chase is on and as one of the loading screens reminds us — running is the only way you’ll survive.
Sadly, in almost all of the chase scenes, you’re likely to die at least once since despite being entirely linear in every section (even some of the expansive exploration pieces) the game leaves several routes open, only to then block Rose as soon as she rounds a corner. There’s often no way to know whether you should have gone left or right, up or down, and one of the later chases has Rose pull a lever, sprint down two flights of stairs, pull another lever and run through a door without even a split second of time to spare.
That said, whilst annoying at times, these scenes are impactful in moving the narrative along and often mark the end of what can sometimes be an overly long and tiresome slog around the very large crew quarters or engine room, for example. Where the latter is concerned, the puzzle in question has Rose spinning pressure valves on about twenty separate tanks, many of which are in odd locations and all of which look alike. At one point, I was so certain that I had done them all that I was trying to work out how to disconnect the electricity from one which had exploded since that is reminiscent of several other puzzles, yet in truth, that one really was broken and I’d just missed one elsewhere.
If there’s one thing I can say about the Helios, it’s that it’s an impressive looking thing. The visuals in most games within the walking simulator genre tend to be close to photo realistic because the slow pace is so undemanding, and Close to the Sun is no exception. What it does to differentiate itself is all via the creative talent of the design team, who borrow the art-deco style of Bioshock liberally, but aren’t afraid to add their own sense of grandeur and style.
The sound design is acceptable, but it falls behind other higher-budget genre outings, bar the voice acting, which as I mentioned earlier is of a high standard. Incidental music is often understated, occasionally creepy and rarely moving, but when it did kick into life, I wished it had done so more often. Explosions and other sound effects are good, though rarely as creepy or foreboding as I would have liked.
By the conclusion of Close to the Sun, I’ll admit that I was ready for it to end. An evening’s work at about four to five hours and with little reason to go back, I can certainly say that there are worse ways to spend your time, but also better. I could think of a few walking simulators (or narrative adventures, if you prefer) to recommend over Close to the Sun, but if you’re a fan of the genre that has played and enjoyed most, then I’d rate this one as well above average, without being among the very best.