This week, Yahtzee reviews Close to the Sun.
Somehow, I expect more from something that calls itself the "Epic Store"; I picture a place with 10-foot-high golden doors, where all the staff dress in togas, that sells nothing but copies of the Odyssey tattooed onto the side of white stallions, and when you swipe your credit card, it makes a lightsaber noise. At least something more than "dark grey boxes and no user reviews"! But whether you think the Epic Store is an inferior pretender trying to buy its way into the winners' table by holding sought-after games hostage, or a viable means to break Steam's digital distribution monopoly that at least has a slightly higher level of quality control than a starving goat in the alleyway behind a KFC, either way, it's something we're going to have to live with.
For me, I'm happy for any source of indie games that actually curates them a bit; the indie games sphere can be a wonderful thing, but my God, it produces shit like an, uh... extremely well-fed goat in the alleyway behind a KFC. And this week, it was one of the indie games presently exclusive to the Epic Store that caught my eye, mainly because the graphic on the store page made it look like the lady was annoyed that the logo kept electrocuting her shoulder: Close to the Sun. And now, having played it, I find myself wanting to talk about it, because it highlights that sometimes, the difference between "homage" and "ripoff" is a line no thicker than a walrus whisker.
Stop me if this starts to sound familiar: in an alternative late nineteenth/early twentieth century-style setting, a lone adventurer in the middle of the ocean arrives at the doorstep of an isolated, high-tech, electro-punk city founded by a charismatic visionary and populated by the world's best and brightest, promised a place where they could work without fear of regulation and be entitled to the sweat of their brow and all that, but as soon as we get in, we find it seemingly deserted and more littered with bodies than a corridor in a hall of residence at about 2 AM on the first night of spring break. Shortly, the two or three remaining survivors contact us by radio, including the charismatic visionary himself, who initially takes us for a spy, and our goal is to escape, determining on the way what precisely befell this failed utopia.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Yes, it's quite hauntingly reminiscent of Jet Set Willy, I mean, BioShock, obviously. Close to the Sun isn't so much wearing its influence on its sleeve as fashioning an entire bathrobe from its influence's box art; I mean, it even uses a similar fucking font. It's so blatant, it makes you wonder how much the game is inviting the comparison, extremely poorly advised as that might be, since BioShock kicks arse and Close to the Sun hasn't an ounce of its clever subtlety. It's called "Close to the Sun", for fuck's sake. "Do you get it?" Yes, Close to the Sun, I get it; it's a reference to the Icarus myth. "Yeah, 'cos, like, they're scientists and they're trying to progress too fast, so they were flying too--" Close to the Sun? Yes, I already said I get it. "...My house-school English teacher liked it." I'm sure he did!
For another example, the Andrew Ryan stand-in who founded the city is Nikola Tesla, as in "actual Nikola Tesla, the person", and I believe I've counseled before that one should be wary of any game in which Nikola Tesla is a character. It happens with slightly alarming frequency, 'cos he's the pinup boy of choice for a certain kind of person frequently found in video game development: the man whose capacity for making things go "whoosh-crackle-kabang" in exciting new ways made him accepted in society despite having the social skills of a leper with no inside voice. So yeah, a lot less subtle, although that might, on reflection, be the wrong word for BioShock, a game that centralized fighting diving-suit cyborgs with giant drills for hands.
There's not much of that in Close to the Sun; there's not much of any kind of gameplay, truth be told. It's of a type not unlike a walking simulator, but a sort of "advanced-level" walking simulator, where you get messily killed if you don't walk in precisely the correct manner at times: there's a lot of waiting for the right moment to walk in between bolts of electricity, and on a few occasions, you have to walk briskly away from hunty-chasey monsters, because this is a first-person horror game with no combat mechanics, so what the fuck else did you think you would be doing if not Outlast-ing this shit? Generally, the grace period you're given to internalize the fact that we have moved from the "introspective exploration" bit to the "fleeing blubbering for our life as fast as our shit-spattered legs can carry us" bit is around four nanoseconds, so you get killed very quickly if you don't follow the precise intended path. Also, all the jumping in this game is contextual, so if you have to jump over an obstacle during the chase sequence, all you can do is hammer on the "Use" button as you approach and hope to God the animation triggers before the chaser covers the eight or nine centimeters of distance you have on them.
Ooh, I was so eager to shit on the chasing sequences, I forgot to summarize the bits of the plot that aren't BioShock! You play as a feisty hotshot reporter lady who comes to Rapture, I mean, Helios in search of her sister, a feisty hotshot scientist lady, neither of whom talk much like they're from 1897; at one point, Hotshot Reporter requests that Hotshot Scientist, quote, "cut out the nerd shit", the lesser-known Emmeline Pankhurst quote. Well, it is an alternative history setting; maybe the advances of Nikola Tesla also advanced human dialect by a century or two.
As for what happened to Helios, it turns out that a time travel experiment ended with the ship getting filled with wibbly-wobbly blue science gas and then growly monsters came out of it and killed everyone. See, this is what I mean by "less subtle". Rapture's downfall came from the inherent flaws of its concept and in human nature; BioShock's setting is making a philosophical point that any dream of utopia is inherently incompatible with the concept of free will. Meanwhile, the point Close to the Sun seems to be making is that if you do too much science, then monsters will come and bite your face off 'cos they're the fucking Interdimensional Science Police or something.
Well, maybe it's a little deeper than that, but the plot leaves so many threads untied, it's hard to say; on multiple occasions, it's hinted that you yourself will at some point travel back in time to the present, and you're dealing with situations that your future self has in some way instigated, but then the game ends and none of that happens. Don't do that, story writers! You're only supposed to leave loose threads to fuel the sequel, not the entire resolution of the fucking plot! It's like bringing someone halfway to orgasm, then going away for six months, coming back, finishing the job, and saying, "Aren't you lucky you had an orgasm that lasted six months?", if you follow me.
So after the plot let me down, I'm not sure there's much to recommend in Close to the Sun; I suppose it looks good and has some very nicely-designed environments - sometimes, you can even see the fucking things through the spotty atmospheric lighting! - so if you think man can live on a nice bit of visual atmosphere alone, go nuts. Frankly, I think Close to the Sun presents a cautionary tale: if you're going to knock something off, maybe pick something that isn't really good and made by more competent people than you. Why not try to make, say, Ride to Hell, but actually functional, and consequently, infinitely less interesting, and then rename it something like "Days Gone"?
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