Close to the Sun aims high and falls flat. A paper-thin story further hampered by an artificial feeling environment, one-dimensional characters and mediocre delivery. Flimsy pacing occasionally saved by good voice acting and music.
Close to the Sun aims to be an adventure horror mystery, but the only question driving the enigmatic aspirations of Storm in a Teacup's debut outing lingering in my mind after spending roughly 10 hours with it is - Who was this game made for?
As a genre, walking simulators rely heavily on their ability to immerse players with their atmosphere and styling a game with a horror prefix makes its ability to draw you in even more of a must. While even calling a piece of interactive entertainment a walking simulator, one would presume the term to be unnecessarily derogatory, but in this case it is merely descriptive, and with a capital W at that.
Rose Archer, our snarky journalist strong female protagonist #718, division Mary Sue, subcategory panic disorder, shares the spotlight with her sister Ada for most of the game.
One can be forgiven for thinking that Nikola Tesla would be a prominent figure given that he is a common sight in Close to the Sun's promotional material. This is not the case, Rose and Ada take centre stage, and outshine pretty much everyone and everything in sight with their courage and endearingly flawed heroic brilliance.
Before you brand or dismiss me as gratuitous for bringing that panic attack bit up before, it is not an exaggeration and I am still quite mystified as to why it comes up at all.
Rose suffers one or two panic attacks during her exploration of the Helios, but these are entirely irrelevant to the plot, characterisation, or overall narrative in a story or gameplay sense. Rose gets spooked into a panic attack by stumbling into a corpse and has to be calmed by her sister over the radio, but is able to sprint for her life without much trouble when pursued by crazy slasher stereotypes or cross-dimensional murder-beasts. The protagonist is clearly shocked when chased around, but her overcoming this condition is nowhere near relevant to her character arc, if only she had one.
That same plot would be humdrum if it weren't bogged down by its faltering pretensions at originality and mythological references. Cliches and references are usually fine, but Close to the Sun does so very little with them that they become a burden.
Tesla recruits a crew of super-geniuses on a mega-ship just waiting to be scuttled by one of the insane experiments taking place on board. And indeed it does. The disaster in question somehow creates problems with the flow of time itself, and as with 90 per cent of stories featuring time travel, the plot abandons any attempt at remaining convincing the moment temporal shenanigans come into play.
Time-travel stories are hard to pull off, but I haven't finished Close to the Sun under the impression that the developers even tried. There's the odd time-ghost walking around and echoing evens of different timelines, but as with most other tools of delivering narrative on display, it feels hollow and lifeless.
Among the few saving graces keeping Close to the Sun from being entirely disappointing, you can find surprisingly decent voice acting for a few of the characters. And by a few, I mean just the one - Aubrey King.
The voice actor manifests a true miracle by managing to breathe some life into his character, considering the lacklustre quality of the lines he had to perform. The same can't be said of the rest of the cast, and I'm not entirely certain whether it was due to the writing or the delivery itself.
Just like Dedalus needs his Icarus, so does a walking simulator depend on its gimmick. In this case, other than the Tesla lipservice, we have an art-deco style to the environment and a barebones run for your life mechanic that amounts to little more than a quick time event.
Every one of Close to the Sun's ten chapters has some sort of setpiece. Usually, this is a large hall somewhere within the Helios, and walking into them does provide for a woah, nice! kind of moment. Upon closer inspection, even these rooms start feeling a little barren, as assets are re-used left and right. That wouldn't be too much of an issue if walking around and admiring the visuals wasn't a major part of the overall design.
During my playthrough, I had passers-by ask why I'm running through the same corridor all the time in one of the levels, and the only answer I could come up with was I think it's meant to be disorienting. That is during those times I could see where I'm going at all, as the level designer apparently confused dark and broody with pitch black a lot of the time.
Rose will be running away from a knife-wielding German psychopath and the aforementioned time-monsters as part of the second gimmick. The whole ordeal is just about enough to provide Close to the Sun with some sort of fail-state, and presumably to dismiss the notion of being a walking simulator by having one in the first place.
These segments lack tension and what trace adrenaline they do manage to provoke are melted away by clumsy execution. Rose can jump, but not over anything. Hitting the space key will have her jump a centimetre off the floor outside of chase sequences, which isn't enough to vault over the squattest of shrubs or corpses and only becomes useful while being pursued.
In these instances missing the exact contextual spot where the jump was to be executed will usually reward you with a knife or claw through the spine. Loading screens are not a good tool for building tension.
Another thing Close to the Sun fumbles is building suspense for its jump-scares. Several closed toilet doors in front of you? Guess which one contains the corpse-on-a-can. If your guess was the last one in the row, then congratulations. In most situations, the build-up to the jump scare will serve to telegraph it, rather than to develop any semblance of apprehension.
The same goes for what could laughably be called puzzles. Memorising the odd passcode for a safe that is sitting almost next to it, or a locked door only a few steps away from the note containing some sort of mental gymnastics aimed at explaining why someone on a ship of savants can't memorise a three-digit code.
These button pressing exercises are usually sprinkled with a round of dialogue lines explaining exactly what needs to be done an additional time, in case the basic design wasn't condescending enough.
It often feels like the developers were aware of the problems their narrative and its delivery have, but were somehow powerless to solve them late into the development process.
While sailing away from the sinking wreck of the Helios and listening to poor Tesla, who barely got any screen-time, babbling about how the whole disaster can still be fixed somehow, presumably by means of a time-travel laden sequel, my original question remained intact - Who was this game made for?
Architecture students infatuated with Art Deco? Fans of Tesla and the mythology surrounding him? Politically minded individuals demanding more female representation in games? Horror buffs with a low tolerance for genuine dread?
In any case, Close to the Sun only delivers if you keep one eye firmly closed throughout the experience, and have a strong stomach for narrative and tonal inconsistency. Most of its flaws could be forgiven, if the underlying story was interesting, innovative, thought-provoking or emotionally resonant enough to justify its 10-hour stay, but it isn't.
The only thing keeping Close to the Sun from being a complete failure is a strong musical score and the odd voice-acting masterstroke. Even if that is enough to float your boat, I'd still advise waiting for a sale.
Barely enough - 3/10.