Painfully slow and with a story that goes nowhere, Close to the Sun doesn’t manage to do anything exciting with the intriguing world it creates.
Developer Storm in a Teacup describes Close to the Sun as a “first-person story-driven horror game.” They also describe it as “not BioShock,” though it is clear the superb FPS at least inspires many of the game’s themes and aesthetics. I mean, you explore a giant art-deco ship in the middle of international waters, where scientists are free to conduct their work without any government oversight. I was half expecting to see a red banner with the words “No Gods or Kings. Only Men” around every corner.
But Close to the Sun is indeed not BioShock, mainly because I loved BioShock and I do not love Close to the Sun.
Dead in the Water
The entirety of Close to the Sun takes place aboard a magnificent automated ship called the Helios, after the Roman sun god. The Helios was built by Nikola Tesla (yes, THAT Tesla) in an alternative 19th century where his genius was recognized, and his inventions ushered in an age of scientific breakthroughs. At least, that’s what I learned from all the reading I did.
The game’s story isn’t really told as it is hidden all around you. You know that you are Rose, a young journalist who boards the Helios to find her scientist sister, but that’s about it. The rest, you can learn a lot just by walking the ship’s halls: the inscriptions in blood on the walls, assorted documents, and the bodies strewn all over the place paint a vivid picture of a science experiment gone horribly wrong.
This environmental storytelling is where the game shines. You can choose not to explore and read, and just follow your objectives, but then you’ll be missing out on what the game does best – world-building. Every document you read gives you a glimpse of the life aboard the Helios, like how the different science departments fight over resources, or information about potential spies working for Thomas Edison. They construct a believable world that feels lived-in.
Unfortunately, the game never does anything interesting with this alternative reality it creates. The story, much like the Helios itself, just doesn’t go anywhere. You briskly walk from one part of the ship to another, while a voice over the radio tells you what to do. The conversations rarely contribute anything to advance the plot – they are merely functional. They convey the necessary information on where to go next, or what you should do, and that’s about it. You don’t really get to know the few people you talk to, and never end up learning what is going on.
A Better Time and Place
The most frustrating thing about the game story is how it offers you glimpses of a better, more interesting one.
You feel that there’s something bigger going on behind the scenes, something that can change everything. You keep getting mysterious notes marked with a strange symbol – the same symbol you can find in different places across the ship but has no purpose. The mad man chasing all over the Helios somehow knows your name, like you’ve been through all of this before, but there’s no payout to any of this.
I kept waiting for a big reveal, a twist that will elevate the non-existing story, or even a New Game+ mode that will unlock another path, but nothing ever comes. You walk from point A to point B to point C, get chased for a bit, read some notes, and then the game ends with nothing gained.
Storm in a Teacup created an interesting world to explore but didn’t put anything worth exploring within this world. Maybe they’re keeping the exciting parts for the sequel.
No Running in the Halls
Close to the Sun involves a lot of walking. Some might call it a “Walking simulator,” but the fact is, it isn’t. There are chasing sequences where you run, and you do flip the occasional switch to clear the way from more walking. I prefer to use the term “Narrative adventure.”
Frankly, I don’t have an issue with slow-paced games that choose to focus on storytelling; usually. But Close to the Sun is way, way too slow. As I said before, most of what you do is explore: you go between rooms, flipping switches, opening doors, and reading documents. Most of these documents are collectibles and tend to be hidden off the main path, so if you want to get the most out of the game, you’ll need to go everywhere you can. But doing that takes so much time… Rose’s walking speed is ridiculously slow, and her running isn’t much faster. At some point, I almost gave up on exploring, as I felt it wasn’t worth the time.
You can also jump for some reason (I use that word very generously here), though you never have to, as going over obstacles, crawling in vents or squeezing between debris is done via prompt, and not in real-time.
Finally, we have the chase sequences. From time to time, you’ll have to run away from an attacker, since Rose can’t fight. I actually kind of like these sequences, as they remind me of games like Outlast and Soma, and genuinely add some much-needed tension. There were a couple of times I found myself panicking a bit while trying to figure out how to escape.
It all comes down to some serious pacing issues, with too few exciting moments and a lot of what feels like a pointless trudge.
Take the Scenic Route
However, I did enjoy looking where I was going. Close to the Sun isn’t a visual masterpiece, but there are a lot of eye-catching moments. The combination of radiation blue and fire orange is always pretty, and art-deco architecture is a personal favorite of mine. There’s one room close to the beginning where you can walk through a personal museum of Tesla’s invention and learn a little about each one, which is admittedly kind of cool.
I also really appreciate how you can see Rose’s character model changes to reflect the damage she takes during the game. Her steampunk jacket, gloves and boots get singed and torn, and you can see bandages on her hands if you look down. It gives your journey throughout the Helios some weight, even if it’s all scripted.
For a story-driven horror game, Close to the Sun doesn’t have a lot of story or scary moments. The snail-paced gameplay would have been fine if you were walking through exciting scenes or enjoying an immersive conversation between characters, but that isn’t the case. I did not love my time on the Helios, but I hope Storm in a Teacup takes this alternative reality they crafted and put it to better use in their next game.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.