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Close to the Sun

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Storm in a Teacup
Release Date: May 2, 2019


PC Review - 'Close to the Sun'

by Cody Medellin on May 2, 2019 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

Close to the Sun is a story-driven horror game that takes place at the turn of the 20th century on a mysterious ship complex created by Nikola Tesla for the sake of science.

Buy Close to the Sun

Nikola Tesla has become a hero to science aficionados, as he is often seen as getting an unfair shake in his time, constantly usurped by the more entrepreneurial Thomas Edison. He's been elevated in popular culture, especially in video games, where he's made countless appearances. The earliest was the PC title Ultima: Martian Dreams in 1991, but he's shown up in more video games in recent years. Games like Dark Void and The Order: 1886 have made him available as a nice side character for cameo appearances, while Tesla vs. Lovecraft flirted with the idea of him as a hero directly controlled by the player. At first glance, it isn't too novel to have Tesla appear in Close to the Sun, but you start paying attention when you find out that it's a horror game.

You play as Rose, a journalist who receives frequent letters from her sister, Ada, who's a scientist aboard the Helios. The ship was created by Nikola Tesla as a safe haven for scientists who don't want to be hounded by meddling governments. Rose is invited to see the Helios, and upon her arrival, she senses that something is amiss. It doesn't take long for her suspicions to be confirmed, so she must try to find and save Ada.

It has been said numerous times in the previews for this title, but the game's first few minutes are heavily reminiscent of the Irrational Games classic BioShock (or the most recent title Prey), from the art deco design of the ship interior to the debris and corpses strewn about. Cryptic writing appears on the walls, and there are plenty of letters that depict life aboard the ship, problems and all. Propaganda extols the virtues of the ship and working for Tesla, and a few posters promote other non-work-related activities that give you a sense of the self-sustaining nature of the ship. Also, while the game isn't afraid to use a few jump scares, most of the tension comes from the unease of wondering where danger awaits.

The similarities to the first BioShock game are more than skin-deep. You'll visit similar places, including amusement centers, power stations, and a theater. You receive a communicator at the beginning of the game, so some key characters will talk to you and guide you every step of the way. What's likely more detrimental is that the story beats too closely mimic those of BioShock. The story details and overall themes are different, but the story's twists are similar to the point where you can easily predict what will occur, and that robs the otherwise fascinating tale of some intrigue. The only major difference comes from the game's few loose ends, which end up turning some of the narrative mysteries into plot holes.

Beyond these similarities, Close to the Sun differs from BioShock in a few significant ways. For starters, the title may deal with science most of the time, but it isn't afraid to dabble with ghosts. The appearance of apparitions is backed by a scientific explanation, but the ghosts are interesting in that their presence is mostly to enhance the atmosphere. They're relatively harmless, and some of them lead you toward something new in the game. They're window dressing but not entirely unwelcome.

Close to the Sun also contains no combat whatsoever. The game doesn't have many enemies to begin with, but at no point are you given a way to defend yourself from threats. Instead, any enemy encounters are met with lots of running as you try to reach a safe zone before your pursuers do. The moments are tense in that you have to react quickly in terms of committing to a direction, and the various dead ends you run into can become fatal when your pursuer catches up and guts you multiple times before the screen fades to black and you try again. The only annoyances are the lengthy failure scenes that can't be skipped, and on a few occasions, it seems like you have a clear path to an exit, but somehow, your pursuer manages to catch up to you.

You'll spend most of the time in Close to the Sun solving puzzles. Most of the puzzles happen to be switch-based, where you'll hit switches in the correct order or time it so that you can hit a switch and reach an exit before it closes. Other puzzles require you to find and obtain codes to activate or deactivate switches, but the location of the codes and where you need to input them are so close together that it isn't much of a challenge to solve these tasks. Two puzzles require you to match some symbols or solve a riddle to figure out the correct combination, and those are the most taxing puzzles you'll encounter, even though they aren't too difficult in comparison to what you'd see in other titles. The puzzles here feel like busywork, but they don't dull the overall experience.

The game can take an average of six to seven hours to complete, which makes for a decently sized experience nowadays. The lack of multiple endings isn't so bad, but what is disappointing is that the title has various collectibles that don't serve much of a purpose. You can see how many collectibles you've gathered per chapter, but unless you stay in that chapter and read every world-building letter and newspaper when you pick them up, there's no other way to view what you've collected. This is especially annoying when you find some detailed blueprints, but all of that feels wasted because there's no way to take a good look at it and enjoy it. As such, your only motivation for thoroughly exploring every bit of a chapter is if you're a completionist at heart.

Most of the time, the presentation in Close to the Sun is quite impressive. Whether in a dilapidated or pristine state, each environment looks stunning, but the lack of views outside of the boat can feel a bit claustrophobic after a while. The game is rife with particle effects, including lots of sparks, electrical bolts, ethereal energy and ghostly images, and it all looks gorgeous, even if it can hurt the frame rate from time to time. The dark nature of the title will make you want to turn up the brightness on your screen, but you'll be more taken aback by the characters you see. The few living ones you encounter animate in a jerky manner, while the corpses don't look very defined by current-generational standards. The audio fares much better, as the soundtrack stays out of the way most of the time but ramps up at the right moment, while the voicework is good enough to convey the correct emotions at the appropriate time.

In the end, your enjoyment of Close to the Sun will depend on whether you want to be surprised. If you've played some of the previously mentioned games, you know exactly what to expect in terms of pacing and story, even if the subject matter is different. The lack of combat is an interesting choice, but the simple puzzles and slightly frustrating chase sequences dull the experience, while the inability to view collectibles after you leave a level significantly diminishes their value.

Score: 7.5/10

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