Submerged is a beautiful, simplistic game about a girl’s efforts to save her brother’s life by using her speedboat to explore a sunken, post-apocalyptic world. It’s Waterworld without a single explosion—or, really, any other people. It’s Ico without any puzzle-solving, Assassin’s Creed stripped down solely to the climbing sections, Wind Waker sans aesthetic charm. By focusing entirely on atmospherics, Submerged calls to attention the numerous assets it recycles across the 11 major buildings Miku must scale (all fictitious, from the Rungholt Memorial Library to, in a nod to BioShock, Atlas Island). Ultimately, and ironically, the game drowns itself in the puddle of its very shallow gameplay. While the visuals are nothing to scoff at (there’s a postcard mode included for snapping in-game selfies), this nascent title is a baby that could’ve been thrown away with all the bathwater.
The minimalist story, told almost entirely through pictographs, isn’t the problem. Plenty of recent games, like Journey and Brothers, have gotten by with just as much. Slight as Never Alone may have been, it at least introduced different mechanics throughout the game, and was based on documentary footage of an Inuit tribe. Submerged has no such spine, as the player simply drifts among overgrown condominiums and hotels—makeshift islands—and then climbs them. The nonlinear approach ensures that the difficulty never increases, and so the only challenge remains whether players can spot ledges and pipes, particularly when it’s nighttime. After that initial introduction of a verdant mutant quietly observing you (think of the first glimpse audiences were offered of the Stonemen on HBO’s Game of Thrones), the remainder of Submerged is repetitive and predictable. Players are free to explore the ruined city and see landmarks like the “basket wheel” (the upper frame of a Ferris wheel), but there’s no compelling reason to do so.
Even at only three-to-four hours in length, Submerged feels padded. From the unresponsive boating controls to the laborious task of climbing up and down the labyrinthine façades in order to collect the “secret” pictographs that explain how the world came to be this way, gameplay never feels like anything other than a chore. The occasionally breathtaking vista, as from atop a skyscraper-like crane that has somehow not yet collapsed, mitigates some of the annoyances, like the two-track playlist of music, but not enough. For the casual game-playing tourist, Submerged is fine, but players really wouldn’t want to live here for long.