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Submerged: Hidden Depths (XS)

Submerged: Hidden Depths (XS) - Review

by Lee Mehr , posted on 21 March 2022 / 1,690 Views

Full disclosure: on top of receiving a review code, Renaissance PR gave me some physical gifts as well: Submerged-themed postcards, bath bombs, scented mini-candles, and an activity book (filled with puzzles & whatnot).  While careful to keep these in mind, I'm confident I can evaluate this game purely on its merits.

Popping up in the mid-2010s, the original Submerged released around two interesting timelines: non-violent walking sims had solidified their own niche and small studios founded by industry veterans had hit fever pitch, even being the stars at some E3 press briefings.  Fast forward years later, Uppercut Games was headlining Google's potential place in the industry.  Now that Stadia's sunk, this exclusivity exit suggests a new wave of potential fans.  The question is, are there Hidden Depths to admire or is this a shallow sequel?


The sojourning siblings of the original, Miku and Taku, have made their way to another submerged metropolis.  A once-proud city teeming with prominent cultural and business institutions that now lay vacant, overgrown with greenery on top, and littered with barnacles beneath the sea.  No longer laying on a stone plinth as a dude in distress, Taku has grown up and actively assists Miku in wanting to heal the city – against his own judgment.  That's because Miku's curse - sinuous vines wrapped around her arm - compels her to use her power for good and restore this corrupted water world.

This corruption can be easily spotted within seconds, in the form of humongous black vines adorning themselves around the city's biggest landmarks.  Miku and Taku's starting point, effectively a central hub, becomes their first target by default.  Their quick success also showcases the series' use of various storytelling techniques.  Similar to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the duo speak a gibberish dialect; unlike that comparison, Uppercut splashes subtitles for every one of Miku’s monologues and each landmark they discover.


The other key storytelling method comes in two separate tiers: Aztec-like pictographs revealing the city's or siblings' backstory, segmented into four-panel comic strips.  The brother-sister dyad is shown in reverse chronological order after each completed main objective.  The city’s hieroglyphs are hidden across minor buildings or within main levels.  Since they can be gathered in any order, there's an investigative component in filling out this patchwork side story.  Like the first game, these interwoven portions feel nuanced enough to have their own flavor.  Rather than conveniently-placed audio diaries revealing a character's intimate thoughts in under a minute, this post-apocalyptic world irrevocably reduced people's means of communication.

It's a shame the writers didn't internalize this though.  Whether for the city's or siblings' backstory, each completed comic strip is elucidated with a subtitled summary.  One of Submerged's better qualities was emphasizing player inference in subtle ways.  Having to pensively consider how one event lead to the other, relying on visual storytelling, has now shifted closer to a standard eco-minded narrative.  It still hits a couple of beats quite well, and the plurality of interlocking story rewards feel enticing enough, but part of its precursor's uniqueness has been lost in the process.

Where Hidden Depths quickly starts taking on water is in its gameplay.  Mind you, Uppercut's intent focuses on "relaxploration," but I often felt like that ethos betrayed its better potential.  Sure, after stripping down the intrusive UI elements and hopping in the dinghy, those first fun moments of boating alongside green-colored dolphins sets a serene mood.  The skiff's pleasing maneuverability also helps.  Navigating between tranquil or bumpy waters scratches that wandering seafarer itch.

This breezier atmosphere is hampered by the core structure: fetch quests.  Whether ascending to nearby lookout towers or detecting important items via telescope, the loop is either about collecting various side content or tackling Miku's main objective of replanting special seeds and placing them back in their natural home.  Although the important locales are more than recycled Ubisoft towers, the smattered extras to acquire – be it relics, boat speed upgrades, city diary entries, etc. – eventually take on that "checklist" quality.  The only staple I consistently enjoyed was discovering landmarks and their designated names.


Sailing through some flooded boroughs is only half the game.  The other half is hazarding through the dilapidated ruins.  Well, "hazarding" may be a charitable way of describing a 3D platformer where the movement stick and occasionally hitting the A button are the exclusive means of progressing.  Whether shimmying across skinny planks, grappling onto color-coded vegetation, or swinging across monkey bars, just push forward and no harm will come to you.  Hell, there's more danger in going mere angstroms off the guided path and clipping through the geometry than from rocketing up a rope pulley with one hand.

The problem is less to do with capturing a chill experience and more with not supporting the more engaging puzzle-platforming moments.  You see, the so-called "relaxploration" advertising isn't the whole story if you want to collect everything.  Sometimes collectible flowers, cosmetics, and diaries are discreetly hidden off the main path.  I genuinely enjoyed those mini a-ha! moments when I initially missed the level's discreet sign-posting, but Uppercut could've gone way further.  Even those times when taking control of Taku for specific buildings could've done more than offered a basic linear path for one diary entry every single time; some visual or mechanical variety between the protagonists would've complimented their disparate personalities.

One improvement unperturbed by gail force winds and rough waters is the main hub.  Seems like a simple thing, but it's the cohesive glue to Hidden Depths' non-linear design compared to the original's desultory template.  Instead of a little spot to check on Taku, this water-logged auditorium eventually transforms into a home away from home.  Several collectibles get their own spots to decorate the estate: flowers, barnacle-encrusted treasures, and all acquired pictographs.  You’re working towards something more than a completed notebook.


Still wrestling with the sins of the original, Hidden Depths finds itself at an impasse between serene walking/boating sim and barebones puzzle-platformer.  Its relaxploration template feels more like an anchor than an artistic flourish when the expanded adventure elements make it feel more complete.  Because of this balancing act, it only sporadically feels as though your pathfinding & puzzling skills improve after the hour mark.  There are tangible additions and nuances, but you can see so much room to improve creative exploration.

In a strange turn of events, I'm partially disappointed by the visual/audio presentation compared to the original.  That's not to knock the splendid vistas.  Silly as it sounds, the profusion of palm trees and greenery across rooftops captures attention.  The way new life is breathed into a once-corrupted area subtly encourages you to keep moving forward.  All of the creature designs are "what if various animals seem like they were glowing from radiation exposure" while still looking majestic.  The echoes of the city's perished people also add to the atmosphere in their sound design and vine-human form (for lack of a better explanation).

Where it goes astray is the redone character models.  Leaving behind the original's toned-down look, Hidden Depths' Miku & Taku were injected with anime serum when no one was looking.  The exaggerated doe eyes and bee-stung hands made me wonder if Uppercut was after a merchandising opportunity.  And since the world still seems semi-realistic, their contrast from everything else feels off.  Though less noticeable, another deflating aspect is Jeff Van Dyck's new soundtrack.  You can knock how often the original's main theme was played while boating around, but it's such a good beat and nothing here matches it.


Value is tougher to gauge because it's ferry dependent on what you’re trying to get out of it.  The open world design does enable players to bum-rush through the main objectives without any artificial barriers; however, $30 won't sting as much if taking the completionist route (~9 hours for me).  Even if that meets your price-per-hour threshold, I'll admit I wasn’t sure if spending that extra time for 100% was even worth it.

Submerged: Hidden Depths' design is akin to navigating through two rip currents going in different directions.  Sprinkling in exploration challenges with nonchalant walking & boating eventually reminds you of how tedious it feels.  To its credit, this sequel at least provides a working foundation, even if a couple of creative decisions feel like slight steps backward.  The problem is those limited quality moments or concepts make me wish for m-oar by the end.  Uppercut Games is wading towards chest-high waters, but is still apprehensive to dive beneath and discover this series' greater potential.


Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.


VGChartz Verdict


5.5
Acceptable

This review is based on a digital copy of Submerged: Hidden Depths for the XS, provided by the publisher.

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