Close to the Sun review
Nikola Tesla is renowned as a brilliant electrical engineer, a visionary futurist, and an ambitious inventor…whose designs often sounded great on paper but didn’t work nearly as well in practice. Storm in a Teacup’s Close to the Sun closely mirrors this reputation, featuring a variety of pioneering electrical machines aboard the Serbian genius’s greatest creation, a massive ship called the Helios. Unfortunately, not all the experiments here have worked as planned, and disaster inevitably struck, unleashing a torrent of supernatural horrors. Sounds great on paper, right? It does, and indeed Tesla’s floating technological marvel can make for an intriguing exploration of a uniquely designed setting. However, like the man who inspired it, the game itself isn’t able to realize its full potential thanks to a reliance on cheap thrills over atmospheric horror, and a rather shallow gameplay experience that doesn’t require much mental energy to complete.
It’s 1897, and players assume the first-person role of journalist Rose Archer, who receives a letter from her younger sister Ada urging her to come to the Helios immediately. Ada is one of the many top scientists recruited by Tesla to live and work aboard his luxury ship, but something has gone seriously wrong and now your help is needed. Following a brief intro aboard an unmanned vessel (remote-controlled boats being one of Tesla’s many real-life inventions), you arrive on the self-proclaimed “eighth wonder of the world” to find it strangely abandoned. Worse, it’s in an alarming state of disarray, and a hastily scrawled message that appears to be written in blood issues a simple warning to stay out: “Quarantine.” But you’ve got a sister to save, and in horror games warnings are meant to be ignored, so onward you press.
The interface is standard enough, using the WASD/mouse combo or gamepad to guide the protagonist and maneuver the camera. There is no on-screen cursor by default, but move close enough to a very sparse hotspot and an icon will appear. Interaction is a simple one-click affair, whether picking up items, operating equipment, or climbing ladders. You won’t collect inventory per se, though you do grab a few items along the way that will be presented automatically for use when needed. Despite the supposed urgency of her task, Rose is in no hurry to get anywhere, ambling along far too slowly. There is a press-always run key (where’s a toggle option when you need it?), but even that just increases your pace to what the walking speed should be.
The real star of this game is the Helios itself. Touted as the world’s largest ship, it truly is majestic in scope: it even has its own railcar! After making your way out of the docking area, you’ll begin to pass through ritzy guest accommodations, laboratories, opulent lobbies, a grand ballroom anchored by a statue of what appears to be Prometheus, an arboretum, greenhouse, and even a deluxe theatre. Adorning the walls in between are various (if regularly repeated) posters advertising current entertainment events and guest performers, along with key scientists of the time. The visual presentation isn’t quite as crisp as it might be even on the highest settings, nor particularly animated for the most part, but it’s still an impressive spectacle. It’s not all glitz and glamour, though – far from it. You’ll need to work your way through the dingy bowels of the ship as well, filled with strange (and often broken) industrial machinery, much of it now in shambles. It doesn’t seem right to call it “steampunk,” so let’s call it “Teslapunk” instead.
Tesla himself figures prominently, both in person (or at least in voice) and in spirit. There’s an entire museum dedicated to his work, with displays for his X-ray machine, Tesla coil, death ray, earthquake machine, and even the ill-fated Wardenclyffe Tower. Each main exhibit has a short voice-over, though they’re brief and not particularly informative. The other main links to Tesla are the many apparatus crackling with uncontrolled electricity around the Helios, some just for impressive lightshow but others providing active obstacles for you to overcome. There was great gameplay potential here for making use of Tesla’s inventions, but none are really capitalized on, which seems a definite missed opportunity.
Actually, there isn’t much gameplay to speak of at all. Close to the Sun is primarily an exploratory adventure in which you traverse one section of the ship after another, often travelling for long stretches with nothing to do but try to open locked doors. Certain passages can be opened only by finding the necessary keycards first. Generally this isn’t much of a problem, as most of the game is very linear, though a few of the game’s ten chapters do open up into central hubs with branching side areas. Some parts of the ship are more labyrinthine than others, with strategically placed blockages forcing you to find the correct way around, but no section is ever so big that you’re likely to lose your bearings for long, if at all.
There are a few light puzzles here and there, whether aligning pairs of arrows or throwing levers in the right sequence to power up machines (each of which can easily be solved by trial and error if nothing else), entering the correct access codes (which will be fairly obviously spelled out somewhere relatively nearby), and a single shapes and symbols challenge that isn’t hard but may require a bit of brief note-taking for convenience. That’s about it for the brainwork required, which again seems underwhelming aboard a ship filled with the world’s greatest minds, though admittedly the horrifying scenario here doesn’t allow much room for abstract puzzle-solving.
The only real challenge comes from the chase sequences. It turns out you’re not alone on the Helios, but are stuck there with someone or something with murderous intent. He/she/it/they are not really stalking you, so much of the time can be spent exploring at leisure – not that you have much reason to linger long at any one place – but at pre-scripted moments you’ll be confronted by your foe(s) and have no recourse but to run like hell.
Run. Run! I said RUN, dammit!! That’s probably what you’ll be yelling at your screen during these brief periods of intense panic, as Rose barely builds up to a slow jog even with death nipping at her heels. If you die – and you most certainly will – you have to sit through a rather ignominious kill scene just to rub it in. Fortunately these scenes restart automatically right from the beginning of the encounter to try again, but undermining this advantage is the fact that you can really only learn by dying. It’s not that the chases are interminably difficult, but they’re so unforgiving that one wrong turn means instant-adios, and in several of them there’s no time to do anything more than guess which way you’re supposed to go. Once you have the route down it shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re unlucky it can take a few tries, feeling more annoying than frightening by the end.
Outside of one late-game sequence that involves ducking for cover between bursts of not-really-sprinting, the person/people/creatures lurking in the background are really the only imminent danger you’ll face – though falling from too great a height and walking through fire or electrical discharge will understandably be bad for your health. Rather, the game relies on two other elements to ratchet up the horror. The first is jump scares. I lost count of how many “gotcha!” moments I ran (I mean sauntered) into, many of which startled me on cue. I don’t mind a few of these to get the ol’ ticker thumping once in a while, but here they become almost predictable and feel like a cop-out in the absence of any significant suspense between them.
The other means of instilling horror is an abundance of gore. Before long you encounter your first corpse, and the ship becomes a grisly mess from there on out. I must have passed literally hundreds of brutalized bodies lying in pools of their own blood, some with arms and limbs severed, a few disemboweled. One person had even been chopped in half and then hanged (or the other way around – does it matter?). There are no extreme close-ups, and the presentation is hazy enough not to feel too realistic, but if you’re squeamish about such things, be prepared. These gruesome tableaux certainly drive home the point that there’s something extremely deadly to fear on the Helios with you, but because of the way the rest of the horror is doled out, the tension tends to immediately subside until the next “boo!” moment or enemy encounter.
The music doesn’t do a lot to complement the atmosphere either. There are some subtle piano pieces and grim tonal backdrops to remind you that you’re alone in a huge, mechanical monstrosity where something very bad has happened, but it won’t ever send a tingle down your spine. It amps up appropriately during the chases, but those don’t really need the help. Even the ambient effects could be much more pronounced. The odd industrial groan, crackling of fire and electricity, and of course the flies buzzing around their cornucopias of carnage might raise a neck hair or two, but the flickering of lights sounds fake, and the endless clompclompclomp of the protagonist’s apparently tiny footsteps begin to grate.
Even Rose seems to understand the frequent lack of emergency. The voice actress performing the role does a very nice job in the more emotional moments, but during the many quieter stretches the character seems to have forgotten or at least completely recovered from the terrors she witnessed mere minutes earlier. For a game spent almost entirely alone, Rose ends up having a fair bit of company thanks to a wireless communicator she receives at the start. This allows her sister Ada, a trapped researcher named Aubrey, and even Tesla himself to contact her periodically. The actors all do a solid job with their roles and the companionship is largely welcome, although sometimes Aubrey had a tendency to ramble until I started to tune him out.
The only other living-ish things on board the Helios are ghosts. Or at least, trace memories that appear as ethereal remnants, oblivious to your presence. Or perhaps they’re visions? As the story unfolds, there are many allusions to experiments with other dimensions and “exotic energy” and time manipulation, such that past, present and future have all started to bleed together. Unfortunately, they’ve also created an “exo leak” in the form of blue gas that doesn’t seem to have any direct effect on you for some reason, though it’s most definitely related to the lurking menace. It’s far more sensational sci-fi than science, but it’s not delved too deeply, providing just enough of a narrative framework to rationalize the terrible events that have occurred.
I was actually more interested in some of the fictionalized backstory elements conveyed through newspapers, notes, blackboards and memos left lying around. The notion of a rift between Tesla and Thomas Edison is well-known, but here it’s taken to almost comic extremes, with Edison’s “agents” being sought for capture and rather painful interrogation. Being the sole person to break quarantine, Tesla suspects you too are a spy, which helps justify your restricted access around the ship. It’s all entirely silly, though it’s played straight, so I’m still not sure if my amusement was intended or not.
Along with the story-related documents to pick up and read, you can keep your eyes open for various collectibles like masquerade masks and blueprints to Tesla’s creations that have no functional purpose. Surprisingly, these neither unlock any bonus extras after the fact, nor even allow you to revisit them for closer inspection later on, inspiring no motivation to bother (unless there’s a reward for collecting them all, which I didn’t do, though I find that unlikely). You’ll find most of them anyway, as the environments are confined enough that you’ll happen upon them during routine exploration of the ship.
The game crashed on me several times, despite my PC meeting the recommended specs. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except that the autosaves are very few and far between. After sitting through the unskippable cinematic to start the chapter a second time, one reboot forced me to go around collecting several more keycards again, while another required going through the lengthy late-game action sequence all over again, a pain in the butt process that took about 15 minutes just to get back to where I was. If developers refuse to offer the security of manual saving, the least they can do is value the player’s time by making checkpoints more frequent.
Even with a few restarts, Close to the Sun only took me about five hours to complete, and it’s unlikely to take anyone much longer given its streamlined nature and relative ease. The ending provides a certain degree of closure but leaves several key issues unresolved, keeping the door open for a possible sequel. And despite what seems like more criticism than praise, I would certainly be willing to play another installment. It’s not that this is a BAD game by any means…it’s simply okay. Production values are fine, the story is decent, the gameplay all right, and even the horror is adequate in its own way. But it could have been more: more terrifying, more focused, and more fun. The game is named after Icarus, who Greek myth says built wings that were destroyed when he flew too high. It’s a cautionary tale of hubris that suits the subject matter to a tee but doesn’t really reflect the game experience at all. Rather than suffering from overreaching ambition, Close to the Sun is so content to skim the surface that it ultimately never really gets off the ground.