Adventure Gamers Awards
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.Continued on the next page...