Close to the Sun Review – Xbox One

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I’ve always found that a well-executed narrative-driven game will stay with me far longer than a title with interesting mechanics or flashy graphics. If a story is told well, I can be more forgiving of clunky controls or bugs, as I’m more focused on seeing how everything will play out. It is for this reason that Close to the Sun stood out to me, with its promise of a tale set in an alternate history, revolving around Nikola Tesla and his drive to push the world into a new scientific revolution.

Close to the Sun is a first-person exploration game, but I would hesitate to call it a walking simulator. There are brief moments of having to flee from pursuing enemies, which are perhaps the weakest area of the game, due to fiddly controls and the need to be incredibly precise with your timing. Much of your time will be spent solving puzzles and interacting with the environment to discover what exactly has transpired aboard the Helios, a giant floating center for scientific experiments, which has attracted some of the brightest minds of the age but seems strangely abandoned when you come aboard.

If you’re thinking that this sounds more than a little like Bioshock and Andrew Ryan’s underwater city of Rapture, then you wouldn’t be too far from the truth. There’s a lot here that seems to borrow from the Bioshock franchise, from the character models to the visual style, and if it had been revealed towards the end of Close to the Sun’s runtime that it had all been part of the larger Bioshock world, I wouldn’t have been too surprised. Unfortunately, when Close to the Sun does come to an end it all feels a bit muddled, almost as if there were too many threads to tie the story together in a neat bow.

Alongside Close to the Sun’s focus on Nikola Tesla and his experiments, there is a rather large focus on time travel, and the repercussions of tearing a hole in time. You play through the game as Rose Archer, a young journalist who has been invited aboard the Helios by her sister, Ada. However, when you finally get in touch with Ada you find that she hasn’t sent you an invite, or to be more accurate, she hasn’t sent you an invite yet. As you’ll soon come to discover, though, fiddling with time itself is what has caused a lot of the issues aboard the Helios, and you’ll need to overcome an array of supernatural fail-safes if you want to make it off of the colossal ship alive.

Your quest to find Ada and make it off of the ship takes place over ten chapters, though these are far from equal in terms of both focus and completion time. There are some that will take less then ten minutes to finish, with a linear pathway and minimal chance to explore. Others can take a lot longer, as they give you a chance to explore an open space, taking your time to wander from room to room, admiring the design and collecting parts of the backstory to help fill in the blanks. It’s these larger chapters that add personality to Close to the Sun and the Helios itself, and I wish that there had been more of them.

Each of the ten chapters focuses on a different are of the ship, with much of your traversal between chapters done by elevator or train carriage. This is a good way to feel as the ship contains many different areas, and helps to deliver a variety of visual stimuli, but I couldn’t help but feel as if the bookmarking of each area with a loading screen made the Helios feel disjointed, and that you were making your way through a series of isolated set pieces, instead of exploring the ship as a whole. At any point in the game I would have found it difficult to tell you where I was in relation to where I had been, and though I enjoyed most of the locations for what they were, I never managed to get the sense of the Helios being a real place.

Though I enjoyed a lot of my time with Close to the Sun, I found that the majority of my enjoyment came from the first third of the game, where the experience was rife with potential and curiosity, and that as the narrative ramped up and pieces started to fall into place, I became less and less engaged with what was going on. There’s definite promise here, and I look forward to seeing developer Storm in a Teacup’s future work, but Close to the Sun feels a lot like someone coming up with an interesting premise and setting but being unsure of how to convert it into a compelling story.

If you’re interested in alternate histories, or enjoy seeing interesting design in games, then Close to the Sun is well worth taking a chance on. It’s not the kind of story that will stick with you for years to come, but it’s enjoyable enough while it lasts, even if it does begin to drop the ball once it starts trying to pull back the curtain. There are some frustrating gameplay elements where the precision required will cause you to repeat a section over and over until you have it perfect, but the exploration of the Helios is generally reasonably serene and quite interesting. It’s just a shame that the package doesn’t manage to fully come together, as this had the potential to be something truly great.