Sailing in video games can be a contentious issue. For some, games with sailing as a core mechanic can be annoying, expecting you to spend 80% of your game time on huge stretches of the open sea à la The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I've never particularly minded it as a mechanic. As long as the sailing is broken up occasionally, it ends up more relaxing than boring. It's a good thing, too, since Submerged: Hidden Depths features a fair bit of sailing, but the balance is probably closer to 60/40 for an average playthrough.
Submerged: Hidden Depths is a narratively-driven exploration title from Uppercut Games, creators of excellent rogue-like City of Brass. Since that time, the studio has gone Stadia exclusive, and Submerged is their first exclusive title for the service. It tells the story of a brother and sister duo searching for a new home in a world blighted by a strange entity. The world is mostly under the sea (hence that title), and black vines cover everything. With the sister's strange power to grow plant life, the duo set out purifying the land to find the new home they've been searching for.
My description of the plot may seem a little simplistic, but that's probably because Submerged: Hidden Depths goes for a non-traditional style of narrative delivery. From the start, you can tell that there's a lot of background information that you're not getting. The pair allude to some problems in their past that led them to be in this isolated location. As you play through the game, you have to pick up what you can from diary entries, the main characters write, as well as from the small scenes that play as you return to your base.
Submerged: Hidden Depths - Devoid of Dialogue
There's also no dialogue, at least not really. The main two characters speak, but as far as I can tell, they're using a made-up language from the post-apocalyptic future. The beautiful thing about Submerged is that both of the main characters still feel like characters. Despite their lack of understandable spoken-word, their expressions and actions give clear indicators of who they are as people and how they're feeling in any given moment.
The most interesting part of Submerged is probably also going to be what puts certain people off the experience. There is no combat at all. This game is 100% narrative and exploration, tasking you to find and purify various locations dotted around the ocean-dominated map. At no point are you ever in danger, and the only obstacle to you continuing is figuring out how to keep moving forward past environment-based puzzles. You also choose which order to approach each area in, too, so you set your own pace.
Does the lack of combat make it dull? Not at all. With nothing particularly dangerous going on, it means you can focus on the two major factors that keep the game interesting: discovering the world and solving puzzles. Your main goal in each new area is to locate a 'seed' and get it to a bundle of black vines to plant it, thereby purifying that location. As you journey around the decaying remains of humankind's folly, you also need to keep an eye out for collectibles, which are honestly the real bulk of the gameplay in my eyes.
Submerged: Hidden Depths - Below the Surface
Submerged: Hidden Depths is like an iceberg. Only 10% of what the game has to offer is on the surface. If you play it as quickly as possible, ignoring all the background information and completing the bare minimum of gameplay, you'll miss most of what is going on. There's a hidden story beneath the surface (there's that title again) that you start to pick apart as you go through the game, finding diaries written by the previous inhabitants of the post-apocalyptic world you're now exploring. These diaries are the only real way you have of piecing together the truth about what's been going on, not that you ever really reach a defined conclusion on it.
Some collectibles unlock various cosmetic benefits, such as conches that change your outfits or the look of your boat. You can also come across special flowers that are added to your home base and various artifacts of the distant past that the two siblings put into a sort of museum you can go and explore around. There are also some upgrades that you can find in the world, which give you access to a boost mode for your boat to make traveling between areas much faster, which is particularly helpful when you're exploring the sea for random collectibles.
That's not to say that the gameplay doesn't have some issued. The controls do their job adequately for the most part, but more than once, I found myself getting stuck on world geometry. There's also a terrible case of 'invisible wall syndrome' when you're searching for collectibles in various areas. The conches and diaries are insanely well-hidden, and if you're going into every nook and cranny, you're likely to come across a place that isn't accessible despite being more open than the actual route you're supposed to take.
Submerged: Hidden Depths - The H.M.S Melancholy
There's something of a haunting tone to Submerged: Hidden Depths. Obviously, you're in a post-apocalyptic world that has you exploring the tops of familiar buildings covered in centuries of decay and corrosion, so there's already a ghost-city vibe going on. To add to that, the black mass that has presumably killed-off all of the previous inhabitants has left behind ghostly copies of them all over the place. As you explore, these shadows barely react to your presence unless you get too close, when they'll change color and perform a single action, returning to their original state as you move away.
It's all very melancholy. On the one side, you've got the story of two siblings, alone in the world because of the sister's strange gift. Shunned by everyone they come across, they're forced to find a new home where they can be safe and happy. Then you've got an all too familiar world filled with ghostly images that reside in the deepest part of the uncanny valley. If you don't feel at least a little twinge of depression as you play, then you may want to visit a doctor as you're clearly clinically dead.
You also shouldn't go into Submerged: Hidden Depths expecting many definitive answers. There are many secrets to be discovered with all the collectibles, but very little about the overall state of the world is actually revealed. What caused the apocalypse? Why did the black mass kill everyone? Why did it not kill the sister and give her plant-growing powers instead? All of these are questions left unanswered, but honestly, it's better this way. The world is one of mystery, and you would destroy that by revealing everything.
Submerged: Hidden Depths | Final Thoughts
Submerged: Hidden Depths will not be to everyone's tastes. If you're the instant gratification type of gamer, then you'll find nothing particularly rewarding about the experience. However, there is a beautiful world filled with wonder and mystery to explore here, with nothing as complicated as enemies or combat to get in the way. If you love nothing more than a subtly-well-told story and gameplay centered around uncovering that story, then you're unlikely to find anything like Submerged elsewhere.
TechRaptor reviewed Submerged: Hidden Depths on Google Stadia with a code provided by the publisher.
- Narrative-Driven Exploration
- Tons Of Collectibles
- A Relaxing, Melancholy, Adventure
- Too Many Invisible Walls
- Characters Get Stuck Occassionally