Last month, Den of Geek journeyed across London to attend a preview event for Close to the Sun, an upcoming story-driven horror game from the Italian developers at Storm in a Teacup and the British publishers at Wired Productions. We weren’t fully sure of what to expect, truth be told.
The game takes place in an alternate history where Nikola Tesla “wasn’t fucked over by Thomas Edison.” With the necessary creative freedom and financial backing, Tesla, in the game’s universe, was able to see his off-the-wall scientific ideas to fruition. He set off in a big boat to conduct game-changing research in international waters. The game’s title, we assume, refers to this fictionalized Tesla’s Icarus-like journey into dangerous areas of scientific enlightenment.
Before getting chucked into the game, we were filled in on the basic details of the plot: you play as a journalist named Rose, who visits Tesla’s seafaring research center The Helios at the behest of her sister, who is in Tesla’s employ on this sizeable ship/science lab. With those details cleared up, we got cracking with the hands-on segment of the event.
The game, powered by the Unreal Engine, allows you to wander freely around as Rose — first on a small otherwise-unmanned craft, and then in the humungous Helios itself — as she takes this trip into the unknown. The art style is a creepy sort of steampunk, with unsettling piano melodies providing the score. There are buttons to press, rooms to explore, and an impressive amount of letters/posters/notes to read if want to devour every detail of this intriguing alternative vision of the late 19th century.
In terms of visuals, the quirkily off-kilter historic stylings of Dishonored come to mind, and BioShock is also mentioned a lot in relation to the game online. But in terms of the tone, as Rose ventures aboard the Helios and finds the place seemingly abandoned, the atmospheric chills of Alien: Isolation‘s similarly silent base becomes a clear influence. Also, as you wander around this science-focused ship, attempting to piece together exactly what happened here, it’s hard not to admire the attention to detail and the craftsmanship at play.
The gameplay itself is fairly simple — wander around, examine things, unlock the next room — but it is the highly detailed worldbuilding that really makes this game feel like it could be something special. There are whole museum exhibitions based around Tesla’s real-life ideas, for instance, and a massive theatre area that you can venture into and below the stage itself. The Helios is so vast and yet intricately detailed (down to leaflets on tables and posters on walls) that it feels like it could be a real place if only the actual Tesla had got the funding.
Because you’re so invested in and intrigued by the details of the Helios, which is rendered beautifully by the design team, it’s very easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. That’s when the game gets you: just when you think you’ve got the situation under control, a flash of light, or a loud noise, or the sudden appearance of an unexpected figure will send you jumping out of your skin.
For example: at one point, we think the level has ended because we were getting in a lift and pressing a button, but, just when the fade-to-black should happen and a loading screen should appear, someone jumps out at Rose. We let out an audible yelp, which is quite embarrassing in a room full of other journalists. But this is a prime example of what works so well about Close to the Sun: you get sucked in by the experience of exploring the Helios and pondering the mysteries of the plot, and then the sudden scares shock you silly just when you least expect them.
This was a pre-release build, though, which meant there were a few bugs to contend with. Joel Hakalax, one of the designers, was watching us play, taking notes, and planning what he’ll change when he gets back to work in Rome. “In development, something is always on fire,” Hakalax said at one point, “but the closer you get to release, the easier it is to see where the fire is coming from.”
One scary segment, for instance, seemed to need a couple of tweaks to get it fully ready for public consumption. This was a level where Rose is pursued through a tight corridor by an adversary. As is part of the game’s DNA, Rose doesn’t have any weapons, and so the only way to survive is to escape — take a turn at the exact right moment, leap an obstacle when prompted, and don’t let your enemy catch up with you.
It’s a fun mechanic, but it needs a bit of finessing. Dying at the wrong time, in this demo build, could result in a respawn position that makes it very difficult to survive the next time around. There was some talk of scripting the post-respawn reset for slightly longer, and making the enemy just a tad slower. It was fascinating to see Hakalax work, and it seemed pretty obvious that the Storm in a Teacup team has a lot of passion for this project.
What we saw in our preview was a bit of a scattershot vision of the game: we jumped from the first couple of chapters to the sixth one, and there was a lot still to come after that. But, nevertheless, there was an obvious kernel of potential at the core of this game that makes it a very intriguing proposition.
The idea of Tesla working at sea in a village-sized ship, pushing the boundaries of science, is a tantalizing concept for a game; and this perspective, that of a journalist who’s late to the party, is an interesting way to approach it.
In the levels that we played, we found clues and solved mini-mysteries. We explored areas and we got quite scared. We saw some visually arresting things, from the Helios itself to the eye-catching aftermath of Tesla’s experiments. We look forward to unraveling the rest of this mystery, and, hopefully, we won’t yelp too loudly when we get to the rest of the scary bits.
Close to the Sun will launch for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC (via Epic Games Store) later this year.