Too close, or just close enough?
It’s 1897. Nikola Tesla, tired of global politics and the limitations of 19th-century thinking, has formed his own scientific community. Isolated from the rest of the world, The Helios – a “safe haven for open-minded individuals” – is an unfathomably large, automatically-operated ship housing the world’s most brilliant minds.
Forward-thinking research occurs here, undisturbed by the outside world and motivated by the goal of humanity’s betterment. Naturally, this pipe dream doesn’t end well.
Ada Archer, a scientist aboard The Helios, has cracked the theory of time. She’s discovered that electrons are the same throughout time and thus can be manipulated. When ghosts from the past begin to haunt The Helios, Ada calls upon her sister Rose – you. As a journalist, Rose’s natural inclination is to begin investigating as soon as she boards the decadent ship. When things clearly aren’t as simple as they seem, Rose quickly realizes she’s in way above her head.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a prequel to BioShock. The extravagant art-deco aesthetic, nautical setting, utopian society inhabited by great minds, and egomaniacal leader desperate to reject society certainly make Close to the Sun tick a lot of the boxes. Even the in-world font is identical. It certainly isn’t shy about its inspirations.
But don’t let its apparent unoriginality fool you. Storm in a Teacup’s horrific mystery thriller is actually teeming with fresh ideas and surprises – at least from a narrative perspective.
You’ll see Tesla’s incredible inventions up close. His Earthquake Machine, Lightning Energy Harvester, Tesla Tower, and more. The guy was clearly fond of his electricity. You see the genius, but also the madness. The arrogance, hubris, and questionable ethics.
His impressive and forward-thinking collection has earned him equal parts respect and scorn from the international community. This is where his rivalry with fellow inventor Thomas Edison comes in, which plays a big part in the political tension present throughout The Helios and Tesla’s own apparent paranoia.
Uncovering the fate of The Helios’ crew is one of the strongest parts of Close to the Sun. Exploring the areas they once inhabited, poking around their personal quarters, and discovering the varying ways people reacted to the end times is tense and rewarding.
It’s supported by some great writing, too. Chaos has afflicted Tesla’s once-great floating city. Blood and guts are strewn around every corner, the violent aftermath of many a brutal scene lying still for you to stumble on. Something’s obviously gone very wrong on The Helios, and it’s your job to find out exactly what.
Gameplay-wise, Close to the Sun is strongest when it’s dabbling in first-person exploration and puzzle-solving. The gorgeously rendered environments are interesting to explore. The myriad of impossibly-advanced gadgets and inventions make its alternative history setting quite compelling. Meanwhile, clever puzzles require you to pay close attention if you want to safely navigate The Helios.
Although the central mystery is consistently engaging, the rest of the game is a bit more uneven. The tension and atmosphere are pretty stellar throughout, but it feels the need to appease the horror genre’s love of generic chase scenes. Not only do these clumsy and awkward set pieces feel totally at odds with the nail-biting pace, but they also come out of nowhere.
Around halfway through the five-hour story, you stumble across a scary psycho dude that wants your head. Cue an underwhelming and frustrating chase scene. Several of these fill the back half of the game, as well as a number of awkward scenarios where you’ll die instantly if you fail. It makes the second half decidedly less enjoyable than the first.
Wonky production values make these unfortunate scenes even more unpleasant. The frame rate, on PC at least, has a nasty tendency to dip incredibly low, especially during chase scenes and set pieces. There are also some real janky animations and slightly rough-looking character models. Although the environments look superb, the people most definitely don’t look good in motion.
Furthermore, the audio mixing is truly all over the place. Some lines of dialogue are far louder than others, leading to scenes where one character is piercingly loud and your character is inaudible.
It’s generally a solid experience, though. The art is expressive and striking, even if it’s not entirely consistent. Meanwhile, the voice acting is mostly very good and the game’s soundtrack is paramount to the superb tension throughout. There are enough interesting ideas, plus strong writing that’s worth experiencing, and impressive environmental art to make The Helios rewarding to explore.
Despite its apparent unoriginality, Close to the Sun is actually striking and fresh. Don’t let its clear BioShock influences fool you into thinking it’s derivative. It may not be the most consistent experience, but it’s certainly a memorable one. If you’re a fan of strong world-building, spooky atmospheres, and engaging mysteries, it’s worth looking past some of Close to the Sun’s glaring issues.
[Reviewed on PC]
Dan is a UK-based lover of games, music, and movies. He can usually be found buried in RPGs, shooters, roguelikes, and sometimes World of Warcraft, but really he’ll play anything he can get his hands on.