Nikola Tesla led a fascinating and unbelievable life. The Serbian-American was an inventor, an electrical genius and a futurist. He came up with ideas involving X-Ray machines, death rays that could end all wars and automated boats. He died penniless in New York and the true nature of his successes and ideas only came to light many years later. The gaming world has taken to his mythology over recent times though, delivering several projects in which he has appeared or influenced the experience. In Close to the Sun he is one of the major players as the game delves into the imaginings of his work to create a fantasy adventure. But does it electrify?
The year is 1897 and you play as journalist Rose Archer, starting the game on board an automated ship in deep waters. You are looking for your sister Ada – a research scientist working on the mega-ship Helios, built by the man himself, Nikola Tesla. As she enters the ship, she soon realises that things aren’t what they seem, with the vessel left deserted and in a state of disrepair. It’s when she starts to see mutilated bodies scattered around when she realises things aren’t what they seem…
Close to the Sun plays out as a first person action-adventure where the emphasis is on exploration, puzzle-solving and a lot of running away from enemies. You can walk around the game as you would with any experience, and also run and jump a bit, but there is no combat to be had at all as Rose wanders through the huge ship trying to find her sister. There are puzzles to complete along the way, and you’ll be found attempting to break safes with codes, utilising your deciphering skills in the process. In one specific section you will discover a panel behind a picture, with strange symbols and all different kinds of shapes in place. If you explore the surrounding area you will find these shapes frequenting objects around the room; a careful examination will reveal the symbol. It’ll be up to you to connect the two together in order to unlock the safe.
The exploration and puzzle elements are the strongest and most interesting parts of Close to the Sun. There are great variations in both the puzzles found and the solutions presented to you, but thankfully they never seem to cross the confusion line, always proving a joy to take in. The exploration elements are great as well, mainly because the world of the Helios is such an interesting place to spend some time. In fact, you could well compare the landscape of Close to the Sun to that of the Bioshock games, with its overall concept of a megalomaniac creating a perfect world and a unique living and working environment. The retro stylings and the way the world has decayed and gone haywire are also very close in comparison to that iconic series, but personally I feel Close to the Sun has used this more as an influence rather than a direct copy.
Moving around a ship that is dedicated to the works of Telsa, especially through the museum sections where you are found pressing buttons on exhibits, is an utter delight, and Close to the Sun draws you in with its attention to detail in both the setting and architecture. This is particularly apparent as you stumble upon a biodome surrounded by trees and fauna; it is a masterstroke of game design. The story is a good one as well, keeping you on your toes throughout, providing access to some superb characters and good world-building moments that hint at possible sequels in the future. In fact, it deals with real history, before mixing in its own narrative timeline complete with time travel, sci-fi and real science with aplomb.
It’s not perfect though and one specific section that becomes annoying is found throughout the points in which you need to run away. These come around every now and then, but feel a bit rough around the edges. See, there is no combat in Close to the Sun, but – and without spoiling things – there are moments when you will be attacked by a deranged murderer and some strange creatures. It is here where you will need to run without stopping, turning corners with split-second timing, opening locks to doors at the same time. It’s a mechanic that fails to fit well with the rest of the game and in the later levels it just gets plain annoying, bordering on ruining the positive vibes given off through the rest of this ripping yarn of an experience.
In terms of visuals and it is here where Close to the Sun on Xbox One is very strong indeed. The ship has a certain period feel to it, embracing the steampunk world and illustrating the tone of this world brilliantly. But it is the tiny details that really bring the world alive, like the shape of a chair in the posher bits of the apartment blocks, or a poster for a theatre show that is found in the foyer. It also shows off its ability to demonstrate the vastness of the ship with stunning game design and detail to how the whole thing is powered through Tesla’s electrical mastery. It has to be said though, the characters you meet and the creatures encountered aren’t the best I’ve seen, but it’s not too much of an issue as it’s a pretty rare thing that you will meet anyone else – you do spend most of the game with just Rose and the ship.
Sound-wise though and this is a game that comes with an epically driven soundtrack, one that builds then ebbs and flows with the gameplay. There are some period compositions in places and the effects of these are great, particularly in the scarier moments. The voiceover is incredibly good and works brilliantly, especially that from the sisters and a strange character called Aubrey – it’s a nice mixture of madness and creepiness throughout.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Close to the Sun on Xbox One, and the entire experience delivers just about the right amount of gameplay for the price tag, even though it may well leave you wishing to spend more time in this wonderful location. The exploration elements and the story are of a very high standard and the visuals manage to delicately capture the whole concept of the game in a fantastic way. I don’t particularly like the moments when you’re left to run, and some of the creatures you encounter fail to ever scare, but aside from that it delivers a nice blend of puzzles and narrative, and I can’t wait to see where they take it next.