First-person horror games are a dime-a-dozen these days, however any horror game billed as a story-driven experience set during an alternate 19th-century featuring some of history’s most famous inventors is going to earn my attention. Close to the Sun, the latest game from Rome-based developer Storm in a Teacup, boasted all these traits, with none other than Nikola Tesla at the centre of the game’s premise. Described as having a heavy Bioshock influence, the game on paper sounded extremely promising, and thankfully Close to the Sun comes through on that promise, delivering what could be one of the best story-driven horror games in years.
The story of Close to the Sun (CttS) takes place on board the Helios – a cruise ship-like vessel inhabited by the brightest minds in science aiming to push the boundaries of discovery and technological advancement under the guidance of the great Nikola Tesla. You play as Rose Archer, a journalist who has come searching for her sister Ada, a key member of the Helios’ research team. Naturally things have taken a turn for the worst (I mean there are only so many chefs one kitchen can handle), and instead of the Helios existing as a thriving haven for the world’s brightest minds it’s become a mausoleum, with bodies and blood lining the ship’s halls signs of the bedlam that unfolded on board. With the help from a couple of allies on board, Rose will traverse the ship in search of Ada, answers and a means of survival.
Welcome to the party
From the moment Rose steps foot on the deck the Helios is a sight to behold. It’s dripping in art deco opulence, with grand halls boasting giant gilded statues, museums dedicated to the great man Tesla himself and his inventions, technically (and mechanically) advanced devices powering the ship, and a theatre that would render Broadway architects jealous. It really makes you want to explore every nook and cranny. Basically it makes the Titanic look like the Spirit of Tasmania.
However, not only does it look beautiful, but it also sells its dystopian atmosphere to the nth degree. Posters of Tesla promoting the Helios’ cause and asking you to ‘join him’ (in a very Uncle Sam ‘we want you’ style) are hanging from the walls, while newspapers strewn across the vessel reveal a legal war between Tesla and fellow inventor Thomas Edison, Tesla’s battle to keep the Helios safe from government intervention, and the general consensus that Tesla’s company Wardenclyffe is doing more harm than good.
Much like games of the same ilk, CttS is rather light-on when it comes to gameplay mechanics. Rose will need to find ways to overcome the ship’s obstacles blocking her path – this usually requires finding a key, routing power to a particular switch (to open a door or activate an elevator) or disabling it entirely. There are rare instances where you’ll need to solve a puzzle, and it’s a shame these are in short supply as they are fairly clever in design without being total brain busters.
Where the game does falter slightly is in the chase scenes – a well-worn horror trope. While they’re not inherently bad, as they do a great job of bringing the building tension to a crescendo, they can easily become frustrating as the margin for error is wafer thin. It sometimes feels like the difference between success and failure is less than a second, and after replaying the same chase a number of times it can start to break the immersion. The saving grace here is that if you do perish, you’ll restart not far from where you died.
The golden Tesla
It’s obvious that Storm in a Teacup was intent on telling a story first and foremost, as it’s in this department that the game truly excels. Not only is the game extremely well written and voiced, but the story’s pacing also keeps you hooked right until the closing credits. The characters you encounter are excellently designed, each with their own unique traits. For example, on the surface Nikola Tesla appears to be an arrogant megalomaniac (I mean he has a museum dedicated to himself), and while he’s no doubt got tickets on himself, there’s perhaps more than meets the eye to the genius inventor.
Without wanting to spoil too much, the story is mostly told through flashbacks and communication with other passengers via a radio-like device. One passenger who is central to Rose’s survival is Aubrey, an eccentric scientist who is trapped elsewhere on the Helios. Aubrey assists Rose by unlocking doors and acting as her Navman of sorts in exchange for a favour: his own rescue. During Rose’s journey, their bond (and dependence on one another) grows stronger, it makes for some truly captivating dialogue at times, largely thanks to Aubrey’s excellent voice acting.
I mentioned it earlier in the review, but the game’s atmosphere is fantastically designed. Everything from the flickering lights, the creaking floors and the sense of dread has been expertly crafted. This is supported by a fitting soundscape that enhances the game’s immersion.
The (blue) light at the end of the tunnel
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Close to the Sun before I jumped into it, but the game’s 7-10 hour campaign had me hooked from start to finish. While the gameplay isn’t anything to write home about, the story, characters, atmosphere and visuals are all first class. I hope the developers have plans to bring this title to consoles, as this game deserves to be played by horror and story fans of all platforms.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher