Close to the Sun: Scary Science
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Maybe this is not the freshest of observations. But I think we, as a society, might have a negative view of science? I don't know, but ever since the word "mad" could be followed by the word "scientist". We may have something of an anti-intellectual distrust of the field. Maybe it started with Mary Shelly's nightmares of human reincarnation, or maybe it started when idiots in America stopped vaccinating their children. Whenever it started, we are sure to have pretentious, pseudo-intellectual claptrap like Close to the Sun. A parable as shallow as a Luddite aspiring to be Niccolo Machiavelli with the excepted results.
In an alternative history where Nikola Tesla finished Wardenclyffe Tower and become an international businessman and inventor. Rose Archer is a hotshot reporter who receives a letter from her sister to come to the Helios. A ship where a man is entitled to the sweat of his brow and is not governed by petty morality and all that jazz. Once aboard, however, she discovers that some terrible thing has happened and science is scary.
Comparisons to Bioshock are unavoidable, even more so that Close to the Sun contently reminds the player of the former, right down to opening narration from a letter to Nikola Tesla's sales pitch. He even suspects Rose of being an agent for the US government Tomas Edison at the start. There is nothing wrong with doing an homage, but if the writing is not as good as the original product. You run the risk of simply reminding the player of a better product that they could be playing.
Pretentiousness and time travel
You might notice that Close to the Sun has many references to Greek myth. Storm in a Teacup named their warning about scientific progress after a myth about hubris. That's about as subtle as you are going to get here. Every chapter is named after a Greek deity, like "The Depths of Hades" or "Flowers of Persephone". It wants to say something profound but none of the chapters correlate to the mood or themes of the chapters. "Path of Ares" has nothing to do with war or carnage, at least any more than mountains of bodies and gallons of blood scattered about in Flowers of Persephone. It is all about sounding smart while offering nothing of substance. Close to the Sun is extremely pretentious in this regard, alluding to and referencing cultural and artistic milestones to sound smart. Speaking of which…
Time travel is exceptionally difficult to get right and more often than not plot holes are inevitable. I will be talking about the ending a little later. However, the relevance of time travel is so tenuous that it could have been removed within a few rewrites. One major plot point is that Ada (from the future) wrote a note to Rose in the past to come to the Helios. But it is never appropriately explored within the narrative, the two sisters act surprised but continue without much fanfare. Rose discovers that another version of herself helped her sister but we never get any sort of closure, it just happens and ultimately doesn't matter. We see glittery apparitions of the past but they serve little more than exposition and glorified dotted lines.
Cut out the nerd talk?
For a game set in 1897, there is a lot of modern language and concepts. Rose repeatedly uses the promise of Scout's honor when talking to not Frank Fontaine. This might surprise you considering the Boy Scouts would only come around in 1910. Words like nutjob, easy peasy, and nerd would only come into common parlance by the 1950s and 60s! And yet they are used here like it is perfectly natural. Maybe Storm in a Teacup was made a world where language and came about by a few decades or it's just lazy and careless writing.
The use of modern language in an old setting is jarring, and painfully out of place. Even games like Hades (which uses words like "mate" or "okay") do not reference institutions or outdated slag. Hades also benefits from being extremely stylish and over the top, making the modern language fit into Ancient Greece. Close to the Sun, despite its genre fiction, still tries to set itself in a plausible reality (much like Bioshock). So when it uses modern slang and references organizations that wouldn't exist for years, it comes across as sloppy and distracting.
You know those juicy tippets I mentioned previously. That Ada from the future sent her sister a letter to save her in the past. A crewmate and reoccurring villain seems to remember Rose from a Ball that occurred on the Helios, something that seemingly has not happened. None of this is explored or given any sort of closure in the ending. She escapes the ship, Tesla promises Rose that there is more to be done and then the game ends.
There is no explanation as to how Ada was able to write the letter, nor is there any explanation for Rose's presence on the Helios in the past or her relationship with the crewmate. I cannot help but feel like the story was rushed or simply never finished before release. Like we ended up with a first story drift as the final. The ending is exceptionally disappointing as nothing appears to have a matter or been compellingly answered.
Close to the Sun is an Amnesia clone is in the most boring of ways. You wonder through a moderately unsettling environment, looking at pieces of paper until you find the key to progression. Then something bad spawns and you run away from it, rinse and repeat. I am describing Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs in fact. But at least with that game, the atmosphere was solid and the threat level was murky and unclear. Close to the Sun, however, lacks any of the qualities seen in A Metaphor for Pigs.
Running away from the scary monster
For most of the time, you wander around an environment, looking for the next way forward. But sometimes a bad person will spawn and chase you. The chase sequences are spectacularly linear and easy to win. All you have to do is run and you will succeed. Unlike Amnesia where you have to block doors with rubble, the monster was a creditable threat that can outrun you. Close to the Sun's monsters can be outrun without much effort or error on the player; they just have to press W and shift until the monster gives up.
Monsters also show up at predetermined points in the story, removing all ambiguity of threat. It does not help that unlike Amnesia: Dark Descent /Machine for Pigs, the monsters are just a man with a knife and an SCP reject. The monsters are not in any way horrific or memorable. All of these elements make Close to the Sun a limp horror fest where the threat is weak and chase sequences boring.
The puzzles can range from impeccably easy to moderately challenging. These thankfully break up the Walking Simulator parts. The puzzles are either related to timing (do a thing in a set time limit to progress) or sequence (flip the switches in a certain order to proceed). The problem is that solving the puzzles isn't partially challenging or interesting in itself. Which wouldn't have been a problem if there was some sort of threat like Rose had to sneak around the knifeman or the SCP reject while solving the problem. Instead of a distraction to offset the dull walking around.
Art style and Graphics:
Close to the Sun is a very beautiful game on its own. The steampunk aesthetic is well used by Storm in a Teacup. Especially the use of Tesla Coils, that iconic machine of Tesla that gives us a glimpse of what could have been. There are also strong influences from the Bioshock series, from the font choices to the alternative history setting and retro-futurism. Even if the inspiration is a little blatant to the ripoff, I will not deny that the visuals are very effective.
Close to the Sun suffers from poor optimization, frame rate drops were common and frequent whenever the needs to render those sparkly ghosts. Whenever anything stressful has to be rendered the frame rate always suffers.
Close to the Sun fails to scare or offer much substance asides from the idea that science is scary. The gameplay is utterly boring and the visuals represent a far better game to the point of a rip-off. There is not that much to recommend here asides from playing Bioshock.
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